Tag: Michelle Rhee

The Real Conversation About DCPS That Should Be Had

No one should be surprised by last night’s resignation of Antwan Wilson as Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. In light of Friday’s revelations that he successfully subverted the district’s school…

No one should be surprised by last night’s resignation of Antwan Wilson as Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. In light of Friday’s revelations that he successfully subverted the district’s school zoning rules to place his daughter into a highly-coveted spot in Woodrow Wilson High School, it was only time before Mayor Muriel Bowser (mindful of her re-election campaign) told him to pack up his office.

The real question is where does DCPS go from here? This can only be answered by looking honestly at both the district’s successes over the past two decades in improving student achievement that many reformers prefer to think about as well as admitting the shortcomings that conservative reform camps and many traditionalists prefer to harp on.

Even before Wilson’s resignation, his tenure was becoming more of a clean-up of the mess left behind by predecessor Kaya Henderson than an effort to continue overhauling DCPS’s teaching and curricula. He had to deal with wide public scrutiny (as well as a federal investigation) into last month’s revelation that the district allowed one-third of its graduating Class of 2017 to leave its high schools without taking the credits, courses, or attendance needed to get legitimate sheepskins.

Wilson also had to deal with criticism from conservative school reformers (especially hardcore school choice activists) who, despite the fact that the problems happened under Henderson, blamed him for the academic fraud. This, in turn, opened the door for that group of erstwhile reformers to tag team with traditionalists in arguing that the gains in student achievement made by DCPS under his predecessors were illusory at best.

Now that Wilson is gone, it is now up to Bowser and whoever she ultimately appoints to succeed him as chancellor to clean up the mess. More importantly, continuing the overhaul of DCPS is critical, especially for the Black and Brown children who make up the vast majority of the students attending its schools. This must start with honest consideration, based on objective facts and evidence, of how far the district has come in the goal of helping all children succeed and how many steps it must continue to take. Something that nearly everyone, including reformers defending DCPS’ efforts and those criticizing them, have so far failed to do in an honest way.

This must start with this basic fact: The overhaul of DCPS has helped more children in the District — including poor and Black children who make up the majority of enrollment — gain high-quality education.

Between 2002 and 2015, the percentage of D.C. fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined by 25 percentage points (from 69 percent to 44 percent) while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels tripled (from 10 percent to 27 percent). This included a 17 percentage point decline in the number of Black fourth-grade children on free- and reduced-priced lunch reading Below Basic (from 76 percent to 59 percent) and a doubling in the percentage reading at and above grade level (from five percent to 12 percent in that same period). Not only did DCPS keep pace with the nation in improving student achievement, it outpaced it. The 17 percentage point decline in poor Black fourth-graders struggling with literacy, for example, is greater than the 13 percentage point decline nationwide during that period, while the 12-point gain in math scores by eighth-graders in poverty outpaced the nine-point national average.

While traditionalists and hardcore school choicers among conservative reformers want to attribute these improvements to wealthier White and Black families moving into the District (you know, gentrification), that assertion isn’t borne out either by demographic or NAEP data. While the percentage of White children served by DCPS tripled between 2001-2002 and 2014-2015 (from 4.6 percent to 12.7 percent), Black children, especially those from low-income households, still make up the vast majority of students in the district’s care.

DCPS has achieved some real improvements. But it still has a long way to go before it can be considered successful in educating all children. Photo courtesy of Kate McGee of WAMU.

Meanwhile DCPS has also increased the opportunities for families to gain college-preparatory learning. The percentage of DCPS high schoolers taking Advanced Placement courses doubled between 2009 and 2013, from 10.1 percent to 23.5 percent, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights database. This included a tripling in the percentage of Black high schoolers taking A.P. coursework (from 6.4 percent to 19.2 percent) in that same period. The percentage of DCPS high schoolers taking calculus, trigonometry, statistics and other forms of advanced math quadrupled (from 10.1 percent to 41.8 percent), including a six-fold increase in the number of Black high schoolers taking such courses (from 7.9 percent to 43 percent).

