If you are, as my colleague, Steve Peha, still disappointed in former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee for not sticking it out after her patron was ousted as Chocolate City’s mayor, you will certainly have high hopes for her newly-launched Students First initiative. And if you are a general fan of work, as this editor is, you can’t help but support the initiative’s goals of rallying parents and community members to embrace and demand reform America’s teaching corps — and ensure that every student is given high-quality instruction.
At the same time, Students First is in some ways, less than satisfying. Why? Because Rhee’s initiative still doesn’t hit the sweet spot when it comes to school reform: Merging policy savvy with hard-core, take-it-to-the-streets activism and entrepreneurial (and operational) drive.
Right now, there is a divide of sorts within the school reform movement between the Beltway reformers (who spend plenty of time on policymaking and working the halls of Congress and statehouses), the grassroots activists (who do the tough work of rallying support door by door) and charter school operators and reformers working in state agencies and school districts (who put ideas into practice). While the three sides share the same goals and concern for reforming education so that every child can write their own story, they don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to getting things done. More often than not, the three parties often fail to understand the shortcomings of their own approaches and the importance of the work their colleagues are doing.
The biggest offenders are the Beltway-based reformers. As seen in the reaction earlier this year from big-named players such as Rick Hess to the Los Angeles Times’ special report on the low quality teachers in L.A. Unified schools, the Beltway reformers seem to prefer bloodless talk about reform than taking the steps to make reform a reality (including publicly naming laggard teachers and the institutional leaders who protect them). Beltway reformers are also more comfortable with theory and policy than making things work and rough public battles with teachers unions and other defenders of traditional public education. They fail to understand the key lesson of every reformer, activist and revolutionary of any sort: You don’t accomplish anything without afflicting the comfortable within the status quo.
This problem extends beyond the sparring matches. Beltway reformers fail to understand that it takes more than policy to make reforms work. Save for a few outfits such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (which actually authorizes charter schools), most are unwilling to do the unglamorous, difficult task of working with families and communities — from listening to concerns, providing time and other resources, and dealing with the messiness of families (many of which are struggling with a litany of other issues) — in order to make reforms a reality. Although organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform are now playing more-prominent roles in political campaigns, they haven’t mastered the brutal art of election politics; so they end up conceding ground to teachers unions and other status quo defenders.
At the same time, grassroots activists and school reformers on the ground fail to understand the importance of policymaking, which often includes winning over politicians with carefully-worded jargon, working those legislative committee rooms, and crafting legislation that achieves the politically possible. As important as their shock troop work is to winning reform on the ground, they must still understand that the ground game is one part of the war over reforming American public education.
As for charter school operators and in-district reformers? Their problem lies in the fact that they are often too focused on operations and mission than on thinking about how their work can help make the case for reform. More-importantly, as Rhee herself admitted in October in a Wall Street Journal she co-wrote with her former boss, Adrian Fenty, reform-minded operators don’t always realize the importance explaining to community members how their efforts will improve the quality of education for their kids. Nor do they dare to actually question their opponents within traditional public education on their essential anti-intellectualism and misunderstanding of such matters as economics and management theory. The operators can certainly teach the ed school profs and the teachers union bosses a few things about what the real world actually looks like.
Yet all three groups are important to making school reform a reality. Working together, they temper each other’s excesses, force one another to consider flaws in thinking, and inform each other’s work. The school reform movement needs thinking activists, men and women who both know how to work the corridors of power and get their hands dirty in the trenches, skilled at policymaking, bomb-throwing and implementing all at once. This need is why Dropout Nation discusses both policy and practice; they all must come together in a continuum of actions in order to foster a revolution (and not an evolution) in public education. Reformers can’t just stay in the Beltway , work the streets or operate schools; they must get involved in all three areas.
Rhee has shown success in the policy wonk and school operations arenas; she has also displayed her flaws in rallying grassroots support. Students First offers her an opportunity to get her hands dirty in all three areas, learn from her mistakes, and put some of the lessons she has learned into practice. And she can show all three groups within the school reform movement how to not be limited by their respective perspectives.
