A Conversation With Cathleen P. Black

Susan Dominus, who writes the Big City column, spent Monday morning at Public School 33 in Chelsea with Cathleen P. Black, the Hearst Magazines executive who is scheduled to take over as chancellor of the New York City School system on Jan. 3. After visiting classrooms and greeting teachers, Ms. Black sat for an interview, her first substantive one with a newspaper since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg nominated her last month. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:

How’s it going?

Great , it’s great. Really. I feel every day is an opportunity. Every day is exciting. I want to spend as much time, and I’ve said this over and over, as much time in the schools as possible, because this is where you feel really touched by the commitment these principals and teachers make to educating to the best of their ability. And you see if from the little ones. I haven’t been to a high school yet, or an intermediate, that’s kind of next, but … it’s great. I can’t imagine a better place to be.

I’m curious about what these weeks of prep have been like.

We’ve prepped, obviously, we should, as I get deeply involved in the subject areas, not just on the peripheral. It’s great to think and learn about something very different than 40 years of media. The team, the deputy chancellors, have been unbelievably gracious with their time, so it’s been very collaborative.

Is it daunting?

I don’t know that I would say daunting. I came here to really look at the eight years of breathtaking reform that has begun, and is well past beginning, and to want to continue that. I am my own person. I will have my own ideas in time and we will work on the strategy of that. There’s 10 things going on today, so if anything, it’s about how do you manage the time and the time demands. But I don’t know that I would use the word daunting.

What have you already learned about being a public figure from this experience?

You know, I’ve been a public figure for a long time. This is different, certainly, but believe me, the early days of USA Today, when I had to go shareholder meetings and be surrounded by 30 Wall Street analysts — you know, “What’s going to happen next week? How’s the advertising? When is it going to be profitable?” That kind of thing toughens you up over a period time. That was back in 1983, so that was a long time ago.

I want the principals to get to know me, I want the teachers to get to know me, I for sure want the parents to get to know me. … I’m a reach-out person, you know. I’m a consensus builder. I’m a very good listener. So, that is all part of the process. That’s what I’ll do — not for the next 30 days; I mean that is what I will do for the next three years.

People seem a little upset about what you said on a television interview over the weekend about protests over school closures being staged.

You know, not everything’s perfect. Probably, I could have said it maybe slightly differently. These are difficult situations, so I want to say to the parents: get to know me. And I will go out of my way to reach the parents. So it’s listening to them around a table like this, listening to principals talk about their parent body. I will be very involved in the community to the best I possibly can be.

I would imagine if these parents were here today we’d have a great conversation because they love their school, and they love their principals, and they love their teachers. That’s what it’s really all about. I’m an extension of that.

Have you started to think about ways other than in a school setting of reaching out to parents?

I just sent an e-mail out to a bunch of people at work whose children are in public school. I want to put a small group of parents together; I want to hear what’s on their minds. That’s my first. … They’re probably Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights and Upper West Side, but it’s a start. I’m still at Hearst through the end of the year. This is a quick coffee to hear what they’re thinking about.

One of the advantages of having someone come in from the outside is that you see things with a fresh pair of eyes. What has struck you as something that would never fly in the business world?

The ability to be totally committed to performance. And I want to be very supportive of performance of a teacher and the performance of the students are very interlinked, and I want to work at how do we, you know, between teacher evaluations and their effectiveness. We want the most effective teachers in front of the students. As I have said, it is kind of unimaginable for me to think that someone at 23 or 24 will be granted a job guarantee for life. We want the best possible, most effective teachers. They don’t have to be young, but they have to be effective.

In business, if we couldn’t keep raising a bar for performance, I mean, you can’t run a business. Someone years and years ago said to me, “A’s hire A’s, and B’s hire C’s.” And you cannot drive a performance with C players. Now that doesn’t translate easily, necessarily, into the school system, but it is a goal to think about. And probably as one would rate the best principals, they are A players in their own world — they’re C.E.O.’s of their schools.

Look, we’re not going to get rid of teacher tenure, so we have to think about the ways the best teachers can be motivated. They need professional development to perform at their best — they need professional development, they need support, structures that work for them, they need to be in the right schools.

And the worst teachers?

Well, what I’ve been told is that great teachers attract other great teachers and great principals attract great teachers. And in some time, some not-so-great teachers realize this is not the place for me. And find their own path.

Do you think the reception would have been different if you were a man? Suze Orman and Gloria Steinem have suggested there was sexism at play.

I don’t think so. No. I really don’t. Joel Klein had a lot of grief when he first started in this job, and he’s been the best chancellor ever in N.Y.C.’s history. I have not felt it’s been sexist at all. Am I thrilled to be the first female chancellor? I think it’s a great role model for women to say look at that. I’ve always taken the responsibility of being a first somewhere very seriously. Because I believe if I succeed in a position, then I make that next step a whole lot easier for a whole group of women to think, ‘I can do that.’

Since the principal said she always asks prospective employees about their passion for reading, I have to ask: Are you a big reader?

