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Re: Rhee

Jonathan Tilove of the Newhouse News Service wrote a pretty good summary of the controversy around DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. As one interviewed for the story, based on what I've posted on the subject here in ebizbizz, I've got two comments.

Does the Chancellor's record matter?

Perhaps the most important substantive point about Tilove's story is the fact that he could find no record supporting Chancellor Rhee's claim of radically improving student performance in her two-year experience as a Teach for America recuit in Harlem Park, a Baltimore school managed by proto-Edison Education Alternatives, Inc. Rhee agrees that no record can be found. Tilove is right to focus on the claim because it is the basis of the Chancellor's arguments for school success.

"Through a two-year time span I took a group of kids who were performing at the lowest end that they possibly could and took them to the highest levels. And people saw the test scores and said, 'What did you do, how did you do it?'... It wasn't magic; it wasn't anything special. There was no silver bullet. We worked harder and longer and I had higher expectations of the kids. I engaged their parents and the community."

At best, this argument amounts to "if I can do it it, it can be done," at worst "If I can do it, anyone can do it." Either way, it's a bit simplistic and so a bit worrisome as a basis for management strategy. Rhee might have been special, or just lucky. As Tilove points out "A study by the University of Maryland Baltimore County found that in the first year, test scores dropped at what Education Alternatives called its Tesseract schools, and in the next two years, rebounded." Rhee was there the last two years.

Rhee is here, now, so delving into the story of the Baltimore school isn't about seeking her dismissal. (It might lead to some questions about the Mayor's due diligence from the City Council, and more scrutiny of his next appointments.)

But more research into the story does make sense. After all, the Mayor wants emergency powers for Rhee to hire and fire central office staff, which is another way of saying to dictate policy, because she knows what she's doing and needs to do it fast. The implication is that Michelle Rhee is the silver bullet.

If the basis of that claim is that Rhee did it in Baltimore and so knows how it can be replicated at scale, it would be nice to know that she actually did do it, and so deserves to be given a kind of vast discretion far more experienced superintendents in cities across the country might dream of but would never expect to get.

Is Rhee Experienced?

As I've written elsewhere, education reporting is a subset of political reporting. As such, the dynamic is conflict. The reporter lays out a set of facts generating some controversy, describes the forces pit for and against, gets quotes from both sides, and then the disinterested third party observers.

Tilove points out that "not everyone thinks (the Chancellor's) headlong assault is wise." Among the third parties commenting were yours truly, former DC Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and Brown University prof. Marion Orr.

"It's just stupid and mean and unnecessary," said Marc Dean Millot, the editor of School Improvement Industry Weekly, based in Alexandria, Va., who believes Rhee is just deepening the resistance. "These guys are going to stand by, watch her screw up and be glad to help her pack."

Former D.C. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, now at Columbia's Teachers College in New York, said she learned the hard way that "just because the system is broken doesn't mean the people in the system are all broken." She warns, "This sort of blatant disrespect comes off with racial overtones," especially from a chancellor who is not black and a mayor who is biracial.

Rhee "will encounter resistance," said Brown University political scientist Marion Orr, the author of books on race and school reform. "People are not going to forget that you put my cousin or my daughter out the door."

I'm afraid that as written, its very easy to read this as mere sniping, or peripheral. Its not. The basic point here, and certainly mine, is that superintendents manage through their central office. Implementation of whatever plan Rhee has will depend on the very institution she's painted with a broad brush of incompetence and faced with arbitrary dismissal. I fail to see how she's incentivizing the bureaucracy to help her succeed. I think she's piling on reasons to help her fail.

That approach doesn't strike me as smart, kind or required to improve central office operations and then the schools, but the opposite. It's the kind of mistake that comes from: first, an inclination towards micromanagement that can work in small enterprises where staff can be personal extensions of the leader; second, an unshaken belief that you did it and it wasn't anything special; and third, the idea that because you did it, it's just a matter of getting everyone else to work hard. To sum up, a lack of experience in the management of vast bureaucracies or large organizations.


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