Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee: Quo Vadis?

November 19, 2007 3 min read

Listening to John Merrow’s November 19 report on DC Schools’ Chancellor Michelle Rhee on the PBS radio version of The News Hour took my breath away. Yes, her audacity has refreshing features. But it’s also frightening.

In the space of a few minutes Merrow shows Rhee:

• Removing principals within days of arriving on the scene – she actually gives one the news for subsequent broadcast to a national audience.

• Declaring war on her own central office.

• Arguing for the right to fire staff and teachers at her sole discretion.

• Dismissing the idea of any compassion for employees, in the name of student performance.

The Chancellor is a bit short on a concrete strategy towards this end, but the report suggests it is the k-12 equivalent of “march or die” – perform or step aside.

Observing Rhee over the last several months reminds me of nothing so much as watching a dictator seize the reins of power. And as with all such stories, her rise depends on the public and its leaders being so disgusted with the prior state of affairs, and so lacking in the will to fix the problem earlier, that they readily give up cherished rights like due process, all the while forgeting to insist that Caesar define the standards of performance that will put her out in the cold she so willingly dispenses to others.

Quo vadis? Where can this lead?I see four potential scenarios.

1. Rhee succeeds in getting the power to hire and fire across the board. She eliminates all those who resist her will, hires true believers - soon known as “Rheeniacs.” Through sheer determination and hard work they turn DC around. It may be a dictatorship, but at least the trains run on time. The principal problem here is that strongmen (or women) are not institutions. The success of this approach depends on the ability of the dictator to manipulate people through a combination of fear and reward. Don’t overestimate the power of loyalty to the cause – that inevitably leads some to question whether the leader really has the cause at heart. Trotskys’ must be eliminated. When the Chancellor leaves, there will be nothing to keep the revolution on track.

2. Rhee succeeds in getting the power to hire and fire across the board. She eliminates all those who resist her will, hires true believers. But sheer determination and hard work are not enough to turn DC around. The Chancellor lacks a strategy beyond throwing good people at the problem. This Great Leap Forward bogs down. After a few years the Chancellor is finished – maybe in place, more likely moving on. A few pockets of excellence might survive, but the system gradually sinks back to mediocrity across the board.

3. Rhee does not get the power to hire and fire across the board, but manages to alienate every power center in City in the process. She can’t rely on her central office to carry out plans. Indeed it is more likely to sabotage her strategies in implementation. She loses any cooperation with the teachers union. The principals hunker down. She can recruit no army of idealists. City Council presses in. She’s isolated, hangs on for a few years until the Mayor realizes she has to go before the next election. Hard to believe, but the next Chancellor faces an even worse mess than Rhee inherited.

4. Rhee wakes up - maybe because she plays out these scenarios, maybe because there’s a Dutch uncle or aunt who can persuade her, maybe because she’s given a bloody nose in the next few months - and decides she needs some level of willing cooperation from the system to get a better system. She creates a task force to remove poor performers according to the rules. She stops humiliating her inferiors in public. She stops making sweeping statements that suggest everyone is incompetent - or worse - but her. She gets on with a change strategy that is more modest as political theater and more substantive in terms of specifying how hard working folks are supposed to improve schools.

Scenario one – Rhee’s best case? – isn’t going to happen. Scenario two is only slightly more likely. I would bet on scenario three. I pray for scenario four, but have no reason to believe it’s any more likely than the first.

If you have a scenario – please let edbizbuzz readers know.

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