Put simply, DCPS, under the leadership of four different mayors (Anthony Williams, Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray, and Muriel Bowser), six different chief executives (including Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle Rhee), and two different forms of governance (elected school board and mayoral control), has made demonstrable and substantial improvement in how it serves the children in its care.

Yet it is also clear that DCPS has miles to go and promises to keep. The graduation fraud merely exemplifies this basic fact.

As Dropout Nation detailed last month in its report on college-preparatory education, both DCPS and the city’s charter schools are struggling mightily to provide children with the knowledge they need for success in adulthood. Even worse, the achievement and expectations gaps that have long plagued the district remain a problem, especially during the high school years. There is no reason why there is a three-fold disparity between the number of Black and White high schoolers taking AP courses, especially when Black children are the majority of students at elementary and secondary levels.

DCPS is no longer the Superfund Site of American public education. But there are still far too many children who cannot gain higher education and employment after they graduate from school, something that is also clear from the Alvarez & Marsal report on the district’s graduation fraud. The fact that DCPS’ improvements, strong as they have been, have trailed those of the city’s charter schools, is also a reality that must be acknowledged.

The gamesmanship of DCPS’ leaders, a problem that has been around long before Rhee’s tenure as chancellor, remains as troubling and unacceptable as ever. Even before the revelations of the graduation fraud, the district still struggled with allegations of test-cheating during the Rhee era that neither she nor Henderson addressed. Over the past year, the allegations of fraud became more-prominent, especially with revelations after Henderson’s departure that principals and others were hiding their overuse of out-of-school suspensions in order to reduce their numbers. Meanwhile Henderson got into trouble for her moves allowing some city officials to send their children to schools outside of their school boundaries (when ordinary citizens would find themselves in trouble for doing the very same thing). [Oddly enough, Wilson ran afoul of that very policy after having approved a restriction that keeps him from doling out such favors to the well-connected.]

The biggest problem for DCPS — and for the District of Columbia at large — is the reality that there are limited opportunities for high-quality education, especially for poor Black and Latino families in the city. The school zones and other Zip Code Education policies that help middle class White and Black families in Northwest D.C., gain access to the top-performing schools in the district also keep out the poor families who live in the Southeast parts of the city. Just as importantly, even when the schools serving the poorest kids do well academically, they are still lacking the variety in extracurricular experiences — including those found in private schools and the toniest suburban districts — that all parents regardless of income want for their kids. While DCPS announced plans last year to add lacrosse, archery and other such programs to its schools, that effort may have stalled with Wilson’s exit.

This lack of opportunity isn’t just a problem in DCPS alone. When you consider that the many of the city’s high-performing charter schools are located in Northwest, far from the southeast communities where the vast majority of poor Black and Latino children and their families live, the reality remains that those youths bear a burden in the form of time required to go to and from school that isn’t borne by middle class Black and White counterparts. As Dropout Nation noted last month, the lack of college-preparatory education provided by the city’s charters to the children in their care is absolutely unacceptable, especially given the need for such knowledge in achieving lifelong economic and social success. Put this way, contrary to what some conservative reformers want to argue, school choice in the Nation’s Capital hasn’t worked nearly as well as they proclaim.

Addressing these challenges requires DCPS and the city’s political leaders to build on the successes of the past two decades as well as heeding the lessons from its shortcomings. This starts not by engaging in sophistry that denigrates those achievements nor in propagandizing that ignores the problems. It starts by being honest about where the district has been, where it is and where it needs to be.

Whether this will actually happen is ultimately up to D.C.’s leaders and the families whose children they are supposed to serve.

Featured photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

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Michelle Rhee’s School Reform Opportunity

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…

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.

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Steve Peha: Back to Michelle Rhee

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…

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.

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Steve Peha: Michelle Rhee and the Question of Mentors Versus Heroes

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…

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.

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Steve Peha: D.C. School Reform Opponents Are No Angels

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…

A little too proud, a little too smug -- and not all that concerned about the education of kids? (Photo courtesy of Politico)

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.

This is the third installment of a series on the Michelle Rhee legacy and the impact on school reform. You can access the series by clicking on Michelle Rhee or here.

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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…

“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.

3 Comments on Steve Peha: Why Rhee Should Read First Corinthians

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