Education Opinion

Weak Brew?

By Sara Mead — January 24, 2011 2 min read
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Interesting WaPo piece by Richard Whitmire (who has a book coming out on Michelle Rhee) on the desire for “Michelle Lite” reformers who will implement the kind of reforms--teacher evaluation and pay incentives, closing underenrolled and underperforming schools--Rhee did in D.C., but in a nice, kind, touchy-feely way that doesn’t p*#s people off. Richard’s right in a big picture sense: You can’t do things like firing ineffective teachers or closing down schools without upsetting stakeholders, so wanting leaders who will do what needs to be done without provoking political and public angst is like wanting to have your cake and eat it to. But a few caveats worth keeping in mind here:

1. First, there is a tendency among some education reform types to confuse “p*#sing established interests and stakeholders off” with “doing the right thing.” Sure, a lot of times doing the right thing makes people mad. But it doesn’t follow that making people mad means you’re doing the right thing. People can also get mad when you do bad or stupid things! And there’s no value in unnecessarily angering people with things that don’t get you any substantive ground. One of the issues with Rhee and Fenty was that they did some dumb or tone deaf things--like letting Council members find out about things in the paper--that engendered bad will with influential figures, were totally unnecessary, and didn’t really move the ball on things that were important. Would doing things differently on that front have made a difference in November’s election? Maybe not. But did some of those things undermine support from figures inclined to support Fenty and Rhee’s larger agenda? Yes. As I said here a while back, reform leaders need to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves, and that means knowing when it’s worth making people angry and when to avoid doing so because it ultimately wouldn’t move the ball on your big picture goals.

2. Just because you might need a bee eater, a Michelle Genuine Draft, now, to instigate and implement hard reforms, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s necessary over time to sustain and build on those reforms. Hard reforms are disruptive, and maybe they do need to be followed by a gentler and healing touch. The reality is that we haven’t had enough experience with truly aggressive reforms in the public education space to really know what needs to come next after all the shouting is done. But at some point we will need to find out.

3. Does Richard (or anyone) really think Kaya Henderson is “Michelle Lite”?

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.