Black’s most fervent sales pitch at the moment is for changing the way the city lays off teachers. State law requires systemwide cuts be made according to seniority. Black has been tirelessly on-message in pushing Bloomberg’s argument for more managerial discretion, hammering it home on NY1, writing an op-ed about the topic for the Post—coincidentally on the very day the Post’s editorial page championed the same idea. The teachers union is highly skeptical—citing flaws in the city’s methods for evaluating teachers, which lean heavily on test scores—and suspicious that the city’s real desire is to go after its oldest, highest-salaried teachers. “It’s not about age. It’s about their capacity to be a really effective teacher,” Black says. “The passion is about having the best teachers. And the system knows who are the good ones. The good ones tend to come together, they do more innovative things, they share best practices, and the others hide out.” Are there parallels between the metrics used to evaluate magazines and teachers? “I am about data,” Black says. “The magazine statistics—I used to say magazine math is really easy. It is about circulation performance, it’s about advertising revenue, it’s about share of market. You’ve got pretty simple indicators—do the readers of this magazine like it enough to subscribe? To renew? To buy on the newsstand? And does it have a place in the advertising market? As we look at, over the course of the next months and months—of all of the pilots we have in the marketplace here, in our schools, as we are transforming schools, as we are starting new schools, we need to be rigorous, as we are: How are the kids doing? How are the graduation rates? Are these children being educated in a way that they can go to college and they can be prepared for college? Or if they’re on a career track, are they going to go into a career that’s going to be promising?”
Black is but one part of the sophisticated campaign to rewrite the teacher-layoff rules. The Post’s news pages have been trumpeting a group of younger teachers who are supposedly rebelling against the inflexibility of the UFT’s leadership; the group is fueled in part by $160,000 that a private group co-chaired by Klein passed along from the Gates Foundation, one of the most powerful backers of Bloomberg’s education reform. Closing the circle, Klein now works for Post owner Rupert Murdoch. The ultimate target of all this lobbying is Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose backing is key to any significant overhaul of teacher-layoff policies. “A lot hinges on where Andrew comes down,” one Bloomberg adviser says. The mayor’s campaign contributions to State Senate Republicans could pay off as well. “If we have [Republican majority leader Dean] Skelos onboard and pass a good bill out of the State Senate, and raise enough public attention on the issue, through editorials and ads and everything else, and the governor is pounding away, it gets harder for Shelly [Silver, the Assembly majority leader] to ignore it,” another Bloomberg strategist says. He also highlights a further bit of leverage. “Quite frankly, this is Rupert’s top issue,” he says. “Does Andrew really want to lose the Post over this? And also make enemies of Mort Zuckerman and Bloomberg in his first few months?” If Cuomo pushes for the union and the city to negotiate a relaxation of the seniority rules, it would be an enormous victory for Bloomberg, with a minor assist from Black. But her real campaign is only beginning.
Bloomberg has already made one Albany deal related to Black—though that one was forced on the mayor. Perversely enough, it could also turn out to be the best thing for the school system. In exchange for granting Black the necessary non-educator waiver to become chancellor, New York State’s education commissioner compelled Bloomberg to install as Black’s second-in-command someone with actual education experience. The mayor picked Shael Polakow-Suransky.
The 39-year-old South African immigrant is a fascinating character and a seeming contradiction. The son of anti-apartheid intellectuals, Polakow-Suransky attended an experimental school-without-walls public high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then Brown University before moving to New York and becoming the founding principal of a small high school in the Bronx. Yet Polakow-Suransky has also become a true believer in standardized testing and data and was chief accountability officer under Joel Klein.
“If you look at the old Board of Ed reports in the late nineties, they don’t even list student-achievement data. They have overcrowding data, they have safety data, they have how many lunches. Nothing about whether kids are learning or not,” Polakow-Suransky says. “We’ve taken a system that in many parts of the city was deeply neglected and brought a focus. I’ve been a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal. And I will never forget how demanding and interesting it is to be a teacher. It’s one of the hardest jobs you can do, and it takes time and a lot of support to do it well. But we need to be honest when people are not performing.”