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Michelle Rhee: What Kind of a Leader?

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In John Merrow's recent report on The News Hour with Jim Lerher, at least one article in the Washington Post, and at least once on local public radio station WAMU, the new Chancellor of public schools has declared war on the central office. Unlike Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose October 3 speech at the National Press Club demonstrated an understanding of the difference between bureaucracy and bureaucrat, between the institution and individuals, Rhee has consistently made a whole class of people the problem.

"What goes around, comes around," and this strategy will eventually backfire.

Bureaucracies are simply conveyor belts on automatic pilot. They don't make policy; they carry it out. Bureaucrats resist change - all people do, but once they become familiar with new routines, DC's central office staff will be no less resistant to changing that approach.

By the same token, leaders don't carry out policy, they pronounce it. The Chancellor needs her central office staff to achieve the goal for DCPS that Mayor Fenty telegraphed in his speech - not an "excellent school system" so much as "a system of excellent schools." The decentralization of education policy that implies does not eliminate the need for a central office or vastly reduce its size; it simply changes its role from manager to servant. In short, the Chancellor needs a central office staff no less than she needs teachers and principals - two groups she's been careful to embrace, although they bear as much responsibility for the system's failures as the scapegoats in the bureaucracy.

It's one thing to fire thieves, incompetents or obstructionists - that's doing your job. It's quite another to combine those actions with blanket indictments of staff and insensitive remarks about entire groups of people - that's intimidation. The Chancellor's challenge is not to bully the central office into submission, but to train its people for a new era. That task depends on positive motivation.

All bureaucracies outlive the boss; this central office will outlive Chancellor Rhee. The way things are going now, the boss can only expect a central office that offers grudging acquiescence to her demands, waits for her to make the one or two job-threatening mistakes every change agent manages, and remains sustained by the collective vision of withholding whatever support that might save her from disaster and then helping her pack up to leave. That can't possibly bode well for school reform.

Michelle Rhee's appointment as Chancellor is important to the school improvement industry because she is really the first of an entirely new generation of school reformers. She represents the activism, ideology and managerial approach of a slew of education nonprofits formed by the new philanthropy - from Teach for America, to Citizen Schools, to New Leaders for New Schools. The group has reinvigorated the cause of reform, and attracted a vast number of new, mostly young followers. What's important about this group for the school improvement industry is its willingness to contract out.

By picking the 37 year old Rhee, Mayor Fenty made it entirely possible that school systems around the country will bypass a generation of "old school" superintendents waiting to move up to a larger district in favor of these new leaders. If she can make DC work, or at least be seen as making DC work, that possibility will become far more likely - and the school improvement industry will benefit. If she fails, or is perceived to be failing, the idea of drawing from the new philanthropy's children won't even get as far as the fad of hiring retired generals. A great opportunity will be lost.

I would like Rhee to succeed, but I think she's increased her chances of failure needlessly. There's not a lot of time to correct the impression that the Fenty Administration has declared war on bureaucrats and made them the demon of school reform. Only the Mayor can help the Chancellor out of the hole she's digging for herself. If he doesn't, she may well pull him into the pit.

5 Comments

Excellent post.

I left academia and state politics for the classroom, and then I participated in a bipartisan reform process. So I've been colloborating with our central office for ten years.

I had previously thought that the main job of the administrators was maintaining the stus quo and taking care of PR. the truth was they PROTECTED the status quo and took care of PR. And they were proud of their efforts.

Now, I almost agree. Its easier to damage education than to improve it.

Before we slashed the central office it was full of people who put the brakes on reform. Now, I wish we still had some brakes.

This lesson does not only apply to Rhee, TFA, and other reformers. To a greater or lesser degreee it applies to the whole NCLB. It seeks to leverage 7% or so of funding to change education nationwide. What could be a better example of hubris?

Leveraging 1% or less, as Gates, Broad, and others. In less than ten years they've figured out what ails education - a subject that is as varied as human nature.

Sounds like social engineering to me. But it may not sound that way to many reformers. They may be too young to know about Soviet 5 year plans.

Education is a "people business." That applies to classroom success, whole school reform, whole system reform, and politics. Rhee has a lot of people skills. But she needed to take more time to get a larger variety. Apparently three years in the classroom with cute little kids wasn't enough to prompt her to develop a sense of tragedy. Had she stuck it out longer and worked with high challenge teens, she might have developed more modesty.

I doubt she's personally arrogant, and MAYBE the same applies to Gates, Broad, Ed Trusters etc. But their worldview is fundamentally arrogant.

John

Sounds like Dean Millot has a degree in phiosophy. I'll bet he reads only fiction, poetry and romance novels. His nonsense way of thinking probably impressed his highschool's old maid englih teacher years ago, but in the real world that crap won't cut it.

Rhee has a well thought out non-political plan to overhaul the DC school system. Her plan is focused on specific end results and based on business-type benchmarks deveolped by the Harvard Business School.

I suggest that Dean keep his day job: teaching and drinking coffee and eating twinkies in the trachers' lounge.

For Mr. Charles:

(For readers: this is my first experience - as a pro blogger anyway - with ad hominem attack. Please note that as long as a post doesn't violate the rules of my host (edweek.org), every comment will be published. However, in most cases there will be no reply. edbizbuzz is a forum for all points of view, not my license to provide snappy comebacks.)

Thanks for the comment. Please let your colleagues know you made it.

As for my background, it was readily available to you on the edbizbuzz page. Go to the upper right hand corner and click on "About the Author" under my picture. I'm afraid you'll find you are more than somewhat mistaken.

As for your comments:

• Ad hominem attacks don't cut a whole lot of mustard with anyone, and venting is probably not best done on a web page.

•"Benchmarks" and "end results" may qualify as a plan but not as a strategy (strategy relates ends and means).

•Readers of edbizbuzz and listeners of School Improvement Industry Week - The Podcast (www.siiwonline.libsyn.com) know that I'm as a big a fan of certain Harvard B-School profs as the next guy, and of quite a few of their grads - but labels don't make products good or bad. Quality depends on content, substance and results.

• Plans and strategies developed by outsiders - however smart, handed to management for transmission to the rank and file rarely work. People in the system need to buy into the program.

I'm sure there are substantive arguments you could make to point out where, how and why you disagree with my position. Why not try that approach?


The central office is dysfunctional now and has been for many years. Rhee is the first person to notice that fact.

Why has it taken over twenty years for someone to realize and announce that the DC school system's central office is dysfunctional?

The central office workers are paid employees, they are not stockholders. They are suppose to follow rules (not make rules).Those central office employees, who are unable to follow the new internal rules that Rhee and her leadership team will soon put into place, will have to leave. Hundreds of young recent college grads from all over the USA (with degrees in education, accounting, and management) will be brought to DC to fill the positions of those school-employees who are fired.

That will be a blessed time. I can't wait for them to come. The power of new young talented employees who are eager to learn, grow, listen, ask questions and succeed is a strong and beautiful force that will benefit the many thousands of our DC students.

Thank you Ms Rhee, thank you. And Good Bless America, we are finally going to get some help for our kids and their future. It won't happen over night, but it will happen.

I have an opinion as to why the central office has been dysfunctional for decades. It's because the central office has had to self-govern itself due to the fact that the school system had no competent leadership, until now.

Renegade self-goverened departments withinh any large entity resist change because change is not in their best interest.

I ask you, how will the current employees of the central office benefit from Rhee's new plan to better the school system? The answer is -- they will not benefit. Because, they are either not willing or unable to change.

I pray that at least a few of them do change and start doing their job right, so that they will not be replaced.

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