While others are focused on the silly argument over whether Joel Klein’s successor as New York City’s schools chancellor, Cathleen Black, is qualified to run a school district (Dropout Nation’s answer is yes), our Contributing Editor, Steve Peha, is still thinking about what he considers the failed promise of the other superstar among reform-mineded current and former school chieftains, former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. He offers some more thoughts today as part of the series Still Waiting in D.C.:
So far, we don’t know if Mayor-Elect Vincent Gray’s interim chancellor, Kaya Henderson, is a dainty scamperer. If she turns out that way, we’ll know what Mr. Gray’s campaign against Michelle Rhee was about: Bring in the bruiser to knock things around, knock her around, and then send her packing, while Dr. Caspar Milquetoast takes the credit for ushering in a new era of consensus-driven leadership—and the coinage of yet another oxymoron. This group leadership thing never makes any sense to me: even a young lad in grammar school, I knew that “leader” was a singular noun. But rules we teach in one part of education are often contradicted in other parts of education.
No matter what happens, while Rhee’s work will survive for years to come, the end of her short tenure troubles me for several reasons. I discussed some of them last month. Here are more:
I had hoped she would become a model of a new kind of big city school leader. At such a young age when she was hired, she could have served her city for decades, ushering in dramatic change while also preserving stability.
I had hoped that Rhee would validate Teach For America’s real promise — that of putting new people into the field of education for long and highly influential careers — would be validated at the highest level. (Perhaps it has been and I just don’t feel it.)
I had hoped that D.C’.s schools would one day become the best urban schools in our nation. In some respects, this is selfishness on my part. I’m just embarrassed that my nation’s capital city treats its citizens so poorly at times.
I had hoped that a replicable model of school governance and successful reform might emerge. Sadly, Rhee leaves nothing replicable behind, least of all her approach to school leadership.
Clearly, I didn’t get what I wanted out of this deal. Sadly, I have no one to insult, threaten, or belittle as a result. For that, there’s plenty of culpability go around. I will admit that Rhee is to me still something of an enigma, a Sphinx-like riddle I can’t puzzle out. How someone so committed to the welfare of children would leave those kids behind after an election result that did not go in her favor.
I’m sad this didn’t work out. I’m frustrated, too, as I’m sure are many D.C. residents, that such a promising opportunity ended so poorly for everyone.
When it comes to educational governance — especially at the school district level — two strains remain supreme. The first is the growing realization that dominant structures (notably, school boards), are obsolete and ineffective in delivering high-quality education; their continued existence is more a credit to the lack of better ideas and the self-preservation of those who derive their power from them. The second: That other structures (including mayoral control) may be more-effective models of governance than school boards, but not good enough. Ultimately, we are nowhere near a way of providing education that actually allows for parents to be the lead decision-makers in education they should be and ultimately, leads to the full reform of American public education.
Dropout Nation will spend the next two days focusing on the structure of local educational governance. Today, Steve Peha offers his own perspective on mayoral control, looking at the aftermath of the Adrian Fenty-Michelle Rhee era. Tomorrow, I will explain why we need to bring into education governance (and into the rest of education), the kind of disruption that led to the iPod, the iPad and the BlackBerry. The Hollywood Model could be one. But there may also be others.
Like her or not, Michelle Rhee has earned her paragraph-length entry in the dictionary of American education history. The concept of“Mayoral control”, on the other hand, may soon be relegated to mere Wikipedia status as a soon-to-be-oxymoron.
When outgoing Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed her, he had lost control five minutes later. It strains credulity to believe that a politician as deft as he wouldn’t have called in his budding eduprotégé for a few lessons in basic PR from time to time. Or that, year after year, he would have graded her as “Satisfactory” on her report card when he saw the phrase “Plays well with others.” If her destiny was linked with his, his was almost surely linked with hers as well. Is it possible that two smart people were dumb enough to blow this situation for each other while not even knowing it?
Not only did the concept of mayoral control fail during Mr. Fenty’s term, it has been completely lost. Yes, mayor presumptive Vincent Gray will select a permanent replacement. But that isn’t what mayoral control is about. Mayoral control is supposed to be a better substitute for traditional school board governance and oversight on behalf of the public. But obviously, as in Fenty’s case, even some of the most popular mayors don’t govern or oversee the schools they allegedly control.
When we get all frothy about the miracle of mayoral control, we need to keep in mind that most change initiatives in school districts take more time than most mayors will ever enjoy in office (members of the Daley family being the exception). No one-term mayor is going to see his or her schools make much progress. And when a successor has to come in and deal with a mouthy, resentful, leftover superintendent, what’s the best we can expect? They will go sooner rather than later.
