Tag: Still Waiting in D.C.

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: 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.

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Steve Peha: Still Waiting In D.C.

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…

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?

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