Steve Peha: Why Rhee Should Read First Corinthians
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Perhaps I’ve missed some of the nuances of principled civil discourse with regard to public schooling in our nation’s capital. Perhaps the brouhaha has been exaggerated in the media and the adults in question have all been calmly and courageously sharing tea and crumpets while working out their differences about how to improve a tough urban school district.
But to tell ya the truth, the whole thing has seemed like a lot of “he-said-she-said” to me—with “she” spittin’ out some real beauties.
It’s both strange and sad that those of us who care so much about children are so often given to childishness ourselves. Maybe it goes with the territory. In D.C., I think there’s been plenty of childish behavior on all sides—probably more among adults in city offices than among children in city playgrounds.
In Ms. Rhee’s case, she seemed to delight in bratty quips as soon as she got the job. I never understood this. She was hired by Fenty and given his full imprimatur. Fenty had just won every ward in the city. Rhee had real power. So why be cranky and abusive when all she had to do to get whatever she wanted was ask nicely while pointing to the mayor’s office?
Rhee often proclaimed that she didn’t do politics. Her apolitical stance was just posture; she does, in fact, does politics. Privately, she’s a political force of nature by sheer force of will. Publicly, she stumped for Fenty during his recent campaign, even alluding to the likelihood that she would quit if he lost. Short of actually running for office, that’s as political as politics gets.
Ms. Rhee’s “posture” of indifference to the patently political nature of being a big city school leader, and her antipathy toward those who wanted her to play along, was equal parts pose and power play. When Fox News says its “fair and balanced”, we know precisely that it’s not. When someone in a political position says, “I don’t play politics!” we know she is a master of the game.
Ms. Rhee’s “I’m-all-about-what’s-best-for-kids” argument, while surely sincere on some level, was a red herring. Matthew Yglesias solves the mystery here by pointing out that her emphasis was not on the less glamorous work of local school governance but on the more rewarding enterprise of national self-promotion.
Ms. Rhee is smart, tough, efficient, effective, and one heck of a talented politician. I think she’s also a darned good school leader—minus the attitude. Her “I don’t do politics” strategy would have been the perfect cover if she hadn’t decided to blow it so often. For what reason other than personal aggrandizement or political gain would she pose—voluntarily—in Time as The Wicked Witch of Education Reform?
In the best-selling business book, “Good to Great”, Jim Collins and Tom Porras to the necessity of what they call Level 5 Leaders. Among their many qualities, these people typically work quietly and diligently, letting others share the spotlight and even take some of the credit. These people have energy and smarts and grit. But they also have wisdom and maturity. Ms. Rhee did not. We have childishness in school; we don’t need more from the people who run it—nor do we need it from the people who oppose the way someone is running it.
MEANWHILE RHEE CLEARLY CULTIVATED her own problems, seemingly at times with the intent not of serving children so much as serving herself. How do we know? Cui bono? Life got a little better for kids in D.C., but it’s gonna get a lot better for Rhee in the very near future. I just hope she can make it on to Oprah before the last season is over.
I’m not a knee-jerk Rhee-basher. I think she’s done some amazing things in DC and I’ve been a cautiously optimistic supporter of hers since she started. I have applauded her willingness to take risks and her ability to get things done in the face of entrenched special interests. I think her commitment to kids is real but I think her immaturity ultimately leads her to be more committed to herself than anyone or anything else.
Given a light greener than the one Gatsby pined for on Daisy’s dock—the greenest of green lights from a popular and powerful mayor—she popped off about this and that for reasons only those who know her intimately could possibly understand. I’m still dumbfounded that she worked in such a calculated fashion to piss people off and to draw attention to herself at the expense of her own success—and possibly that of her biggest supporter, now outgoing mayor Fenty.
Sad, too, is that the Chancellor’s selfless passion, which she used as cover for her excesses, wasn’t strong enough to help her curb them. As with President Obama, I admit to “buying the poster” with Rhee. I wanted her to be successful because I wanted my nation’s capital to have the best schools in the nation, and I wanted her to be the best school leader in the nation. I liked the fact that she was young, tough, whip smart, and no-nonsense. That’s why all her nonsense so befuddled me.
Ultimately, I believe Rhee cared about kids but had contempt for the people caring for them. Contempt is the most corrosive of emotions when it comes to the forming of healthy human relationships. As such, it’s not a viable strategy for successful leadership. No matter how talented or effective a leader is, not even results and charisma can make up for contempt.
Folks just don’t warm to being held in contempt even if you do educate their kids and make the trains run on time. Arrogance, by contrast, is actually tolerable, especially if one is right on a regular basis. Had Ms. Rhee dialed herself back a tad to mere arrogance, many things might have played out differently, especially for D.C.’s kids.
All in all, I think her sandlot stats have been pretty good. But she shouldn’t have spent so much time kicking at the mound and swearing at the umpire like a hot-headed rookie hurler who he thinks he knows where the outside corner is better than the big guy standing behind the plate. Why not just bring the heat like Strasburg? And try to avoid the Tommy John surgery, of course.
If we are fortunate, Ms. Rhee will learn from her experience and return to run another big city school district some day. If she leaves the realm of school district leadership, the loss will be ours, not hers. She has a bright future ahead. Many of the challenges she encountered in settling into her role as Chancellor wouldn’t exist at all in the private sector. If that’s where Rhee goes next, I’m sure she’ll be very successful. But I think our education system will have suffered a loss.