D.C. hasn’t had mayoral control, because Mayor Fenty hasn’t controlled the schools; Chancellor Rhee did. That’s called “Chancelloral” control. And the fact that we can’t even pronounce this concept is probably just one more reason why it’s not a good idea.
If traditional board governance is clumsy and factional, and newfangled mayoral control is ill-defined and even more politicized than school itself, do we need another alternative? I think we do. There’s something to be said for getting the structure right, to finding something that is both effective in the short run and enduring in the long run. I would say that this rules out anything tied to elections. And it is precisely this mechanism that links board governance and mayoral control in failure.
I don’t think our country would tolerate anything resembling the way corporate boards operate but I wonder if this wouldn’t be worth a shot. Corporate boards might make us nervous but they have two big advantages over school board governance and mayoral control. To contrast with school board governance, corporate boards are typically peopled with experts who are paid, pampered, and pledged to the long term well-being of shareholders—at least in the best cases. Unlike mayors, they’re not quite so dependent on a single person. Corporate boards often oust their chairs and lead their organizations on to victory. There’s a lot less “out with the old, in with the new”, so even if a CEO or chairman offends one person too many, continuity need not suffer so severely.
Then again, perhaps the problem is not with the mayor but with the control? If what you’re trying to do is lead people to a place they’ve never been before, and where you hope they’ll stay, “control” is probably not the best metaphor for the kind of leadership you hope to inspire. Yet we do love control in schools. Teachers love to control their kids. Administrators are always looking for more control over teachers. As educators, we are classic control freaks. Outside we speak of partnerships, cooperation, synergy, and all manner and sort of euphemisms. Inside, we know this.
As with much of her moves, Michelle Rhee’s long-expected departure from her job as D.C. Public Schools chancellor captured plenty of attention, with focus on her new Facebook page and whether her successor will continue her reform efforts. But does Rhee’s resignation serve the kids of D.C., who are in need of a high-quality education?
But Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha has his own thoughts. In this latest installment of Still Waiting in D.C., Peha argues that Rhee should have stayed put and did the work needed to ensure every child in . While one can argue with this position — I would argue that the political realities (no matter what incoming Mayor Vincent Gray says) dictated that Rhee would be forced out within the year and reform would not continue — Peha’s argument merits consideration.
“My goal is to continue to be able to serve the children of this nation,” said outgoing D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michele Rhee — as she resigned.
Why not continue to serve the children in D.C?
Had anyone fired her? Had any of her reforms been undone? Actually, presumed mayoral successor Vincent Gray said Rhee’s reforms would continue.
So why does Ms. Rhee think serving the children of our nation’s capitol is incompatible with serving the children of our nation?
Very rarely does a district leader walk out during the middle of a school year. Even those who are “fired” or simply “not renewed” typically serve out their term, or at least the current school year. A dedicated school leader can get a lot done, even in a lame duck year. But only if he or she is truly dedicated.
By resigning, Ms. Rhee is once again showing us the true complexity of heroic leadership in education reform. As D.C.’s school “Superman”, she has used her formidable powers to do great things. But with other places around the country in need of help, and with what Ms. Rhee perceives as a negative referendum on her work, she seems all too eager to head off to greener pastures.
There are only four problems with this.
First, there are no greener pastures. This is a mistake we all make in our lives we confuse ourselves with our situation. Would some places be more hospitable to Rhee than others? Perhaps. Will she run into the same criticisms and roadblocks? Probably. So why not do what we tell our own kids to do and learn to solve problems where we are instead of simply running away from them.
Second, it isn’t clear that Gray’s victory over Fenty was a referendum on Rhee. After all, Gray has met with her since the primary and has said her reforms would not be over-turned. Maybe the people of D.C. just wanted a new mayor. Perhaps, had the election been a vote on Rhee versus no Rhee, the tally would have been different. No one told her to leave, at least that we know of. And yet, off she goes, right in the middle of a school year.
Third, Rhee got a lot done in three years. Even serving just one more could make a big difference to D.C.’s kids given her talent and drive. And with this the first year of her historic pay-for-performance contract negotiated this summer with the American Federation of Teachers’ D.C. local, I would have thought she’d be at least a little curious to see how things turned out.
Fourth, it is extremely rare for even the most despised school leader to leave at the beginning of a new school year. Even in situations where a district knows a leader will not return in the fall, the most likely scenario is that he or she will serve out the year for the sake of preserving continuity if nothing else. Losing Rhee in October hurts D.C. more than losing her in June.
