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Education Opinion

Michelle Rhee: What Kind of a Leader?

October 04, 2007 3 min read

In John Merrow’s recent report on The News Hour with Jim Lerher, at least one article in the Washington Post, and at least once on local public radio station WAMU, the new Chancellor of public schools has declared war on the central office. Unlike Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose October 3 speech at the National Press Club demonstrated an understanding of the difference between bureaucracy and bureaucrat, between the institution and individuals, Rhee has consistently made a whole class of people the problem.

“What goes around, comes around,” and this strategy will eventually backfire.Bureaucracies are simply conveyor belts on automatic pilot. They don’t make policy; they carry it out. Bureaucrats resist change - all people do, but once they become familiar with new routines, DC’s central office staff will be no less resistant to changing that approach.

By the same token, leaders don’t carry out policy, they pronounce it. The Chancellor needs her central office staff to achieve the goal for DCPS that Mayor Fenty telegraphed in his speech - not an “excellent school system” so much as “a system of excellent schools.” The decentralization of education policy that implies does not eliminate the need for a central office or vastly reduce its size; it simply changes its role from manager to servant. In short, the Chancellor needs a central office staff no less than she needs teachers and principals - two groups she’s been careful to embrace, although they bear as much responsibility for the system’s failures as the scapegoats in the bureaucracy.

It’s one thing to fire thieves, incompetents or obstructionists - that’s doing your job. It’s quite another to combine those actions with blanket indictments of staff and insensitive remarks about entire groups of people - that’s intimidation. The Chancellor’s challenge is not to bully the central office into submission, but to train its people for a new era. That task depends on positive motivation.

All bureaucracies outlive the boss; this central office will outlive Chancellor Rhee. The way things are going now, the boss can only expect a central office that offers grudging acquiescence to her demands, waits for her to make the one or two job-threatening mistakes every change agent manages, and remains sustained by the collective vision of withholding whatever support that might save her from disaster and then helping her pack up to leave. That can’t possibly bode well for school reform.

Michelle Rhee’s appointment as Chancellor is important to the school improvement industry because she is really the first of an entirely new generation of school reformers. She represents the activism, ideology and managerial approach of a slew of education nonprofits formed by the new philanthropy - from Teach for America, to Citizen Schools, to New Leaders for New Schools. The group has reinvigorated the cause of reform, and attracted a vast number of new, mostly young followers. What’s important about this group for the school improvement industry is its willingness to contract out.

By picking the 37 year old Rhee, Mayor Fenty made it entirely possible that school systems around the country will bypass a generation of “old school” superintendents waiting to move up to a larger district in favor of these new leaders. If she can make DC work, or at least be seen as making DC work, that possibility will become far more likely - and the school improvement industry will benefit. If she fails, or is perceived to be failing, the idea of drawing from the new philanthropy’s children won’t even get as far as the fad of hiring retired generals. A great opportunity will be lost.

I would like Rhee to succeed, but I think she’s increased her chances of failure needlessly. There’s not a lot of time to correct the impression that the Fenty Administration has declared war on bureaucrats and made them the demon of school reform. Only the Mayor can help the Chancellor out of the hole she’s digging for herself. If he doesn’t, she may well pull him into the pit.

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