Is D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee engaged in “heroic school reform”? Your editor would argue no; if anything, the hero aspect arises more from how we in the education press covers Rhee (and the general lionization and demonization of the Teach For America alum) as it is from any of Rhee’s P.R. people. No matter what you think, the long-term impact of Rhee’s efforts is an open question. Dropout Nation‘s Contributing Editor, Steve Peha, offers his own thoughts on what he views as a tension between heroic reform and building collective capacity (something which I don’t necessarily thinks has to be; you need both great leaders to get the ball rolling and build long-term capacity). But Peha definitely makes some good points:

Two recent articles in the Washingon Post, one by Jay Matthews, the other by Sam Chaltain, have looked at the performance of controversial DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Chancellor Rhee has many ardent supporters and probably just as many detractors as well. But no one would dispute her impact on DC schools or even on American education as a whole. When the history books are written, she will have at least a paragraph or two, and she may deserve even more.

Ed Reform 101 is now entering its second semester, and Ms. Rhee is teaching important lessons with every move she makes. So pay attention, boys and girls, because there’s going to be one heck of a test at the end.

What most of us learn from Ms. Rhee, of course, will have nothing to do with her results. Most of us, both pro and con, see what we want to see through the myopic lens of our own confirmation bias.

If we like hard-nosed, rough-knuckled, heroic reform, Rhee can do no wrong. If instead we favor a more consensus-driven approach where leaders work their magic through cooperation rather than confrontation, we are unlikely to feel that Ms. Rhee’s approach should inform the way we run our schools.

The “lessons” of Ms. Rhee’s tenure appear to have been “learned” already, and unlearning them probably won’t be possible for most of us regardless of how things turn out. But we shouldn’t dismiss class just yet.

Win or lose, America loves its heroes, and Ms. Rhee is an iconic representative of what is clearly a new class of heroic education reformers. On the block, however, is not an individual person’s career but a philosophy of educational change.

What is becoming known as the “heroic” model of education reform is getting its first big-city test in D.C. Results so far are mixed. But even heroes need a little time to move mountains. So how will this experiment play out and what’s really at stake?

There are three possibilities for Ms. Rhee and D.C.:

  1. Mayor Fenty loses his re-election bid and Ms. Rhee is asked to leave. This is a win for Ms. Rhee who will claim, not without justification, that she didn’t have time to finish what she started. It’s probably a “no decision” for D.C. schools, although one could argue that simply overcoming inertia, which Ms. Rhee has done, is a big win historically.
  1. Ms. Rhee stays on for two or three more years but school performance continues to be mixed. Rhee will still win because at least a few good things will have happened. For D.C. schools, it’s another “no decision”, a hollow victory over inertia as entropy begins to reassert itself, and a classic “What do we do now?” moment. This middle-of-the-road outcome is probably the worst thing that could happen because it would provide no clear indicators for DC or the rest of our country about what works and what doesn’t.
  1. Ms. Rhee stays on and schools improve noticeably. Another win for Ms. Rhee, of course, and an important victory for D.C. schools. But also—and here’s where I think the real lesson comes in—a validation of the heroic model of school reform.

It is fitting, I think, that our nation look to its capital for leadership in education. One might hope such leadership would come from our President, our Secretary of Education, or from Congress. But if it comes from D.C. Public Schools, I think that’s even better.

But what if heroic leadership doesn’t work? And how will we really know until after Ms. Rhee leaves?

Ms. Rhee is very young for a superintendent. She could play out her entire career in D.C. But heroes, if I remember my Batman episodes, tend to return to their regular lives after the crisis is under control; they don’t hang around in their cape and tights unless there’s still heroic work to be done. That’s not a bash on heroes. It’s just the way it is. There’s always another Commissioner Gordon with another crisis to deal with, and most heroes, when they hear an earnest cry for help from am earnest but challenged public official, feel the need to slide down the Bat Pole, head for the Bat Cave, rev up the Bat Mobile, snag their sidekick, and crusade their way in caped fashion to the next encounter with Evil.

So the future of D.C. is not about Rhee; it’s about post-Rhee. And in some ways, I think this period in D.C. schools history, rather than the current period, will be the most instructive for the district and our nation.

One problem that I see is the same problem Gotham City experiences: Batman and Robin save the day, but poor old Commissioner Gordon has to keep calling them over and over again. It seems the Gotham City police never develop what some people might call “collective capacity”. With Batman and Robin doing the heavy lifting, the police have no need, or even any opportunity, to improve.

Heroic leadership is exciting. It’s all BANG! POW! WHAM! And the bad guys are taken care of. This is the stuff of great daytime TV drama. But it is not without risk. We tend to think the risk is in the completion of the task itself, but this risk pails in comparison to the much larger risk of heroic leadership that drains a system of the capacity to lead itself.

For example, Ms. Rhee has recruited many people. Will these people stay after she is gone? Ms. Rhee negotiated, along with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, a huge and historic performance-based pay increase for teachers. What will happen after the current contract runs out? Ms. Rhee has been an avid supporter of charter schools. Where will her successor stand on this issue and what will happen to these new schools if DC is no long so charter-friendly? The IMPACT teacher evaluation program is just getting started. Will it continue? What kind of hole will be left in the district when Ms. Rhee leaves? And will her successor be able to fill it?

Our country is full of amazing people who care about schools. There’s no shortage of heroes here. But is the heroic model of reform viable in the long run? Or is an approach based on “distributed leadership” and the creation of “collective capacity” more appropriate? The former seems more grand and compelling; the latter more sustainable and conservative.

Regardless of how Ms. Rhee fairs personally, or how DC fairs academically, our nation fairs well if we pay close attention to the post-Rhee period in D.C. schools and view her experiment as the first test of heroic leadership for large scale education reform. If anyone can make heroic leadership work it is Ms. Rhee. But if she can’t make it work, then we have to make a sharp about face in our approach to educational change.

“Collective capacity” isn’t just jargon. It’s a legitimate measure of organizational ability, one that takes into account the fact that in large entities raising the competence of all participants is the only viable strategy for lasting change. This theory argues that most systems, when they are lead in the heroic fashion, snap back to their old form shortly after the hero leaves. By contrast, “collective capacity” approaches have the potential to create long lasting if not permanent change.

In America, we love our heroes, of course. And even though most of the truly great things we have accomplished, like winning World Wars, building national highway  systems, and creating the Internet have all been accomplished through “collective capacity” and “distributed leadership”, this approach is neither compelling, controversial, nor “media friendly”. Instead of a mad dash to the finish line, it’s more of a tortoise-like slog, a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach that few people seem to have the patience for these days. But if winning the race is what matters most, hiring talented tortoises instead of heroes might make more sense. D.C. will tell the tale, but the final chapter won’t be written until long after its main character has exited.