Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Why I’m a Critic of DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee

December 01, 2007 5 min read

From the email I’ve received over the course of my ongoing critique of Chancellor Rhee’s approach to school reform, and Mayor Fenty’s apparent support, many edbizbuzz readers have the impression that I’m opposed to her objectives and belong to the same camp as those who oppose her because her objectives are contrary to their self-interest.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing in my writing at RAND, for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, or articles written as an entirely independent observer would indicate that I’m a great fan of central office activities or teachers unions approach to working conditions that impinge on what was once considered management prerogative. (See more by clicking on “About the Author” at the upper right hand corner of this page. Listen to several years of weekly editorials from SIIW • The Podcast here. )

Indeed there is only one area of policy I can think of where I disagree with Rhee and Fenty fundamentally. I agree that the central office needs to be restructured to support schools. I agree that staff who are not doing their jobs need to be removed from the system. I agree that resources need to be reallocated to instruction, and so schools need to be consolidated. I agree that private for- and nonprofit management of public schools is a plausible option. I agree with much of what Chancellor Rhee is known for advocating on teacher pay and assignment.

It is because I agree with these objectives so strongly that I disagree with the Administration on strategy so vehemently. In short, I can’t think of an approach less likely to achieve these ends. And its failure is bound to set back reform efforts across the nation for years to come.

Fenty and Rhee have created the impression that kids are their first priority - and that’s both admirable and right. But they’ve also created the impression that they have no respect for any other stakeholder group.

Some argue that Adrian Fenty carefully avoided direct discussions of any intent to take control of DC schools during his mayoral campaign, and found the extent of his subsequent proposal surprising. The Mayor definitely sprung the Chancellor on the City Council. Since then I have read the Washington Post quote her sweeping accusations against her entire central office at public meetings. On The News Hour I’ve watched the Chancellor act with great personal disrespect towards her staff and principals. It’s hard for me to find the right word for berating employees en masse in staff meetings and firing a principal over the phone - in front of the camera for subsequent national distribution! It’s somewhere between unmannerly and boorish but, above all else, exercising the power of office to engage in public humiliation is not leadership. On local radio station WAMU, I have repeatedly heard Rhee say she doesn’t really have much empathy for central office staff and teachers that may be let go. Even if she truly feels that way, it’s hardly helpful to sound so cold - even incompetent criminals have families. I have watched her and the Mayor spring on employees, parents and the City Council: 1) an unprecedented plan to turn school district staff into at-will employees, answerable only to the Chancellor’s personal view of performance; 2) school management by at least one organization tied to Chancellor; 3) a vast school closure and consolidation plan; and 4) a series unpleasant budget problems.

In the name of streamlining the school system, the Mayor has put into place a management structure with several independent sources of operational authority: a facilities czar, a “state” education agency, a chancellor, a deputy mayor, a vestigal but not entirely toothless school board, and now an ombudsman. It will take two years to reshuffle all the staff and activities, and the moves don’t appear to be on schedule. In the meanwhile, the Administration is not entirely clear on its k-12 budget shortfalls, reallocations, savings or cuts. The Deputy Mayor cribbed the city’s plan from Charlotte-Mecklenberg, literally lifting whole sections. I’m less worried about the plagiarism than the fact that a plan created by “cut and paste” has no real constituency. A plan without buy-in at the top is no plan at all, and is prone to fall apart at the worst possible moment.

All this is understandable; it’s a new administration and no one in a new office really knows what they are doing for a year anyway. But it would be a lot easier to accept if the Administration’s approach to everyone else in the system were different, and it would not be a political weapon of much force when the true adversaries of the Administration’s goals finally pick it up.

What I see in Chancellor Rhee’s approach, abetted, permitted or endorsed by Mayor Fenty, is 1) insensitivity and arrogance towards others, combined with 2) a reliance on fear to control staff, and 3) a considerable willingness not to apply analogous performance criteria and public criticism to themselves. Managers cannot be harder and hasher with others than they are on themselves and expect support from their staff, respect from their board, or trust from the public. And managers without all three cannot succeed in a turn-around.

Of special importance is the relationship between management and staff. Managers who single out poor performers and make certain they are removed by due process send a very different message from those who suggest that every staff member’s honesty and competence is a matter of debate and bypass protections against arbitrary dismissal. By choosing the latter, the Mayor and Chancellor have turned the troops against them and made it that much harder to improve the schools.

A young, energetic, can-do tone does generate a lot of enthusiasm and support, but it has to be followed up with empathy for the legitimate interests of everyone with a stake in the system, and actions that suggest a certain wisdom beyond the years of youthful leaders.

The Mayor’s honeymoon with the City Council has ended because of his approach to school reform. (See here, printed after this posting.) I don’t think the Chancellor ever had one. If they don’t signal a change in their approach to school reform that is more inclusive and empathetic, and more willing to admit that they aren’t quite as on top of things as the image they now try to project - every single interest group that matters in the city will be inclined to let them fail. And in the end, this can’t be about the administration’s image - or who is in charge (no one is in charge, there can’t be improvement unless all the stakeholders’ cooperate), it’s about the need to put in place the objectives I, we support.

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The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz 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.

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