Public School Chic: How Saving American Education Became Cool

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Mayor Bloomberg's surprise appointment last week of Cathie Black, Chairman of Hearst Magazines, as the new chancellor of New York City's schools highlighted a striking trend in our national panorama. Black replaced Joel Klein, who had served for eight years, the longest run of any school leader in the city's history. Klein took a job in the office of the chairman of News Corporation (think Rupert Murdoch) to develop educational initiatives that Murdoch has now made a personal priority. So there you have it: Black moves from the Hearst Tower to the Department of Education, and Klein shifts to the inner sanctum of News Corporation.

Sometime in the past decade or so, saving public education moved into the stratosphere of social status. Bloomberg says he has known Black for 20 years or so, mainly as a friend on the classy side of the media scene. After she was elevated out of operational control at Hearst last summer (replaced by David Carey of Conde Nast), the mayor invited her to a private session and, apparently without much ado, offered her the chancellor job. Bloomberg had decided—and so had Klein—that it was time to make a change. In his third term, Bloomberg has systematically revamped his team, concluding that, while he could go on for another four years, the rest of his senior appointees should not.

So how will Black do in running this extraordinarily complex, highly contentious universe with 1.1 million students and 135,000 employees, in the midst of transformation at every level, and at a time of intense budgetary pressure? Bloomberg clearly feels that Black's proven skills as a top-level manager at Hearst and elsewhere was the indispensable asset, supported by professional educators, most significantly Sharon Greenberger, who was named last spring as the Education Department's chief operating officer. Black certainly will be much more than a figurehead, but starting from scratch to maintain Klein's multiple initiatives aimed at reversing the deterioration of public schools that took place in the latter part of the 20th century is going to be a formidable task, even for the most accomplished of publishing executives. Black's choice, predictably, is controversial, with some city and state politicians calling for her appointment to be blocked.

Wherever you look these days, the salvation of public education is hot. The documentary Waiting for Superman (for which PublicAffairs published a bestselling book of companion essays) has received extraordinary promotional support using money raised among philanthropists. Every copy of the book sold comes with a gift code from an organization called DonorsChoose.org, which will make a $15 gift to a classroom from a list supplied to the buyer. Chancellors like Michelle Rhee, who just resigned from the Washington, D.C., school system because her patron Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated, have superstar status in media circles. Wendy Kopp's Teach for America, about to celebrate its 20th anniversary, had 47,000 applicants last year and is the ne plus ultra of post-collegiate cachet, surpassing even the Peace Corps at its height in the Kennedy era. Having watched Kopp's progress, and preparing to publish her second book, A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn't in Providing an Excellent Education for All, I am an enormous admirer of what she has achieved in identifying who will succeed in the nation's most difficult classrooms and supporting the careers of educators like Rhee, herself a former TFA teacher.

Some of the wealthiest people in the country have made public education their focus, including Stanley Druckenmiller, chairman of Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone who, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, gave away more money last year than any other individual in the country (as distinct from foundations like Gates). Eli and Edythe Broad of Los Angeles have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into leadership training. Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook co-founder, dedicated $100 million to improving the public school system in Newark, New Jersey. In the midst of the overall decline of President Obama's campaign agenda, the plan to support public education through the Race to the Top competitive program has been spared. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who ran Chicago's public schools the way Joel Klein presided in New York, has been a superb salesman for the commitment to upgrading public education and navigating through the myriad of often conflicting issues, including charter schools, union power, and national testing.

Public school chic has to be a positive development compared to the previous trend of neglect of inner city education. But what the real impact on quality will be over the longer term remains to be seen. The results of studies of newer approaches such as charter schools, class size, and making teachers accountable for test performance are contradictory. Some show progress; others not. Another questionable development is the intense competition for places in the best public schools, which in New York City, at least, has become comparable to the contest for entrance to top colleges. As Waiting for Superman so vividly records, the majority of kids don't make it into the schools that hold lotteries or tests for admission and end up in what feel like academies for failure rather than success.
Cathie Black is now a symbol for public school chic as she transitions from the limo service and corner office culture in which she launched Oprah Winfrey's magazine O and pulled the plug on Tina Brown's Talk to overseeing the education of over a million children—with no background at all in the field for which she is now responsible. The mayor and his chancellor are both supremely self-confident personalities. Those attributes are about to be put to a challenge as formidable as any our society can devise.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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