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Why I'm a Critic of DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee


From the email I've received over the course of my ongoing critique of Chancellor Rhee's approach to school reform, and Mayor Fenty's apparent support, many edbizbuzz readers have the impression that I'm opposed to her objectives and belong to the same camp as those who oppose her because her objectives are contrary to their self-interest.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing in my writing at RAND, for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, or articles written as an entirely independent observer would indicate that I'm a great fan of central office activities or teachers unions approach to working conditions that impinge on what was once considered management prerogative. (See more by clicking on "About the Author" at the upper right hand corner of this page. Listen to several years of weekly editorials from SIIW • The Podcast here. )

Indeed there is only one area of policy I can think of where I disagree with Rhee and Fenty fundamentally.

I agree that the central office needs to be restructured to support schools. I agree that staff who are not doing their jobs need to be removed from the system. I agree that resources need to be reallocated to instruction, and so schools need to be consolidated. I agree that private for- and nonprofit management of public schools is a plausible option. I agree with much of what Chancellor Rhee is known for advocating on teacher pay and assignment.

It is because I agree with these objectives so strongly that I disagree with the Administration on strategy so vehemently. In short, I can't think of an approach less likely to achieve these ends. And its failure is bound to set back reform efforts across the nation for years to come.

Fenty and Rhee have created the impression that kids are their first priority - and that's both admirable and right. But they've also created the impression that they have no respect for any other stakeholder group.

Some argue that Adrian Fenty carefully avoided direct discussions of any intent to take control of DC schools during his mayoral campaign, and found the extent of his subsequent proposal surprising. The Mayor definitely sprung the Chancellor on the City Council. Since then I have read the Washington Post quote her sweeping accusations against her entire central office at public meetings. On The News Hour I've watched the Chancellor act with great personal disrespect towards her staff and principals. It's hard for me to find the right word for berating employees en masse in staff meetings and firing a principal over the phone - in front of the camera for subsequent national distribution! It's somewhere between unmannerly and boorish but, above all else, exercising the power of office to engage in public humiliation is not leadership. On local radio station WAMU, I have repeatedly heard Rhee say she doesn't really have much empathy for central office staff and teachers that may be let go. Even if she truly feels that way, it's hardly helpful to sound so cold - even incompetent criminals have families. I have watched her and the Mayor spring on employees, parents and the City Council: 1) an unprecedented plan to turn school district staff into at-will employees, answerable only to the Chancellor's personal view of performance; 2) school management by at least one organization tied to Chancellor; 3) a vast school closure and consolidation plan; and 4) a series unpleasant budget problems.

In the name of streamlining the school system, the Mayor has put into place a management structure with several independent sources of operational authority: a facilities czar, a "state" education agency, a chancellor, a deputy mayor, a vestigal but not entirely toothless school board, and now an ombudsman. It will take two years to reshuffle all the staff and activities, and the moves don't appear to be on schedule. In the meanwhile, the Administration is not entirely clear on its k-12 budget shortfalls, reallocations, savings or cuts. The Deputy Mayor cribbed the city's plan from Charlotte-Mecklenberg, literally lifting whole sections. I'm less worried about the plagiarism than the fact that a plan created by "cut and paste" has no real constituency. A plan without buy-in at the top is no plan at all, and is prone to fall apart at the worst possible moment.

All this is understandable; it's a new administration and no one in a new office really knows what they are doing for a year anyway. But it would be a lot easier to accept if the Administration's approach to everyone else in the system were different, and it would not be a political weapon of much force when the true adversaries of the Administration's goals finally pick it up.

What I see in Chancellor Rhee's approach, abetted, permitted or endorsed by Mayor Fenty, is 1) insensitivity and arrogance towards others, combined with 2) a reliance on fear to control staff, and 3) a considerable willingness not to apply analogous performance criteria and public criticism to themselves. Managers cannot be harder and hasher with others than they are on themselves and expect support from their staff, respect from their board, or trust from the public. And managers without all three cannot succeed in a turn-around.

Of special importance is the relationship between management and staff. Managers who single out poor performers and make certain they are removed by due process send a very different message from those who suggest that every staff member's honesty and competence is a matter of debate and bypass protections against arbitrary dismissal. By choosing the latter, the Mayor and Chancellor have turned the troops against them and made it that much harder to improve the schools.

