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

School & District Management Opinion

Lessons from Fenty’s Loss

By Rick Hess — September 15, 2010 3 min read
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Last night, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was decisively defeated in his reelection bid by City Council Chairman Vincent Gray. Fenty lost 56 to 42, a margin that pretty much reflected where the race stood last month. Gray’s win throws D.C.'s nationally-significant school reform efforts into turmoil (see here or here for context).

As early results trickled in, the cable television commentariat quickly made it clear that this result is likely to be interpreted largely as a referendum on D.C.'s school reform efforts. More than one talking head previewed what’s likely to be one of the national takeaways: that Fenty’s crushing loss among black voters--even as he tried to transform the mediocre schools serving black children--will be interpreted as a setback for tough-minded reform and a warning flare to mayors inclined to follow in Fenty’s footsteps.

In any city, the school system is the largest employer of the black middle class. Thus, any ambitious attempt to wring out the central administration, evaluate teachers, remove weak principals, or shutter schools feels like an attack on the black community--and no amount of dithering or collaboration (or, as we’ve seen in D.C., dramatic across-the-board pay raises) can ultimately change that. When teachers lash out at the mayor and schools chief, and when the union piles on, would-be reformers find themselves in an uphill struggle against thousands of respected professionals with strong ties in neighborhoods and churches. These hopeful reformers may win this struggle for three years or six, but they consistently lose in the end.

(For what it’s worth, it’s my frustration with this dynamic--and conviction that we can break its grip if we understand how the shape of today’s schools and systems frustrates reformers--that prompted me to write The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas, due out in November).

And, while most professional supes were already hesitant to emulate Michelle’s uncompromising, blunt-spoken ways, this outcome will further convince them that anyone angling for a career in district leadership needs to speak more cautiously and move more gingerly.

I see three takeaways for the nation’s “reform” community.

One, start leaning on Gray now by making the argument that losing Rhee will be a black eye and a huge setback for Washington--on education and in terms of business development and cache. How broad the implications are will only become clear in the weeks and months ahead.

Two, transforming dysfunctional systems inevitably entails fierce pushback in the schools and communities--especially in the African-American community. In places like New Orleans and D.C., even black parents who welcome many of the school improvements are concerned about the influx of “outsiders” or question whether reform needs to be so tumultuous. For would-be reformers to succeed in the long run, they can’t rely merely on test scores and graduation rates to win the debate--they need to address such concerns and explain why their harsh medicine is necessary. They need political cover and aggressive efforts to make their case to parents and voters. Even Rhee, perhaps the closest thing to an action figure in schooling today, couldn’t do all this on her own. No one backed her heralded efforts with the requisite muscle or organization, and the consequences are now clear.

Three, it was Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over, while hoping for different results. For Fenty--one of the most unyielding, most effective school reform champions we’ve yet seen--to lose decisively after three years of remarkable school transformation illustrates just why reformers need to stop playing the same old game and need to start changing the rules.

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.