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Rhee-Visiting the District of Columbia Public Schools (I)

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The District of Columbia Public Schools are not the focus of edbizbuzz, but I do monitor events and plan to report periodically. Chancellor Michelle Rhee is friendlier to markets and business techniques than the typical superintendent - and the first superintendent to emerge from the community of nonprofit “education entrepreneurs.” She is also a leading example of urban school reform based on mayoral takeover.

Aside from the reference in May 27’s “School Improvement RFP of the Week,” my last post on Chancellor Rhee was December 22, 2007. The thrust of my postings to that point was that I share many of the ends sought by the Chancellor and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, but not the way they are trying to get there. It happens that many who would be perfectly happy to go back to the school system managed by Superintendent Clifford Janey have cited my critique with approval. It is also true that some market-oriented reformers believe I am in league with these opponents of change, or at least their useful idiot. (See the range of opinions here.)

Edbizbuzz readers know that my interests lie not in defending a failed status quo, but in seeing that the market-based philosophy of public school reform is not discredited by ill-conceived business models, flawed operational plans, or divisive styles of leadership. I favor the application of market principles to public education. I do not support the “better, faster, cheaper” model of district centralization adopted by Fenty and Rhee, the strategy they have employed to put it place, or the Chancellor’s approach to managing the process.

“Better, Faster Cheaper” Central Control is Not the Only Business Strategy

The pursuit of high performance through centralization reflects a profound misunderstanding of quality assurance in professional services – which depends on staff buy-in and loyalty and cannot be accomplished through indoctrination and fear. Efforts to control quality by monitoring adherence to a preferred approach in an area as complicated as the teaching and learning process is not only a fool’s errand, but endlessly expensive (see here). Retraining an entire army of teachers to implement a new program to the level of competence required to achieve the promised results is time-consuming and beyond the capacity of any but the smallest of school districts. Laying all the time of children, the hopes of parents, and the money of taxpayers on the success of one superintendent’s prescription for educational success is no different than the “one size fits all” approach that got us into the urban education crisis.

In selecting this course, the Mayor and Chancellor highlight a fundamental split in what market-based reformers have taken away from the history of American business. One “school of thought” sees urban school reform as another form of corporate turnaround controlled from headquarters following a takeover. Assisted by highly capable management consulting firms, they see ways to cut overhead and support costs, and streamline operations. Teachers unions are no different a partner or obstacle than their private sector counterparts. Superintendents Mark Roosevelt, Joel Klein, and Chancellor Rhee fall into this category, along with financial intermediaries like New Schools making grants to form Charter Management Organization, philanthropies like the Gates and Broad Foundations that fund both, and for-profit Education Management Organization founders like Chris Whittle.

Techniques developed to analyze business operations have a direct application to school districts, but districts are not private corporations, and not simply because the product is educated children. There are technical and socio-political reasons why business turnaround models cannot be taken “off the shelf” and applied to public education.

On the technical side, the toolkits and instruction books developed for corporate turnarounds grew out of the personal experience, knowledge and expertise of clients and consultants in thousands of firms’ “core business” across dozens of industrial sectors. “Best practices” can be applied by relatively junior albeit highly intelligent MBA’s because of the lessons learned/mistakes made by their management consulting firms’ senior and emeritus partners. Neither the consultants nor their client reformers called in to run school districts have special knowledge of curriculum and instruction, pedagogy, evaluation, or any of the other disciplines that influence the activities that go into what business academics would teaching and learning’s “value chain.” On the political and social side, corporate managers, boards and consultants operate in an atmosphere of ownership, seclusion, secrecy and privacy that government agencies can never approach.

I know colleagues in the management consulting firms working on public education who are not content to import strategies developed for businesses management, and turning their formidable analytical skill sets and creative intelligence to the unique challenge of school systems. But in the meantime they and clients are having a hard time forcing the round peg into the square hole.

Although there are vast political differences across those who advocate for vouchers, independent charters, contract schools or giving principals in traditional districts greater control of school operations of school districts, they constitute a second market-based school of thought favoring decentralization. Their business model is not the turn-around specialist’s, but the portfolio manager’s. The idea is to place decision making over the allocation of resources that go into teaching and learning at the level closest to the consumer, and to winnow or expand the portfolio based on financial and academic performance. There is good cause for centralizing common support functions like insurance, facilities, and cash flow financing – to put more money, staff time and leadership energy into education.

This approach reduces risk, because it does not rely on a single solution. It recognizes that there is no “one best way.” Different customers and different employees have different needs. It creates a competitive basis for continuous improvement and encourages product development (see here). Above all, it offloads responsibility to decide about what constitutes quality onto parents and government standards about school performance - and eliminates considerable costs. This school would include academics like Paul Hill, the charter school movement’s earliest advocates, the founders of independent charter schools, the founders of New American Schools and its Design Teams, and most of the faith-based community involved in urban voucher experiments. It lacks the visibility of the the first school because its advocates are from small organizations and it lacks the resources to hire expensive consultants, and is no longer of great interest to philanthropy.

To be fair, I can’t prove that better, faster, cheaper centralization cannot work. The Mayor and Chancellor are trying to prove that it can. I have tried to explain the flaws of centralization and why it is more expensive, but in the end, this is a point on which reasonable people can disagree. I have explained the difference in approach and my preferences so readers can understand the background of my critique and decide for themselves.

Marc Dean Millot is the editor of School Improvement Industry Week and K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. His firm provides independent information and advisory services to business, government and research organizations in public education.

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1 Comment


I agree with your analysis and conclusions (in your entry #2 and entry #3 on this), especially regarding Rhee's unnecessarily alienating stakeholders and failing to honor transparency, both of which of course aren't just strategically dumb but also divisive and harmful to real school/community reform efforts.

One point in this entry that I wish you'd rethink a little: you refer to (and explain you aren't one of the) "opponents of change" and people who want to defend a failed status quo. I've felt the same pressure in the past, testifying before the City Council for example, to proclaim that though I have serious problems with what Rhee is doing and how she's doing it, I don't "oppose change" and do "support reform." Instead of "public school advocate" I'm now calling myself and others "school reform advocates." Crazy.

From my vantage point the whole "reform" vs. "status quo" dichotomy is an unfortunate framing. It's a mischaracterization of the debate that Rhee and her staunchest defenders (especially her former Teach for America colleagues) frequently use, and it's a trap that sometimes even more neutral observers fall into (described eg in this 5/14/08 letter to the Washington City Paper).

Most of the folks who've been protesting Rhee's actions and way of governing have been working hard to reform and improve schools and the school system for years or decades -- to refer to opponents of change just isn't correct. It's easy to label people who challenge official action/policy as anti-reform, but it's not helpful.

The three main public controversies Rhee has engaged in (closing schools, making central admin at-will, and proposing to repeal requirements for disclosure of budget information and budget hearings) have been about HOW not WHETHER change should happen. Everyone wants to address/improve the issues of excess space; lousy employees; low test scores; and next year's budget. The message from Fenty/Rhee has been: "Here's what we're doing. We'll let you talk about it if the law requires us to. But we don't respect anyone (except a few Councilmembers) enough to actually listen to what they're saying, let alone alter our approach based on what we're hearing."

Thanks for focusing on DCPS, and for daring to paint a different picture than the one usually painted by observers.

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  • Marc Borbely: Interesting. I agree with your analysis and conclusions (in your read more




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