After Cathie Black, maybe, public school leadership that believes in public schools

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Cathie Black and Joel Klein. (Photo via gothamschools flickr stream.)
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The Bloomberg administration has never seemed that concerned about winning popularity contests when it comes to school reforms. Michael Bloomberg expected New Yorkers to care more about outcomes—as measured by rising standardized test scores and graduation rates—than about his methods for achieving them.

The fact that he so unceremoniously rid his administration of Cathie Black after just three months suggests a recognition that perhaps the means actually matter as much as the end.

It wasn't just the fact that Black was a magnet for public opprobrium. Joel Klein, the previous schools chancellor, never polled very well, and many of the reforms he enacted were highly unpopular—closing schools, reorganizing the community school districts into regions, overhauling the gifted and talented testing system.

But in the mayor's mind, Klein was a clear success. His job was to overhaul a school system that the administration thought was badly broken.

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Black's job, by contrast, was more to safeguard these reforms, not necessarily introduce a bunch of new ones, and to sell them to the public so they'd outlive the Bloomberg administration. Obviously that wasn't working out.

Though it's certainly not unheard of for Bloomberg to fire someone who is making his administration look bad—I'm thinking of Patricia Lancaster, the former buildings commissioner, who was also thrown out after a series of public-relations disasters—what's remarkable here is that it took such a short time for the public, and the mayor, to give up on Black.

The frustration directed at Black was not just about her. The months before she arrived were particularly rough ones for the city's education department. There were the school closings that Klein pushed through that angered a lot of people, and a fight over the possible release of value-added teacher ratings, as well as a huge dip in test scores. So Black got the worst of both worlds: she was disdained for being brand new to public education, but she was also seen as the embodiment of all the things that had infuriated people about Bloomberg-Klein.

A constant critique of this administration on education, long before Cathie Black ever came on the scene, was that they were indifferent to what communities and parents wanted for their schools, and that they were dismissive, even hostile to educators, favoring a business approach to running the schools. But Black was much more widely disliked than Klein ever was, judging from the polls.

It may not be clear for a while what the impact of all this will be on the Bloomberg education agenda, or, rather, how quickly the prospects of that agenda will recover after this setback. The underlying issues that angered people haven't gone away. Dennis Walcott may be much better equipped for the job, but he'll have to deal with all of the problems Black inherited, and more: soon, there will also be more difficult Regents exams that could hurt the graduation rate.

Dennis Walcott won't, however, be seen as a mad experiment. Black, among other things, was a test of the idea that management skills trump specific education experience. Bloomberg's logic in appointing her was that an excellent manager is what was needed to wrangle a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy drowning in expertise, but lacking organization and decisiveness.

Those who complained that Black's failure was certain because she didn't know anything about education policy before she took the job, and that she had almost no experience with public schools, are crowing now. Running a school system is extremely complicated—just learning the language of acronyms is hard enough. So for the last three months, top department aides reportedly had to spend much of their time preparing remedial briefings for their boss. Some of them left, which is possibly the thing that finally prompted the mayor to ask for her resignation.

Of course there was also a political element. Black just didn't do a good job of connecting with the voters, and when it comes down to it, that's really a big part of the job, too.

What we've seen in New York and elsewhere is that you may be good at the internal management, but if you can't sell what you're doing externally, you're not going to keep the job very long.

That's what happened to Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., too. Education reformers loved her, but city residents weren't impressed, even though she raised test scores. The administration that hired her was voted out.

The Bloomberg model has positioned parents as customers, and principals as CEOs, with student outcomes as the product. But the backlash that the mayor has faced is from parents who don't see their schools that way. Test scores aren't always what parents care most about in a school. Many care just as much about having teachers they can connect with, places they and their children feel comfortable and respected, a school's history in the community—things that aren't quantifiable o a standardized exam.

Somewhat ironically, the case of Black a test of mayoral control, and that, at least in this case, it kind of worked. Mayoral control was supposed to enhance accountability: If the voters weren't happy with the results of education reforms, they could go to the polls and vote the mayor out. Bloomberg has been accused of having a tin ear in the past when it comes to parent concerns, but this time, with that legacy on the line, he responded.

So now it's Dennis Walcott's turn. He's a ruthlessly logical choice, and you have to wonder whether Bloomberg isn’t kicking himself for not picking him to replace Klein originally.

Walcott has credibility with education reformers, but also as a community activist in New York. He’s been a presence throughout the Bloomberg-Klein reforms, so we can assume he’s very much on board with what they’ve done. But the City Council's education committee chair, Robert Jackson, praised him too, and Jackson has been one of the most vocal critics of the Bloomberg-Klein agenda.

Walcott seems to fit in with a pattern established by the appointments of Andres Alonso in Baltimore, and Kaya Henderson in D.C.: reform-minded leaders with a softer touch when it comes to selling the changes and responding to community concerns.

If Walcott does well—if he hits it off with the public while ensuring the longevity of the Bloomberg agenda—then it could certainly be a lesson for reformers elsewhere, and maybe even for the larger education reform movement nationally. And, maybe, it will all have been made possible by the spectacular collapse of the chancellor who came before him.

Sarah Garland is staff writer at the Hechinger Report, and the author of Gangs in Garden City: How Immigration, Segregation and Youth Violence Are Changing America’s Suburbs.