While Polakow-Suransky makes no apologies for the emphasis on testing—and he is bent on creating new tests that push schools to broaden their curriculum—he admits to the hollowness of some of the numbers. “We have a 63 percent graduation rate, and half of those students still need remediation when they go to college,” he says. “We’re confident we know how to improve the graduation rates, but now we have to focus on, what does that diploma mean? That means changing the rigor of what’s happening in the classrooms.” With his new responsibilities, Polakow-Suransky says he’s eager to shift the balance somewhat, from structural change to instructional improvement. And he says Black is already doing more than rubber-stamping decisions that will help make that happen, pointing to her role, in late January, in delaying special-education expansion plans until better preparation could be done. “I like her a lot,” Polakow-Suransky says. “She’s very smart. She’s helping me think stuff through. She’s very good at facilitating a conversation at Cabinet meetings, an open dialogue with real debate. She’s not a micromanager. She gets involved at the point decisions need to be made, but she trusts people to do their work. So far, no red flags.”
When I listen to Polakow-Suransky, it’s possible to believe that this shotgun marriage could work, with him as an eggheady Mr. Inside while Black becomes the glossy Ms. Outside. Though the second part is going to take considerable time. “I want to empower our principals,” Black says. “Because the empowerment of principals, I believe, is critical to the success of the system. And we have empowered them. That’s been a huge movement over the last number of years.” Which sounds good—but ask Black for specifics, and she gets tangled in empty verbiage. What power do principals currently lack? “Well, too many people will say, ‘I don’t have the money.’ But the smartest principals will figure out ‘How do I reallocate my resources for the things I think are most important in my own school? The teacher evaluation, the … all of the work now in terms of curriculum development, for the core standards.’ This is going to be a game-changer. But it’s a lot of hard slogging, also. Then we have, with the new schools, whether they be charter schools or just new approaches … they’re very exciting. But too many people are afraid of change. They’re very wed to whatever they truly believe in. So obviously there’s a lot of noise about that.”
Although glaring weaknesses like the racial performance gap need attention, the mayor believes he has the correct educational-reform strategy in place: More and differentiated school options, more small schools, more charter schools, more control over the hiring and firing of teachers. Polakow-Suransky and other technocrats can handle most of the on-the-ground educational stuff. Applying political pressure to the unions and Albany is the responsibility of City Hall. Black’s first real management test won’t start until April, with the internal wrangling over the DOE’s shrunken budget. Yet her main task for the next three years is to win grassroots hearts and minds so that the changes go down more smoothly and the results generate more love for Bloomberg. “The distrust in the system is real. We understand that,” says Dennis Walcott, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for education and community development. “But at the local level, for the most part, people think their child is doing better and getting a better education. Part of our challenge is to make sure people understand the connection to Tweed and to this administration. Cathie is acclimating herself to this new world, but her style and personality will allow people to see things differently and hear them differently and build trust where people are distrustful.”
That seems like wishful thinking now. Black has become the problem she was hired to fix. But it’s still early, and she is nothing if not tenacious. One Sunday morning in late January, Bloomberg took to the pulpit at the Christian Cultural Center in Canarsie to issue another blast at teacher-seniority rules. Black didn’t speak that day. Instead she diligently jotted notes as the Reverend A. R. Bernard, a reliable Bloomberg booster and the savvy leader of Brooklyn’s most politically powerful megachurch, delivered the sermon. That afternoon, Black sent Bernard an e-mail following up on a parishioner’s complaint about a school. “I was pleasantly surprised,” Bernard says. “She’s open to correction, in terms of what she’s insensitive to, and she’s willing to learn the landscape. I appreciate that she’s not coming in as a know-it-all.”
There are tougher audiences ahead, and Black’s brutal start has only made the task of winning them over harder. If she can rebrand herself, and use her vaunted inspirational talent to ease the pain of reform, it wouldn’t just be a significant boost to Bloomberg’s educational legacy. It would be the greatest sale of Cathie Black’s life.