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Hearst's Cathleen Black, and the trend of 'outsiders' as schools chancellors

Washington, D.C. residents who think their school chancellors haven't had much experience in the public school system might want to take a look at New York.

Earlier this week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg named Cathleen Black, the chairman of Hearst Magazines and former president of USA Today, to run the city's schools, succeeding former Bertlesmann CEO and U.S. district attorney Joel Klein. Black went to private schools and sent her children to them, has never worked in education and has never navigated the fierce politics of a high-ranking government post.

Bloomberg, as the New York Times analyzes today, is making a pointed choice to go with an outsider to lead New York City Schools, doubling down with an emphatic "yes" on the classic leadership notion that a good manager can lead in any environment and an outside voice can work wonders to enact change. But when does an outsider help, and when does an outside choice go too far?

The pattern of mayors appointing chancellors outside the usual realm of longtime deputy public school system administrators is nothing new. Michelle Rhee's appointment in 2007 to lead D.C.'s schools surprised Washington, as the education nonprofit leader had never run a school--much less an organization anywhere near the size of the city's public school system. Still, Rhee had been a teacher and founded a nonprofit, The New Teacher Project, to help improve the quality of teachers in urban and needy schools. Meanwhile, as a lawyer and Clinton administration Justice Department official, Joel Klein was hardly an old education hand, either. But Black's predecessor had at least served in a government leadership position and was briefly a teacher and student of education.

Black's selection is even more unusual. She has little experience with unions, and the teachers' organization is one of the key constituents of any city education leader. And while the print-media industry has been suffering in recent years, the magazine world is a far cry from the bureaucracy and politics of the country's largest department of education.

The argument for outside leaders is usually that they bring along no preconceived notions or set ways of thinking. People who have "world-class leadership" skills, as Black's supporters claim, can put them to work anywhere. Skills like being a good listener and a strong consensus builder should translate from leading the boardroom to the classrooms. And there's a precedent for her appointment: While Klein has hardly been an unqualified success--reports that test score improvements had been exaggerated by easier exams was a big hit to his record--he has earned respect from many for ending a teacher transfer policy, increasing graduation rates and implementing smaller schools.

The advantage of the outside leader is an idea that's particularly popular in business, where CEOs have nearly complete control to make changes. And so in Bloomberg's administration, it's little wonder the entrepreneur-turned-mayor is installing his second former media-industry leader in the job. But in the complex world of city politics, where leaders are often much more hamstrung by the competing demands of constituents, the set of leadership skills needed is not identical to the one in business.

Black might succeed if she understands this and becomes a quick study in the complex issues that engulf the education-reform world. But simply putting to work her listening skills and consensus building talents is not likely to be enough.

By Jena McGregor

 |  November 11, 2010; 11:24 AM ET |  Category:  Change management , Education leadership , Government leadership , Public leadership , Women in leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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This is a pretty thoughtful article.

I wonder how doctors and nurses would feel if this lady of publishing were put in charge of all of New York's hospitals without any medical background?

Listening and consensus-building are wonderful tools, but if you haven't the grounded knowledge and experience of what you are leading, it seems to me that one would be wide open to all kinds of manipulation and foolish decision-making.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 13, 2010 12:16 PM

One wonders what kind of self-interested or delusional reason Mayor Bloomberg could have for naming such a thoroughly disqualified person to run the NYC schools.

I think when people hold an office like Mayor of New York too long, they start to get kind of crazy. They begin thinking they are entitled to indulge whatever fancy takes them, and their fancies get more and more out of touch with the real world.

It happened with Giuliani (in less than 8 years), and it happened with Koch. Now it's happening with Bloomberg.

Earlier in the Mayor's reign (er, tenure), I was prepared to accept that some of his more misguided ideas (like building a football stadium in Midtown West) were offered in good faith. Now I just see them as early markers of impending mayoral megalomania.

Posted by: Itzajob | November 13, 2010 11:15 AM

She ran Mcpaper? Will she turn NY school into McSchools? A little form, no substance...

Is it just me or shouldn't people running school systems have a background in education??

Posted by: greeenmtns | November 13, 2010 12:59 AM

Another good reason for term limits.

Oh, wait. We've already had that since the 90s.

Except for that moment in time when Michael Bloomberg decided he wanted to spend $109 million for a third term.

Posted by: Itzajob | November 12, 2010 6:54 PM

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