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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

In Leadership, It’s Substance Over Style

By Guest Blogger — March 26, 2013 4 min read

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are the leaders of TNTP. Today, we have Daniel Weisberg, executive vice president and general counsel at TNTP.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a policy wonk. But the larger conversation about education reform rarely focuses on actual policy positions. Instead, the media usually frames policy disagreements as clashes of personalities. Who’s picking a fight with whom? Who won? Who lost?

As a result, education leaders are defined mostly by their style, not by the substance of their ideas. Style certainly matters in leadership, but what a leader actually accomplishes matters even more. The hallmark of cage-busting leaders isn’t how noisily they bust cages; it’s whether their policies make things better for teachers and students over the long haul.

I’m thinking specifically about Michelle Rhee. She’s clearly someone that many of us at TNTP know well, having founded and led the organization before becoming chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) five years ago. But I’m thinking of her because her accomplishments at DCPS were controversial and have stood the test of time.

During her three years as chancellor, critics and supporters alike focused on her leadership style more than anything else. The photo of a stern-faced Rhee holding a broom on the cover of Time became the defining image of her three years in office. Critics complained that she spent too little time listening to parents and teachers, and that she lacked empathy for the people her reforms affected. Supporters saw her willingness to plunge headlong into fights about thorny issues--even when that meant angering powerful interest groups--as a breath of fresh air. Local newspapers provided almost daily updates about Rhee’s clashes with teachers’ union leaders and the city council.

Overlooked in this personality-centered frenzy was the fact that Rhee was advocating for a set of common-sense and eminently sustainable policy goals. She wanted a teacher evaluation system that provided accurate information about each teacher’s performance, and that gave teachers more useful feedback on their instruction. She wanted to recognize the city’s best teachers with raises, bonuses and accolades, so that they would be more likely to stay in DCPS. And she wanted to give struggling teachers a finite amount of time to improve, instead of letting them remain in the classroom indefinitely. Most of all, she wanted to refocus DCPS on educating students rather than simply employing adults.

None of these things were achievable within the legal and contractual rules she inherited. What set Rhee apart from so many of her predecessors was her resolve and persistence in seeking a very clear set of changes in the face of the inevitable blowback. That’s what cage-busting leadership is all about. And although it took years of negotiations with union leaders and enormous amounts of political capital, she changed what she set out to change.

Today, Rhee is often described as “controversial,” but few bother to ask whether her policies are still in place, and whether they are actually working. When we studied DCPS last year as part of our national study on teacher retention (The Irreplaceables), we found that yes, the policies she fought for are still in place, and yes, they are working pretty much as designed.
You can read our full report on DPCS here, but the key findings included:

• DCPS is keeping many more of its best teachers than its worst, making it the only urban school district we know of that practices smart teacher retention on such a large scale.

• The district has enforced rigorous expectations for teachers through its IMPACT evaluation system without driving away its best teachers (as many had feared).

• Top teachers are far more satisfied with their compensation in DCPS than in the other districts we studied.

Again, the point here isn’t that you should ignore a leader’s style. Michelle Rhee has admitted that she made mistakes in how she communicated about her policies--she would not pick up that broom if she had it to do over again, for example. These mistakes almost certainly limited what she was able to accomplish during her time as chancellor.
But, when you read the typical news story about clashes of personality in education reform, try to ask the logical next question. Is this really a case of a petty fight, or is a leader, regardless of any missteps in messaging, trying to fix a policy that’s just not working and replace it with something better?

It’s these substantive questions--much more than the stylistic ones--that will help you figure out whether you have a cage-busting leader on your hands.

- Daniel Weisberg

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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