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

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The history of business turnarounds shows there are limits to what can be gained from downsizing and reorganizing the system - improvements in productivity are necessary. A workforce motivated by fear of loosing their jobs won’t get you there. What’s called for is loyalty to the leadership, agreement with the vision it articulates, and confidence in the plans it describes. The only way leaders can gain such loyalty is to hold themselves to the standards they apply to everyone else.

This Chancellor is going to have a hard time gaining loyalty from DC’s teachers, and she can’t replace them all.

The Chancellor’s Style is Counterproductive

I’ve discussed the Chancellor’s combative, even demeaning approach to staff (see here). In an earlier post, I characterized it as a declaration of war on her own employees. That's a big reason she’ll have a hard time gaining the kind of loyalty required to move the mountain of academic challenges in DC. An apology about her approach to people, and a little humility about her own shortfalls would go a long away.

A disregard for transparency discussed in Part II of this series is another reason the Chancellor will find it hard to gain loyalty. When employees can be fired without cause there is no way for staff to know if there are rules beyond blind obedience. When decision criteria are withheld, there’s no way of knowing why the Chancellor decided to close a school or fire a principal. If budgets are withheld from public comment, there is no way of knowing how, or feeling that, you are part of the plan. If you are a teacher presented with an outtide contractor the Chancellor says "we'd like you to work with," the "what do you think?" that follows seems disingenuous. If you are told one thing about teacher assignment in one meeting and learn something different in the newspapers, it’s hard to have faith in Chancellor's openness.

The lack of transparency gives rise to another reason why the Chancellor will have a hard time gaining loyalty. Because we don’t have much access to her decision processes its easy to wonder about what motivates Michelle Rhee. She would hardly be the first person to conceal personal ambition behind “its all about the kids.” At times it seems that the Chancellor’s political struggle with the system is about power and means - the assertion of central control, or even her control, more than outcomes and ends - school improvement and higher levels of student performance. This is the question raised by her decisions to close schools with high performance on the grounds of efficiency and to re-restructure others that appear to be doing the very restructuring she wants.

The question of intent is also raised by the Chancellors decisions about outside contractors. It is at the very least inconsistent for a Chancellor touting business principles to dictate the outside providers to be employed to restructure schools when the best practice is clearly a request for qualifications followed by a request for proposals from a market with many providers (see here.) And it naïve and/or arrogant to propose that the City Council approve one independent evaluator of her programs who is an advocate of mayoral takeovers, Professor Kenneth Wong of Brown University and another, Dr. Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, who is an advocate of Rhee’s (see here and here).

What this suggests is that the Chancellor considers herself above the law, above the community, and above accountability. This may be what’s required to establish a dictatorship, but its no way to turn around a school district, or create an institution that will survive her departure.

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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Vision comes first. Loyalty to the leadership second. The first focuses on the organization. The second on personalities. The "secret" to success in organizational form is building robust systems, structures, and policies that transcend any one leader. Which... is why the DCPS effort is likely to crash and burn quite spectacularly.

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