The anti-manager: Joel Klein was lots of things Cathie Black isn’t

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Cathie Black and Joel Klein. (Photo via gothamschools flickr stream.)
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More than a month after shocking the city with news of her appointment as the next schools chancellor, Hearst executive Cathleen Black is still trying to calm people down.

Her inexperience in the world of public schooling—she attended parochial schools, sent her kids to private ones, and has never shown any passion for education—is not an issue, she and the mayor maintain, because the job is above all about having the ability to run things. (Black is a “superstar manager,” Bloomberg told reporters on the day he introduced her; in her first TV interview, Black responded to a question about her credentials by saying, “The mayor made it very clear from the first time we started talking about it. He said 'I want a manager for this job.'”)

This line of reasoning hasn’t quieted the hostile reaction to her appointment. Only part of the resistance to the idea of Chancellor Black is actually about her, and her lack of education experience. Much of the negative reaction to her appointment, particularly among parents and teachers, has a lot more to do with someone else entirely: her soon-to-be predecessor, Joel Klein.

Though he can be charming in person, the public image of Klein—a product of the New York City public schools who nonetheless came to his current position from a non-education background—has hardened over the years, so that many parents and teachers now see him as a distant and imperious bureaucrat. They longed for him to be replaced by someone more conspicuously empathetic, and at less of a remove from their problems. Instead, the mayor gave them someone even fancier.

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If Klein had seemed out of touch with the city's public schools, Black—a successful, immaculately put-together media executive raised in a middle-class neighborhood of Chicago—had never been in contact in the first place. She is, in her critics' eyes, a continuation of Klein's imperiousness in a more glamorous package.

In many respects, though, Black's credentials as an extraordinarily strong manager-executive of large organizations, along with her apparent agnosticism on hot-button education-reform issues, sets her up to be Klein’s polar opposite.

She was, for example, given the job on the condition that she name a chief academic officer to compensate for her lack of experience. In hindsight, some former DOE employees wish that Klein—a brilliant attorney and a shrewd politician who never wanted for big ideas about education reform—had been required to name a Number 2 in charge of management.

As one former Department of Education official put it, “In terms of delegating properly, ensuring everyone has clearly accountability lines, and it all kind of synthesizes at the top ... He just doesn’t do that.”

Former DOE employees, several of whom talked on background for this article, tend to describe Klein’s role within the department, not unadmiringly, as that of a policy leader.

"He was thinking bold, he was thinking big, and that was right,” one said. Klein picked the course of action and set the department’s priorities.

But for management, many of those same former officials say, Klein relied on his senior deputies and chiefs of staff. The results were uneven.

In the eight years that Klein was chancellor, there were a couple of people who distinguished themselves in that role. One who did was Maureen Hayes, who was Klein’s chief of staff, and another was Kristen Kane, who succeeded Hayes.

People who worked with Kane revered her. When, in 2006, Klein brought in private consultants to engineer another reorganization—one meant to give principals more autonomy—he put Kane in charge of the project. Kane, who became known as Klein’s must trusted adviser, also became the department’s chief manager.

When she left in 2007, Klein filled her position of chief operating officer, but no one took over her managerial responsibilities and the department suffered for it, a former official said.

“There really never was any high-level management coming out of Joel’s office without her, and certainly, she was never replaced,” said a former DOE official.

The pairing, while it lasted, was ideal, said another former DOE employee. You had “the big-ideas guy and then the strong internal executor.”

Even so, employees pointed to the ongoing reorganizations as a sign that little management was coming out of Tweed. The chancellor’s first several years were spent centralizing the entire system. Under mayoral control, school districts were done away with and all but the city’s top-performing schools were required to use the same curriculum for reading, writing and math.

Then Klein’s thinking seemed to shift, and a long process of decentralization began. A handful of schools were placed in an “autonomy zone,” and given more control over their budgets and curriculum. That pilot project expanded to include several hundred schools that were in the so-called “empowerment zone.” By 2007, principals had the power to choose who they hired, how they spent their budgets, and which “school support organization,” they contracted with for back-office help.

Last year, that support system went through another reorganization. Klein—whose office declined comment for this article—has argued that the constant changes were all part of a planned evolution to where the system is now, but of the principals and schools that went along for the ride, few seemed to know what was coming next. People working in the department still debate whether there really was a grand plan, or if the reorganizations simply followed Klein’s own learning curve.

“I think he knew where he wanted to go the entire time, but I think it was implemented in fits and starts,” said a former official. “That is an indictment of his management, but also the limitations of some of his managers.”

The number of management-related debacles seemed to pile up. Officials said it would take months to roll out a new citywide data system, but it ended up taking three years. When the city tried to close 19 schools last year and the union sued to prevent them, the department lost because it hadn’t followed the school-closure regulations laid out in the law.

These setbacks weren't inevitable; they happened because of a confused system of accountability in Klein's department, the officials said, and because no one was paying enough attention to how ideas, once conceived and adopted, were executed. True to his legal background, Klein was more adept at researching policies and creating support for his ideas outside of the department than he was at handling his own staff.

When there were internal turf wars and power struggles—which there were, often between his top advisers as they competed for attention and funding for their pet projects—he didn’t intervene. “He hated conflict,” said a former official. “When he became aware there was infighting, he might have a cabinet meeting to tell people to shut the fuck up, we have this one goal and if you’re not on board, leave. That was his idea of managing.” Problems arose when those internal fights weren’t resolved and, in the early years, some actually took him up on his offer by walking out.

“It was either you’re with us or you’re against us,” said an official who left. “Well OK, I’m with you. But there are debates, there are questions, and there was not a tolerance or a welcoming of dissent and debate.”

If there one person Klein did manage well, it was the mayor. Until quite recently, when the city’s test scores dropped after the state recalibrated the exams and the department lost a school-closing battle, Klein had the mayor’s full support.

“So as a manager, question mark; as an educator, question mark; as to the reforms he picked, debatable. But no question as to Joel as politician,” said a former official. “And that skill was present from Day One.”

On January 3, when Cathie Black officially begins her Day One, the question marks will be different ones.

Gone will be the Blackberry addict who spent school board meetings answering principals’ emails and yet never figured out why he couldn't convince parents and teachers that he cared about what they were going through and what they were saying to him.

The city will instead have someone who at least knows how to look like she’s listening to the people who have all the real-life experience. We'll soon see whether she knows what to ask them.

Anna Phillips is a staff writer for Gotham Schools.