I love reading, but first of all I have to read, maybe not every word of every issue, but we publish 14 magazines, so a lot of my reading has been reading our magazines. When people say what’s your favorite, I always say Popular Mechanics, which usually gets a little chuckle, in an audience or one on one. We have a great editor who’s done everything to get Popular Mechanics on the first iPad app, etc.

I’ve always got a book open; I’m always moving books around. A woman who had been at my house recently, her book just came out recently, so that’s on my desk. A lighthearted novel. Her name is Susan Fales Hill. I forget the name of it right now. I think of my favorite books — “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Jane Eyre.” My husband would probably say “Joy of Cooking.” Right now, I want to start a series of reading on the most important books regarding education. I’m kind of culling. Earlier this morning we were talking about, actually it’s an old book, 1975, Diane Ravitch’s “The Great School Wars.”

Obviously proficiency is a huge issue, and it’s such a massive question since the more recent results have been so disappointing.

Well, we have to make sure we’re testing for the right things, but most importantly, we must better prepare our students for the world beyond high school education.

Take this school. The kids from kindergarten or pre-K are talking about college. It might not be real to them, exactly, at age 4, but when you make that a part of their learning experience, you know, the banners, and understanding about different colleges and what the courses are, that’s saying, “I have a goal for you.” That’s a teacher saying, “I have a goal for you at age 5 or 6 or 7, to think yes, you are going to college.” And that belief system that you can be more than you ever imagined you wanted to be.

But the other side of that is that they have got to be prepared with their critical writing and reading and math skills that will enable them to perform fully functionally in the college environment. I am supportive of raising the bar to make sure the testing is really accurate. But also we’ve got to make sure we have the right evaluative programs and policies in place. You know, it’s a different world out there.

I’ve said this before, even some of the stuff we see — someone tells me they want their son, their daughter, whatever to get a job as a, you know, intern at one of our magazines. I’ll say that’s great, have the person write to me. And some of the e-mail letters are dazzling and wonderful and very articulate and some are like, excuse me? Some vague statement about I’ve always wanted to work at a magazine. Well we have 14. It would take you two minutes to go online and figure out.

In your book, you mention teachers, that they can be influential in helping people find their passions.

I just got this incredible letter from a man who founded Texas Monthly magazine, Mike Levy, who took me all back through all of his teachers who had had an impact on his life. I was thinking over the weekend that a teacher in my college, Sister Margaret Clayton, who wrote me a beautiful letter a couple of weeks ago, saying, “Oh, I’m so thrilled that you are doing this.” She had taught English. But if I look back, I don’t remember my kindergarten teacher. Our Latin teacher, Bess, was really tough, we were in ninth grade, she set discipline and standards. In math, this was in geometry, you would get an answer wrong if you hadn’t separated the two lines. So your answer might have been right, but that’s not the way she wanted a problem to be set up. So you’d get points deducted. That kind of thing sticks with you.

It was a different era. Life was simpler. Life was sweeter.

So no one teacher who was sort of transformative for you?

I wouldn’t say that there was one.

If the mayor had said, “We need a parks commissioner,” would you have considered that?

I think that’s very interesting. I’m in Central Park every day, practically. But this is important. This is important because we can change the future hopes and aspirations of children.

So education wasn’t specifically the thing you had in mind?

I didn’t know Joel Klein was stepping down.

But there could have been some other role in education.

I thought about college president, that kind of thing.

What would your response be to people who are concerned about your lack of experience or familiarity with the challenges of so many people in the school system?

I want to give their children opportunities. That’s the bottom line. They should have their children in the best school that they possibly can have. So whether I have grown up in the projects or not, which I didn’t, is irrelevant. I am a proven manager, that is what the mayor has been saying from day one, including in the conversation with me. So I am the beneficiary of what he believed was really important for the next schools chancellor. So I will give this my all.

I think I am an empathetic person. As I said yesterday, I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I’m a mother of two children, so I’m a parent. But you know, the school system is huge. And I want to make it as good as it possibly can be for that individual parent or child.

The principal here, it’s clear where she got the fire in her belly — education was the thing that helped her escape poverty. Where is the fire in your belly coming from for this job?

I’ve always had fire in my belly. I’ve always had fire in my belly. And what could be more important than this? I am full of fire.

Where are you on releasing individual teacher evaluation scores and their names?

That is a very complicated question. I think it’s a very complex issue because you’ve got people’s lives and reputations at stake, so we want to be sure that the data is accurate as it possibly can be; no data is ever perfect. On the other hand, if I were a parent with a child in a failing school or with a failing teacher, you’d feel pretty terrible if you thought, “That teacher is 30th on some ranking of 30.”

Charter schools. They mayor’s office has been rooting for them, but the results are so mixed.

Absolutely , I have faith, but it’s not only about charter schools. It’s 40,000 kids compared to 1.1 million — I’m here to think about the largest percentage. Are they the catalyst of change? There are great district schools creating the same kinds of learning environments. I’m completely pro-charter schools, but I’m pro-district schools. I’m pro having the best public school system we possibly can have.

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