Micromanaging the Micromanager
DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is on the cover of this week's Time magazine. The accompanying article features a striking statistic: according to her office, she answered 95,000 e-mails last year. Allow skoolboy to speculate about this figure.
Let's suppose that Chancellor Rhee responds to e-mail seven days a week, and that she worked 50 weeks last year. (skoolboy would hope that she worked less, because that's a grueling pace.) 95,000/350 is about 270 e-mails per day to which she responded. Suppose further that it takes one minute to read and respond to an e-mail. (Some will take more; few, I imagine, could take less.) That's a minimum of 270 minutes per day, or 4 1/2 hours per day of e-mail. Every day. Seven days a week, 50 weeks a year.
Amanda Ripley, the author of the article, describes spending a day with the Chancellor in August as she made unscheduled visits to DC public schools:
She emerged from her chauffeured black SUV with two BlackBerrys and a cell phone and began walking--fast--toward the front door of the first school... When we got inside, she walked into the first classroom she could find and stood to the side, frowning like a specter. When a teacher stopped lecturing to greet her, she motioned for the teacher to continue. Rhee smiled only when students smiled at her first. Within two minutes, she had seen enough, and she stalked out to the next classroom.
Later, Ripley writes, "She reads her BlackBerry when people talk to her. I have seen her walk out of small meetings held for her benefit without a word of explanation. She says things most superintendents would not. 'The thing that kills me about education is that it's so touchy-feely,' she tells me one afternoon in her office."
skoolboy finds all of this fascinating, and appalling. He's seen parallels in New York, with everyone from the Chancellor on down furiously thumbing their BlackBerries in meetings with real, live people who are trying to talk to them about issues they care about. Has technology fundamentally transformed the nature of leadership in educational organizations, reducing the need for sustained engagement with interested stakeholders around social, cultural and political issues? Can a big-city school superintendent really manage by e-mail?
There's always a danger of overinterpreting a journalistic account, and more data on the linkage between technology and theories of school leadership would provide valuable context. In the meantime, when it comes to Chancellor Rhee and her peers' preference for BlackBerries to people, maybe the medium is the message.