A young, energetic, can-do tone does generate a lot of enthusiasm and support, but it has to be followed up with empathy for the legitimate interests of everyone with a stake in the system, and actions that suggest a certain wisdom beyond the years of youthful leaders.

The Mayor's honeymoon with the City Council has ended because of his approach to school reform. (See here, printed after this posting.) I don't think the Chancellor ever had one. If they don't signal a change in their approach to school reform that is more inclusive and empathetic, and more willing to admit that they aren't quite as on top of things as the image they now try to project - every single interest group that matters in the city will be inclined to let them fail. And in the end, this can't be about the administration's image - or who is in charge (no one is in charge, there can't be improvement unless all the stakeholders' cooperate), it's about the need to put in place the objectives I, we support.


As someone who graduated from the DC public schools at a time when they were even worse than they are today (that would be the 1970’s), taught in the DC public schools recently, met with Chancellor Rhee personally, and saw The News Hour report to which you refer, I am disappointed by your commentary.

I’m not quite sure how you can assess Chancellor Rhee’s demeanor with her staff or anyone else for that matter from a segment on a news program or isolated radio sound bites. That said, I wonder if you have experienced or witnessed the depth of dysfunction that exists in Washington, DC’s public school system. Have you stood in a DC classroom with flaking paint, a lead-leaching water fountain outside the door, and no books for teaching? Can you blame the man who sat alone in a warehouse full of the city’s schoolbooks (that were supposed to reach students but never did) for feeling like there was nothing to do, but give up? What recourse does anyone have in a system that appears to be passive about almost everything? Missing your teacher paycheck? Too bad, those entering the information into the MANUAL SYSTEM are moving as fast as they can or at least that's what they said.

The nation’s capitol with its soaring illiteracy rate, which at 30+% was recently declared the highest in the country, also has some of the worst schools. It is a problem of historic proportions that hinges on the city’s dependence on the federal government for almost everything. (Don’t forget we have no congressional voting representation.)

So, if Michelle Rhee appears to “act with great personal disrespect towards her staff and principals,” I would suggest you dig deeper than The News Hour, however responsible they appear to be, to get to the heart of the problems.

This is no time for pussy footing around and Chancellor Rhee made it clear from Day One on the steps of the Wilson building just minutes after the Mayor announced her appointment. That someone finally called the city’s school problems “unacceptable” was a breath of fresh air. That Chancellor Rhee expressed public outrage should reassure, not concern you.

It’s time someone got angry over a public school system that has been crying out for help for decades. There were classrooms without teachers, books, and adequate furniture when I was a student 30 years ago and the conditions have improved only barely. Fortunately, money is starting to reach the places it needs to. DC public school students have waited far too long for someone to get angry and do something about it. If adults have to feel uncomfortable for the sake these children who deserve an education, then so be it.

While in general I agree with your assertions about treatment of employees, the cases to which you refer demand further context. Chancellor Rhee expressed frustration over the system that did not allow the DCPS schools leader to hire and fire at will. This sort of tenure for inefficient bureaucrats is maddening -- especially if you have ever tried to get something done via the DCPS Central Office. As a former teacher and current volunteer, I can attest to the gross incompetency and inefficiency that plague the Central Office. The employees deserved every word of her tongue-lashing. Rhee's determination to restructure the human resources is timely, and she has often qualified her critiques by emphasizing that some workers are successful. The changes that now allow her to manage her own staff are welcome; if many of the people wasting taxpayer money must be let go, this should be seen as a social benefit.

(edbizbuzz readers note: Last nite I posted the following here and emailed the same to "Lawrence":

"I'd be happy to keep this posted if you simply reveal yourself and your position publicly. How about 24 hours to think it over? Have the courage of your convictions, man!"

Lawrence turns out to have given a false email address. I've deleted the personal attack and left the gist of his critique. If you plan on calling me names, please have the decency to reveal your true identity to edbizbuzz readers.)

Dean Millot's managment theory is that management should be polite to incometent employees so that the competent employees won't get upset.

Sounds like Rhee is using the NYC Klein playbook.

Dear Dean,

As I read your commentary on Rhee and Fenty, I was struck by the similarity between the DC situation and what has happened this past five years in NYC.

