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Bloomberg Taps Wealthy Media Exec to Replace Joel Klein as NYC School Chief

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shocked many in the city by tapping Cathleen Black, a wealthy media executive with no background in education, to run the city’s school system—the largest in the country. Black will replace Joel Klein, who announced he is resigning to take a job at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We return now to education issues here at home. Here in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has shocked many in the city by tapping a wealthy media executive with no background in education to run the city’s school system, the largest in the country. Cathleen Black, the chair of the Hearst publishing empire, will replace Joel Klein, who announced he is resigning to take a job at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. At a press conference, Black acknowledged the job will be difficult.

CATHLEEN BLACK: I have no illusion about this being an easy next three years. Quite the opposite. But what I ask for is your patience as I get up to speed on all of the issues facing K-through-12 education today. What I can promise is that I will listen to your concerns, your interests and your expectations. In turn, I ask the same of you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised outgoing schools chancellor Joel Klein.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Today, by any measure, and no matter who you compare our kids to, their progress couldn’t be clearer. We have raised graduation rates every single year, and they are now 20 percent higher based on statewide standards than they were four years ago, compared to just a three percent raise in the rest of the state. And remember, graduation rates had been flat for a decade before we abolished the old Board of Education. No one deserves more credit than Chancellor Joel Klein. Over the past eight years, Joel has taken an organization that was a case study in dysfunction and turned it into one that the Obama administration has hailed as a national model. He has been a tireless champion for children and a fearless proponent for reform, whether it was ending social promotion or expanding charter schools or instituting school progress reports or fundamentally rethinking the way we approach tenure.

JUAN GONZALEZ: To talk more about Joel Klein’s legacy and the future of New York City’s public schools, we’re joined by Elizabeth Green, editor of the highly regarded news website GothamSchools.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Elizabeth, your reaction when you heard around 3:00 a couple of days ago that Joel Klein was about to resign and that immediately the Mayor named his replacement?

ELIZABETH GREEN: I was shocked. Everyone that I spoke to was shocked. I called some top Department of Education officials to see what they knew, as a reporter does, and I heard them — the sounds of schools behind them. They had no idea. There were visiting schools. They were going about their regular business. This was a big, big shock.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of, first, Joel Klein, he was in — chancellor for eight years. The Mayor claimed he was the longest-serving chancellor. That turns out not to have been true, that there were several chancellors earlier on who served a lot longer period of time. But he certainly was an influential chancellor for these eight years. Your sense of his — what he brought to bring progress to the schools and also the controversy around some of his policies?

ELIZABETH GREEN: Sure. Well, Joel Klein has certainly — you know, I think everyone can agree — been a transformational chancellor. He came in without much education experience himself, at all, himself also having led a media company, Bertelsmann, as CEO. And he went about making radical change. I think that was always his goal, was to — he would use that word himself, “radical change.” He changed the way principals are selected, the way teachers are positioned in schools. He changed the fundamental structures of how communities are involved in schools. Partly this was because of changes in the law, the New York state law regarding how the New York City schools are governed, that had been happening, you know, sort of slowly over the course of the '90s and then more abruptly when Mayor Bloomberg won total mayoral control of the public schools. But partly it was about Joel Klein's own learning curve and his ideas about what to do about the public schools, which changed a lot over the course of his tenure.

An important thing to keep in mind when we’re thinking about how will somebody new come in and quickly, as Cathie Black said, have to learn, you know, the important issues in K-12, Joel Klein began by centralizing the bureaucracy and centralizing control of the curriculum. He had a — totally centralized some curriculums. And then, pretty — a few years in, he said, “Wait a second, that’s not” — he didn’t centralize it. He undid those curriculum changes, gave much more freedom to principals, while at the same time tightening accountability measures. So he has had a lot of changes himself.

In terms of how are students doing under Joel Klein and has it really worked, I think that there’s — I think that there is pretty widespread agreement that the basic floor of the New York City schools has been raised. There are fewer classrooms that you’ll walk into and find total chaos or schools that will make your heart completely drop into your chest. On the other hand, are students reaching the high levels that he claimed over the course of his administration and Mayor Bloomberg has claimed? That’s much less clear. Yes, the graduation rate has risen, but it’s not clear that the people who are graduating from high school are prepared for college. In fact, there’s some reason to think they’re not prepared for college.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And that there may indeed have been a huge abuse of what they call “credit recovery” in a lot of these high schools, where students were basically — teachers were encouraged to find ways to cut corners to get them the credits that they needed to graduate.

ELIZABETH GREEN: I think that Joel Klein embodied a spirit of this time in education, which was to say, “I will hold you accountable. That is the way to get you to improve.” There have been some perverse incentives, though. If you say your bonus as a principal, your salary bonus is tied to this, your future career is tied to this, for teachers, you may not be able to stay at the school where you choose — you chose to work, is tied to this — some people may not react by saying, “OK, I’m going to redouble my efforts to get students to learn.” Instead, some people have made bad decisions, and inflated graduation rates are something that are a concern.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, this whole issue of bringing in another non-educator, this is the third non-educator in a row, a third person from the corporate world — first Harold Levy, then Joel Klein, and now Cathleen Black. I mean, it seems to me no baseball executive would hire a general manager who knew nothing about baseball. No banking — no board of directors of a bank would hire someone who had absolutely no knowledge about financing. And yet, as I talked to principals and teachers in the last few days, they have felt insulted that it appears that it’s now becoming commonplace to hire to run the biggest school system in the country someone who has no knowledge in education and needs actually a waiver from the state just to be able to assume the job.

ELIZABETH GREEN: Right. The state law requires that you have some education background or get a waiver to be chancellor of the city’s school system. I think — what is Mayor Bloomberg saying? What is his rationale for bringing in Cathleen Black? His rationale is: we’re facing a terrible, dismal economy; the federal stimulus is about to run out — that has been preserving teacher jobs in New York City, but that’s not going to last; and some serious, tough decisions are going to have to be made; therefore, who do we need? We need somebody who has had experience laying off employees. We need someone from the media business, maybe. We need somebody who’s a budget expert. That’s his argument.

At the same time, how do you make decisions about — I think it’s worth asking. How do you make decisions about what to cut when you don’t understand the thing you’re cutting? Cathie Black, what’s going to be really important to watch her do in the next, you know, two, three years is, who is she going to trust? How is she going to make these decisions? How is she going to know what to cut and what not to cut? It’s going to be a big learning curve, I think.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you for joining us. We’ll continue to follow this story, as well, as we have been of public education trends across the country. Elizabeth Green is a reporter and editor at GothamSchools.

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