Now, it could be argued that her continued presence in D.C. would be a distraction. But only if she chose to make it one. Since Gray has said publicly that what she started will be continued, who better to continue it?
Pre-emptive resignation has become commonplace in public and professional life. People do it all the time, like Sarah Palin, for example, and the reasons are probably as varied as those resigning. But one consistent theme rings true in most cases: people who resign before their work is done, or before they are asked to leave, are resigning to serve their own needs and not the needs of those they swore to serve when they accepted the position.
It is said that one cannot serve two masters. And that is probably as true in this case as it is in most. Rather than choosing to serve the children of D.C., Rhee chose to serve herself by resigning early so she can have a little time off to perhaps write a book, get ready for her Oprah appearance, or tour the country with screenings of “Waiting for Superman”.
This sheds yet more light, I think, on the nature of heroic education reform. I think we can expect, as time goes by and more heroes step up to the plate, that if they don’t like what the opposing pitcher is throwing, or how the ump is calling the balls and strikes, that they’ll step out of the batters box and move on to play somewhere else. This is their right, of course, but I think it also sets a bad precedent, one that the notion of “Waiting for Superman” only exacerbates.
It takes many years to turn a school system around. Rhee was just beginning her fourth. She had made some progress. But her best years were probably yet to come. D.C., and to a certain extent our entire nation, as “waiting” for her to be an unqualified success. But reaching this result would likely have taken at least another 3-5 years, maybe more. But today’s heroic reformers have many opportunities, so why stick around any longer than they want to?
Because it’s the right thing to do.
In a nation that is “Waiting for Superman”, the clock gets reset every time Superman jets off for another destination. The very inertia that Ms. Rhee was successful in breaking through easily sets in once again while DC waits for the next Superman to come along—even if Mr. Gray adopts a stay the course strategy.
If you’ve been around education reform for much of the last 15 years or so, you’re probably familiar with the “hurry up and wait” feeling of it all. One of the reasons we probably aren’t getting much traction is that it’s hard to get traction when things change so rapidly. Big city school leaders rarely stay long enough to finish the jobs they start. Each new “hero” hired is hailed as the latest savior. Naturally, the expectant public waits for miracles, signs of the divine, Lazarus-like district programs rising from the dead.
And then Superman or Jesus Christ or whoever it is ships off with some odd statement about not wanting to be a dead salmon or having done what I came here to do or wanting to spend more time with family or, ironically, wanting to stop serving the children of one part of our nation so she can move on to serve the children in another part of our nation.
But what about the children Ms. Rhee was already serving? Why should they have to wait for the next hero to show up and save the day?
Start the music. Get the chairs. I think a new ed reform game has just begun.
Heroic leadership is looking less and less heroic all the time. The recent big city school leader manifesto was little more than a publicity stunt propped up by tepid ideas and bland promises. If this is the kind of reform they plan to make manifest, I think we’re all going to be a little disappointed.
Heroes, for all their luster, seem to tarnish pretty easily in this business. And then they like to take their ball and go home. Knowing that big change in big city districts requires a big commitment of time, they role in guns-a-blazin’ but then seem to roll out, for one reason or another, before the work is done and time is up.
Starts are so much easier than finishes. Clean slates require no erasures. And who can resist that new school district smell?
What I’m beginning to wonder is whether we need heroes at all. Maybe what we need are mentors instead. Seth Godin, marketing-maven-turned-new-economy-thought-leader, and best-selling author of Linchpin, had an interesting take on the difference between the mentors and heroes in his blog today:
“Mentors provide bespoke guidance. They take a personal interest in you. It’s customized, rare, and expensive. Heroes live their lives in public, broadcasting their model to anyone who cares to look.”
The word “mentor” comes from The Odyssey. When Odysseus left for The Trojan War, he realized that he would need someone to guide his young son Telemachus as he grew up. The person he chose was his friend Mentor.
In effect, Mentor served as a surrogate father to Telemachus, and because Odysseus took a little longer to get home than anyone thought, Mentor ended up caring for Telemachus form boyhood through to manhood.
This kind of long term commitment is probably what most school districts require. It takes thirteen years for kindergartners to become graduates, and so we might contend that a decade or more of mentoring is required to break free of old inertia, to break old boundaries that establish a new order, and to break through old expectations to new and higher levels of sustainable success.
