Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Rhee-Visiting the District of Columbia Public Schools (II)

May 29, 2008 6 min read

My case against the Chancellor is not simply a matter of policy differences. Even taking the takeover model she and the mayor have adopted as a given, the campaign she has implemented to put it place on the ground is flawed. At the end of May 2008, her takeover formula is obvious: Break the will of institutions within the school system; demolish as much of the old culture as possible; take all the political flack up front; and prepare the ground for a new approach in the 2008-2009 school year.The Strategy for Implementation is Self-Defeating

To a point, it’s a plausible strategy – DCPS is in need of sweeping change, intense internal resistance was foreseeable, there’s no escaping political controversy, and there’s less pain ripping a bandage off than removing it slowly. But this strategy carries substantial risk, and requires additional features to work. The risk is that the concentration of actions that create important enemies in a short period of time will overwhelm the reform effort early on, or create a strong coalition of resistance that survives to undermine subsequent initiatives. Maintaining strong alliances with stakeholders who do not need to be enemies is of vital importance. Here the Chancellor’s performance has fallen far short of the mark.

Making Unnecessary Enemies. Not every elected official supports the Mayor’s takeover wholeheartedly. Several City Council members voted for it in order to give the Mayor a chance to hang himself. The Chairman seemed to have second thoughts soon after the takeover law passed. The widely respected and elected head of the City’s Board of Education has been searching for a way to get a direct role in K–12 policy. Every time the Chancellor makes a misstep or mistake, she provides ammunition for these people and adds to their ranks of supporters.

Last fall, following a lengthy and not entirely unwarranted public relations campaign against central office staff, Rhee won the City Council’s approval of Mayor Fenty’s request to strip these employees of the due process protections typically provided to civil servants. The new law authorized the Chancellor to hire and fire central office staff “at will;” i.e., on her own discretion - for any reason or no reason. The argument for this grant of extraordinary power amounted to poor staff, cumbersome termination procedures, a bloated bureaucracy, and the need for rapid action. Subsequently, Rhee relieved 98 employees of their positions, without revealing whether they were redundant, incompetent, or disloyal.

It was entirely foreseeable that efforts to break the central office would reverberate throughout the city, in other parts of the DC government workforce, the neighborhoods where these people live, the city institutions and organizations they’ve joined, and the offices of their representatives on the City Council. What the Mayor and Chancellor seemed to discount was the collateral effects of their decisions and actions. They garnered some public and parent support, but made the bureaucracy an enemy and sowed the seeds of determined political opposition. The newly won power and its exercise bothered people who have no doubt that the central office had more than its fair share of incompetents, but believe government employees should be protected from the arbitrary decisions of political appointees. She certainly gave teachers with the same kinds of protections pause - the Chancellor probably did not improve the chance of getting her proposal to end tenure and seniority rights in the upcoming teachers contract, or even the idea of differentiated pay. The political turmoil is very likely one reason the private sector has not responded with resounding enthusiasm to the Chancellor’s 75 million funding request (see here and here .)


Failing to Honor Transparency.
There is no avoiding the opposition of those disadvantaged by the substance of any decision the Chancellor might make. It is entirely possible to minimize collateral damage. If the decision criteria and process for arriving at the decision are transparent, and those affected have an opportunity to be heard, most people will give the Chancellor the benefit of any doubt. If those features are not present, they have reason to wonder if the decision is not arbitrary or capricious. The Chancellor’s decisions to terminate civil servants without the benefit of due process rights, to hide much of the schools closing process from view, to spring specific turnaround contractors on the parents and staff of ten schools, to fire principals without much explanation (also see here), and not to honor the legal requirement for a public comment period on her proposed budget have created precisely this impression.

The school closure process is emblematic of the Chancellors failures in this realm. Last fall, the Chancellor, Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, and the Mayor and also announced fairly detailed plans developed with the assistance of outside consultants to close 25 schools, reassign the students and staff to another 30-plus sites, and redraw attendance boundaries.

The announcement included vague expressions of intent to seek public comment. Nevertheless what people remember most is the lack of input - and not only before the plan’s initial release. The City Council was caught unawares by the closure list. There was concern that the criteria used to close schools were not entirely clear, but may have been weighted too little in favor of school performance and too much on the financial potential of developing certain sites. Schools with reasonable academic performance were targeted for closure. Parents were told that good programs would be transferred to new schools, although everyone understands that is at best a naïve proposal. The initial list was not the final list, but many believe that statements made by the Chancellor at school level meetings to reassure parents – especially regarding teacher reassignment - were not entirely genuine.

No Quick Substantive Wins. There is no way the Mayoral takeover strategy can succeed without strong and widespread political support. The Chancellor has the Mayor’s backing, but without a solid majority of the City Council, a diverse base among Washington’s elite and opinion makers, and the unambiguous support of parents, what is now a vast scope for action will become circumscribed. Having made so many decisions with negative impacts on City Council members and facing so many more in coming year, the Chancellor needs some quick wins pointing in the direction of the vision to be realized by the takeover.

The Washington Post recently noted that in 2007 Rhee did manage to get the schools open on time, and more or less supplied. It suggested that this would be a good start for 2008. The Chancellor promised the schools closure process would permit the reallocation of resources required to give schools arts, music, and nursing staff (here) but that appears unlikely given the Chancellor’s underestimate of overall budget requirement. In my view opening schools on schedule and having knowledge of yyour budgets are a floor – like expecting the city’s streets to be free of potholes and passable in the immediate aftermath of a snowstorm.

I am talking about educational improvements. It is entirely true that programmatic interventions do not generally show statistically, let alone educationally, significant improvements in a year. However, it is hard to imagine that there are no programs or initiatives in the DC school system that are consistent with her vision and show such improvements. After all the New Teacher Project she headed before answering Fenty’s call was working here. Because she has not sought out and endorsed such bright spots, observers have a concrete image of what the Chancellor’s has demolished but no clear picture of what she can create. Her claims to personal success as an educator and those of the new New Teacher Project she founded lack the benefit of third party evaluation.

Marc Dean Millot is the editor of School Improvement Industry Week and K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. His firm provides independent information and advisory services to business, government and research organizations in public education.

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