When Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his bid for a second term, few cared to speculate about his future in politics (some would say he doesn’t deserve one). But the future of the reform of D.C. Public Schools — once the Superfund Site of American public education — and its chancellor, Michelle Rhee, on the other hand, has been of great interest. Given the gains the district had made during her tenure (including the implementation of a true merit pay system and the IMPACT performance evaluation system), how would Fenty’s successor (and ardent Rhee foe), Vincent Gray, tinker (and, quite likely, mess up) what Rhee wrought.
Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha gleans some lessons from (and offers his thoughts on) the Rhee era in a five-part series that will run over the next couple of weeks — and what school reformers should (or shouldn’t do) when it comes to undertaking overhauls of traditional school districts. I disagree with some of his arguments (I would say that Rhee behaved admirably, for the most part, given that she was taking over one of the nation’s most-dysfunctional school systems; she also needed to take up a high profile in order to survive in a job that is often plagued by turnover and political intrigue; and the race issues in D.C. would bedevil any reform effort). At the same time, one has to give Peha’s arguments much in the way of consideration:
I wrote previously that the biggest lessons we would learn from D.C. Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s tenure would not emerge until long after she had left. That may still be true. But in the wake of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s re-election loss, I think we may learned three important things already:
1. When adults act like children they don’t act in the best interests of children.
Chancellor Rhee wasn’t always on her best behavior. She said some childish things, took actions that could be interpreted as spiteful, and seemed to actually enjoy making people angry. I’ve read leadership books from Dale Carengie to Stephen Covey but I’ve never seen “immaturity” listed as a winning strategy.
Then, too, Rhee’s detractors seemed to delight in the umbrage they took in her unfortunate behavior. It was as if being offended by Ms. Rhee became a popular local parlor game. People who took this tack took their eye off the ball. The point wasn’t was Rhee’s lack of respect; the point was whether or not she was improving DC schools. It seems to me that she was, that this is primarily what made people dislike her, and that using someone’s success against them isn’t particularly mature either—especially when the lives of children are involved.
2. “Mayoral control” may be the newest oxymoron in education reform.
Mayor Fenty ceded control of the DC schools the moment he hired Ms. Rhee. Perhaps this was his intention. If it wasn’t, it seems odd that he did so little to school her up on DC politics or to help her tone down her discourse. If Fenty did exert mayoral control, perhaps it came in the form of agreement with the methods and the madness of his Chancellor. Either way, it doesn’t seem like the DC schools have been under mayoral control during Ms. Rhee’s tenure.
One might think reflexively that for big city school districts, mayoral control is an obviously superior form of governance. But its inherent instability is a problem. Most change initiatives in school systems need more time than most mayors are given. If mayoral control means anything at all it means that with each new mayor, a new kind of control asserts itself. The logic is straight-line-simple: Rhee is tied to Fenty, Fenty loses to Gray, DC has to start over. Mayoral control may curb the excessive factionalism and tortoise-like pace of the traditional school board approach but what it gives up in directness is easily taken away at the ballot box. Continuity suffers because if either the Chancellor or the Mayor changes, the pace of progress changes, too.
In reality, even the strongest and most able mayors may have little control over their schools. For one thing, they spend a lot of time trying to control other things. For another, they never know if they’ll be around long enough for the small amount of control they do exert on schools to make a difference. The Rhee-Fenty phenomenon, and the problems DC will have sorting it out in the near future, may finally show us that mayor control isn’t much better than what we had before, and that yet a new form of school governance is needed.
3. “Waiting for Superman” is a good title for a movie but a poor strategy for improving schools.
When Ms. Rhee arrived, it seemed to many around the nation that DC had been waiting a long time for someone to come along and kick things into gear. Ms. Rhee was a celebrity of sorts from the moment Mayor Fenty hired her. She represented youth, energy, and a new way doing business in big city schools. She was a symbol of hope for a city that seemed to have little and a nation that wanted to believe she could beat the odds and develop a model the rest of us could follow. In the end, even her immense skill and power were not strong enough to counter the Kryptonite of a deeply offended electorate.
Some of Rhee’s detractors contend that most of what has improved during her watch is the result of her predecessor’s efforts. No way to sort out that counter-factual. Which is precisely why it’s such a strong argument for the anti-Rhee crowd. Does DC really want to turn the clock back to Janey? Having been “not rehired” in Newark, he’s available. Regardless, there’s little point in trying to disaggregate the accomplishments of a past school leader from those of a current school leader who will likely be leaving soon.
So D.C. will be waiting once again. Waiting until Mr. Gray is elected. Waiting until he fires Ms. Rhee or she quits. Waiting until a replacement is named. Waiting until Rhee’s replacement arrives. Waiting until the new Chancellor figures out what to do next. In the meantime, will inertia take hold once again? And if so, will the next Superman be up to the task of battling the forces of evil—or even just good old-fashioned entropy?
Better, I think, to give up on this “superman complex” we all seem to have. Better, too, to stop waiting for someone else to fix the problems in our schools. Education is a massive web of infinitely interlinked and seemingly intractable complexities. This isn’t a job for Superman. It’s a job for everyman—and everywoman. It’s a job for all of us.
This year’s primary election returns turned out to be early returns for DC schools, too. A mayor’s term will end and soon a term of great change in DC schools may also come to a close. I wonder if, when all those people were voting, they thought about the cost of losing a year or two of momentum in their schools. Or perhaps that’s exactly why they voted the way they did. The votes have been cast and counted in Fenty’s race, but in Rhee’s case, perhaps we have only the early returns. It’s easy to understand the implications of a lame duck mayor, but what will it mean to have a lame duck Chancellor, too?