Heroes, as Godin notes, are not cut out for this kind of service. Their very nature as public figures and their way of “broadcasting their model to anyone who cares to look”, means that being looked at is often on their minds. Mentor wasn’t managing a career when he took on his responsibility for an old friend, he wasn’t establishing a new model of fathering for war-going parents, or setting up a chain of franchised childcare centers. He was raising a human being.
Michele Rhee is part of that new and very rare breed of ed reform heroes broadcasting her model for all to see. Heroes are good. After all, Achilles and Odysseus both get much more ink in Homer than Mentor. But maybe it’s mentors that we really need in the big chair, people willing to stick it out until the job is done.
Mentors do the quiet work, the patient work, the hard work, the work that people don’t make documentaries about. But it’s also the important work of nurturing the next generation. And that’s what schools need most, isn’t it? People willing to stick it out until the work is done. People willing to serve the needs of children rather than serving themselves.
Certainly, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (who may resign today) was working up her Wicked Witch of the West routine. But the folks who voted out Mr. Fenty, and who will surely rejoice when Ms. Rhee is replaced, may not exactly be maxing out the maturity scale either. Their most consistent complaint about Rhee is that she offended them. And they were certainly right about that. But is it better to be right about being offended, or is it better to be right about educating kids?
Sometimes brilliant doctors are offensive, too; surgeons, in particular, are noted for their hubris. But when they’re saving your kid’s life, you kinda let that slide, don’t you? As mature adults, with the lives of our babies in the hands of others, it seems to matter much more how capable those hands are, and much less what comes out of the mouth they may be paired with. Sure, I’d love it if Marcus Welby could fix my 7-year-old’s Neuroblastoma. But I’ll gladly put up with Gregory House if he can get my little girl to her next birthday.
As school district hands go, Rhee’s are pretty good, and her mouth isn’t nearly as bad as Dr. House’s. She’s no Marcus Welby, but she runs a tight ship. By most accounts, D.C. schools run better now than ever. So while Rhee has acted immaturely with regard to her speech and conduct, her detractors made that most classic of childish errors: thinking it was all about them when it was really all about the kids.
What’s more important? The welfare of children or the feelings of adults? I guess we know now that both Ms. Rhee and the folks in D.C. at least agree on one thing – we all care about kids, but we care about ourselves just a little more. This is hardly an indictment; just human nature, really. But acknowledging it changes what we can learn from this experiment and how we can all do better next time.
As someone who has often been guilty of the very same offense, I’m not going to judge it too harshly. After all, if adults can’t get their own needs met, they can’t really meet their kids’ needs either. I think Maslow had a good take on this.
The situation in D.C. is what it is. It is a bunch of adults putting their needs for self-promotion, or respect, or whatever amount of love they never got from their parents ahead of the needs of the children in their schools. Rhee had the smarts and the skills to court her opposition. At the same time, there was no need for her detractors to constantly exhibit the “ignoble strife of the madding crowd.”
There was a lot to be gained here through mere civility. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is simply that smart people with good intentions can accomplish more for others when they intentionally act smart, instead of intentionally acting spiteful or taking offense when no positive result can come of either posture.
Over the years, I have heard few complaints about the Chancellor’s intelligence, determination, dedication, results, or any other “bottom line” concern – nobody said she wasn’t getting some very good things done. In particular, she seems to have reorganized the district operationally to the point where it now functions as a viable enterprise.
If you’ve ever worked in a dysfunctional big-city school district, you know how hard it is to improve operations and how vital as well. But Rhee will get no credit for this or even a friendly parting gift as she leaves her Ken Jennings-like run from a game show that could find no better metaphor than in Jeopardy.
Some have argued that Rhee was not effective at all, that her gains were largely the result of her predecessor’s efforts. I suppose that’s a possibility. Lucky for Rhee’s long-time detractors, it’s an impossible one to disprove. Personally, I find it hard to believe that none of what Rhee did had an impact (no pun intended), and I think, as time goes by, we’ll see that many of her initiatives stand the test of time.
I doubt, for example, that her successor will toss out every change she inspired. In fact, it may be the next Chancellor who does the serious coat-tail riding here, a person certain to be much more conciliatory simply because he or she will have had the advantage of Ms. Rhee’s “smash mouth” school governance and the resulting mile-wide gap at the line of scrimmage through which just about anyone could scamper daintily to the end zone.
“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.