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“Just Smile”

Black at USA Today in 1984.  

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has tried to improve what New Yorkers eat and breathe. Nothing he’s done, however, approaches the difficulty and importance of changing how the city’s public-school children think. First Bloomberg won control over the system in Albany; then he installed Joel Klein, a lawyer and corporate executive, as schools chancellor and backed Klein’s controversial reorganizations with millions of dollars. The effort injected welcome energy into the city’s reeling school system, but the results have been mixed: The grand experiment in charter-school expansion has yielded some creative gems, but nearly as many mediocrities. Parents have a wealth of new options but dread the competition for admission. Failing behemoth schools have been replaced by some thriving small schools, but many high-needs students have been shunted to the remaining big schools. Data has become a grinding obsession, and teachers have been scapegoated for problems not of their making. (Caveat lector: I have two children in the city’s public schools, and so far they’ve received generally excellent educations—albeit in schools whose methods and values were established before the Bloomberg revolution.)

The upheaval has brought the system to a pivotal moment. Good new schools are trying to establish firm roots. Too many others are still dysfunctional. High expectations have been instilled, and accountability established, but at a steep cost in bitterness. Last year, with Klein ready to depart the battlefield, Bloomberg had a chance to install a new leader and reestablish some credibility with the parents and teachers who think he cares only about the city’s elites and higher test scores. Instead, on the afternoon of November 9, the mayor strode to the podium in City Hall and unveiled Cathie Black as his pick, hailing the lifelong publishing executive as a “superstar manager.”

Last summer, New York State raised test-score standards, and the city’s proficiency rates crashed. New national curriculum guidelines are looming, necessitating an overhaul of the core courses taught in most New York schools. And, perhaps most critical, a massive state-budget deficit threatens to force the layoffs of thousands of teachers. In other words, this is a pretty good moment for a superstar manager of the school system. Could that really be Cathie Black?

On a blustery January morning, Black strides into the Chancellor’s Conference Room inside Tweed Courthouse, the immaculate headquarters of a very messy school system. She’s had the job for slightly more than two weeks now. She’s been all over the five boroughs, posing with adorable children and attending education forums. But she is still something of a cipher. At 66, she has a pixieish energy, though up close she’s endearingly ruddier in complexion than her lustrous official photographs. She makes the case for herself. “I’m an effective manager, I’m an effective leader, I have good communication skills,” she says. “I’m a decision-maker. I’m decisive.” And: “I’m a consensus builder, I’m a listener, I’m here to reach out.” She is also a bit of a flirt. Noticing that my security pass is stuck to the left thigh of my pants, Black points and says, “Huh! That’s kind of sexy.”

By itself, Black’s comment about my security sticker is harmless—except that she makes it one week after glibly joking that birth control could help solve school overcrowding, thereby setting off a small furor. It makes me wonder about her political instincts. She’s either admirably authentic or remarkably clueless about the brighter spotlight that now follows her.

That split extends to Black’s reputation among people who’ve worked with her during 40 years in the publishing business: Some corporate executives and former colleagues praise Black’s ability to run a tight ship, while others say her managerial talents are at best ordinary. “I never thought of her as a brilliant manager,” says a magazine editor who worked with Black for years. “I thought of her as a competent person. She was always kind of a mystery to me, because she kept getting big jobs and seemed to do all right with them, but it was never quite clear how that happened.”

Black’s climb up the magazine-advertising ladder was dogged and pragmatic. In 1966, after growing up in Chicago and then graduating from all-female Trinity College in Washington, D.C., she found a sales-assistant job at Holiday magazine and found her niche. In 1972, she joined the fledgling Ms. magazine, then moved to New York Magazine in 1977. “I’d heard Cathie speak at some things, and she was very good,” says Joe Armstrong, the editor and publisher of this magazine at the time. “She’s very driven, and she worked hard.” Armstrong made Black the first female publisher of a major weekly magazine. Colleagues, however, sometimes wondered whether Black’s energies were devoted to promoting her magazines or herself. “She would be in her office all day, and much of her time was spent writing notes: ‘Dear Dr. Kissinger, what a pleasure it was to sit next to you at dinner last night,’ ” remembers an advertising associate. “Tons of that stuff; that’s what she does. Her assistant would say, ‘Cathie’s going to a party, and she wants me to write up a history of every single person who’s going to be there.’ ”