Our chancellor makes a great show of firing principals, removing teachers, closing schools. His entire strategy consists of threats and rewards based on test scores. There is no longer an educational component to "the national model" of Children First: it's accountability first, last, always. Students, teachers, principals, and schools will get bonuses if scores go up, and will be penalized if they don't. That's school reform.

Diane Ravitch

I agree with the post about Ms. Rhee alienating people and being callous while pushing an agenda that is supposedly about the children. I co-founded a nonprofit (http://www.ultrateenchoice.org/) that provides classroom sexual health education, peer counseling, and clubs for youth that wish to remain sexually abstinent. Our program was recently booted from DC Public Schools by the Chancellor's office. Parents and teachers spoke strongly in favor of the ULTRA Teen Choice program, which has served DC youth for five years. Yet, the move to exclude ULTRA Teen Choice was not based on the well being of the children, but on the political agenda of Ms. Rhee and her staff. Please view our press release at http://www.ultrateenchoice.org/default.asp?contentID=646 and further information at http://www.ultrateenchoice.org/default.asp?contentID=629.

Residents begin "RECALL" of Mayor Fenty over school system changes
To hear the podcast go to: http://blackpodcasts.org/2008/01/31/residents-begin-recall-of-mayor-fenty-over-school-system-changes.aspx

January 31, 2008 - (BlackPressMagazine.com) - "White Chocolate City." That's what some residents of the quickly gentrifying Washington, DC are afraid is happening to a city that was once over 70% African American.

"Across the nation this is happening," said Carolyn Steptoe, who is head of Coalition to Save Our Neighborhood Schools.

Angered residents are participating in a "Stay Out" civil disobedience protest today as concern about DC's public school system heats up as some accuse Mayor Adrian Fenty of attempting to economic and ethnic cleanse the District of Columbia. At issue is the mayor's desire to close 23 neighborhood schools by the end of the year and to turn the property into condos. Residents accuse the mayor of driving out the city's poor - and mostly African American - in favor of White, well-to-do citizens.

Some residents are so angered that they are calling for Fenty to be recalled as mayor.

"[Mayor Fenty] has failed our children and the No Child Left Behind Act all so that he can make our schools into condos," said a caller to the popular "Insight" radio program hosted by Herman Washington in Washington, DC.

City officials disagree.

"I think that everyone in the city is very clear about the fact that we have to close the schools. We're operating about twice as many schools - based on square footage as we should be given the number of students that we have," said Chancellor Michelle Rhee during an exclusive interview with Black Press Magazine.

In response to the ignorant and incendiary comment from BlackPressRadio above:

Nice try at flinging wild and untrue allegations in the hopes that they'll stick. Unfortunately for you, some of us follow DCPS news RELIGIOUSLY and are totally willing to call you on your BS. It is a fact of law that the Mayor's office does not have the power to sell school buildings, so the assertion that schools are to be closed to sell for condos is laughably ignorant even on its face. It is further a matter of law that charter schools (that's right - public schools) have the first bid on any available buildings.

As a parent who has pre-school children I have to say I couldn't be more thrilled with Chancellor Rhee - FINALLY the school system has an advocate for CHILDREN instead of a jobs program for teachers who couldn't find employment in more competitive districts. Hallelujah! Rhee is the best thing to happen to DCPS since the passing of the charter school legislation. After decades of criminal incompetence middle class parents are getting quality school options that just might persuade us to stay in the city to raise our families - instead of leaving for Fairfax or Montgomery counties. THANK YOU CHANCELLOR RHEE & MAYOR FENTY!!

Well, I agree with most of the sentiments that you expressed. Nice work. Specifically your comment on "exercising the power of office to engage in public humiliation is not leadership.". Case in point? She fired the principal of the high performing Oyster-Adams Bilingual Elementary School. I thought that the point was to reward those running high performing schools?

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Robert Yowell: Well, I agree with most of the sentiments that you read more
  • bcc: In response to the ignorant and incendiary comment from BlackPressRadio read more
  • BlackPressRadio: Residents begin "RECALL" of Mayor Fenty over school system changes read more
  • Richard Urban: I agree with the post about Ms. Rhee alienating people read more
  • breezybluff: Sounds like Rhee is using the NYC Klein playbook. Dear read more




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