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In her book, chancellor appointee says she's no data "whiz"

City officials’ argument to convince State Education Commissioner David Steiner that publishing executive Cathie Black is qualified to be schools chancellor is based on the idea that her managerial skills will be necessary during the coming years’ intense financial pressures.

But in her memoir-cum-business advice guide, “Basic Black,” the chancellor appointee describes her skills as far more attuned to sales and marketing than financial analysis. While she likes the operational side of business, she writes, “too much data and too many spreadsheets make my eyes glaze over.”

In a section of the book called “Power = knowing your strengths and weaknesses,” Black explains that knowing that she prefers broader strategy to rows of numbers has helped her decide which tasks to delegate:

Over the years I’ve taken care to work on that weakness — taking financial management courses, asking for help when I need it, and not being afraid to let the numbers folks do the thing they’re best at. It wouldn’t make sense for me to pretend to be a whiz where I’m not.

Black’s analysis of her own managerial strengths and weaknesses is one of many insights that her 2007 book gives into how she might approach her new job at Tweed Courthouse.

It also gives clues to why Black said yes to the job of schools chancellor. In a section on how to decide which job offers to take and which to pass over, she describes two separate instances where she was offered jobs outside of magazine publishing but turned them down. In one case, she declined an offer to become president of a well-known cosmetics company. She refused because, as she writes, they needed “someone who lives and breathes cosmetics,” and Black did not think she was that person.

Similarly, when she was offered a top position at a Silicon Valley start-up, she turned it down because she didn’t feel familiar enough with the field:

It would have been an exciting and potentially lucrative new field for me, but as I walked around the company’s offices, looking at the rows and rows of people silently tapping away at their computers, I just kept thinking, “I’m such a fish out of water here. What in the world do I bring to this party?”

But Black says there are times when it makes sense to take a job that’s far afield from your interests and expertise —  when the new job may be a strategic stepping-stone to something else.

“Don’t be afraid to take steps in your career that are strictly for strategic purposes,” she writes. “Yes, you want to follow your dreams, but sometimes the path to your dreams involves a carefully thought-out detour.”

The book also gives clues about how Black may run the Department of Education’s central administration. Black has said that she intends to lean heavily on the team of deputy chancellors that Klein has put together — though one of those deputies quit almost immediately after Bloomberg’s announcement and it’s unclear whether others plan to stay.

She writes in the book that, unlike many executives arriving at a new company, she prefers keeping the old team in place rather than making drastic changes right away. When she was hired at Hearst, she writes, she began making changes so slowly that she attracted criticism from outside observers.

“We needed an infusion of new energy, and part of the reason I was hired was to provide it,” she writes. “Yet I didn’t storm in with bazookas blazing. The last thing I wanted to do was come in and shake things up just for the sake of shaking, which would have led to upheaval and mistrust on the part of Hearst management.”

In the book, Black describes how she approaches laying off staff, which she may be forced to do next year in the face of steep budget reductions. She explains how she made the decision to shutter a struggling magazine, experience that some have suggested might come in handy when the city tries to close as many as 60 schools this year.

Black also writes about her commitment to diversity in the workplace. The Department of Education and the Bloomberg administration have been criticized for their largely white, male ranks. Black writes that she has received criticism for hiring too many female executives; at Hearst, she dispensed with that idea by acknowledging it directly at an executive meeting, then asking all of the women in the room to stand. The women made up about one-third of the meeting’s attendees.

She writes that she prefers to hire employees of “different backgrounds, ages, temperaments, and experience” not just for ethical reasons but also because it makes good business sense.

“It’s best to mix it up, as hiring people like yourself simply brings you more of the same perspective and skills, rather than the diversity of skills that more often leads to success,” she writes.

Throughout the book, Black describes an approach to managing that is mostly personable but also direct and sometimes almost brusque. And she says she has a thick skin for hearing when people think she is wrong.

“You can take it or leave it, but don’t fear criticism,” she writes.

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”