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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.


I've just been reading about the Amistad Academy and KIPP. Sounds like some people need to practice SLANT.

On the cover of Time, she is dressed in black and holding a broom. All she needs is a pointy hat. Is she the Wicked Witch of Washington?

Hey Anonymous,

You sure do post a lot. I prefer my rendition in the Halloween Edu-Parade, in which she's the Dark Knight. "There's good, there's evil ... and then there's Michelle Rhee."

Keep in mind that likely 2,000 of those emails were one-line termination messages to veteran teachers or administrators who had been downsized. Those emails shouldn't have taken too much of her time.

Rhee and her Time magazine piece paint a sad portrait of the future of American public education.

I'm sorry but this is a terrible post. Is the suggestion here that because Rhee places an emphasis on information and communication that she is a bad manager?

Part of managing a large, complex organization is staying in contact with the different players. As we move away from telephone calls and towards emailing as the means of this communication it is important for effective managers to... email!

One way to do this would be to sit behind a computer all day and manage from there. For a chancler that would mean no more face time with teachers, administrators, press, etc... If Rhee took this approach i'm sure you'd find fault with it aswell.

I was serving on the Executive Committee of a bipartisan reform effort, and I was becoming more concerned about policies being announced by the superintendent which ran counter to his long history (in other fields) of good judgement, when I noticed that he was answering my e mails at 3:00AM. Faced with the task of learning about schools, operating them, and leading reform, he was sleeping less and less. When he told me that he’d answered 13,000 e mails, I knew we had a problem. In my experience, when intelligent administrators make incomprehensible decisions, they tend to be “running on fumes.” But answering 95,000? Who would hire someone with such spectacularly bad judgement?

Michelle Rhee may or may not have thought through the political chess game for defeating her enemies. But she certainly hasn’t thought through Act Two, when presumably her scorched earth tactics would provide sustainable improvements for children. In regard to her firing of educators, I say, “Congratulations.” I’m assuming that most of them deserved firing, and given the harm done by bad teachers, principals, and administrators, its clear that her first move produced a greater good for the greater number.

But what would bean acceptable percentage of innocent victims, effective educators who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time - 5, 10, 15, 20% or more? If we want sustainable benefits for kids, we need to think this through. Pretend you are in a class of 100 superstars recruited for the $120,000. You may be in a group of 10 to 20% or more who get a fair principal and you never have to worry about arbitrary termination - as long as your principal is not replaced by an arbitrary one. Chances are, an equal percentage of your incoming class of teachers will run afoul of the other extreme and have their career destroyed by a capricious administrator or a primitive evaluation models based on statistics. (And the chances are that teachers in the toughest schools will be at most risk, if for no other reason the increased difficulty in raising test scores and the inability of the system to find effective administrators for the toughest schools. Remember, the same dynamics apply to principals.) The majority of the incoming class will land somewhere in between, wrestling with greater or lower levels of stress created by imperfect administrators and flawed statistical models.

So, would you accept a 5,10, or 15% chance PER YEAR that your career could be wiped out regardless of your talents and efforts? In theory, the big bucks could continue forever, and a new wave of super-talented young people would be recycled through every few years.

Let’s just assume Rhee succeeded in Washington D.C. and ask what would happen when other districts copied her model. Could we afford $120,000 per year for teachers all over? If so, the D.C. competitive advantage would shrink and talent would go to schools where teachers are also treated like human beings.

Perhaps Rhee would be willing to destroy the Washington Teachers Union, and then stop. Perhaps some philanthropists would fund the destructive of national teachers union and stop. But I wouldn’t bet on either. These efforts only make sense as an early battle in the larger war against working people. This is not a conspiracy theory; its just a statement of how humans get drawn into conflicts. Its just another chapter in the transformation of the United States of American into a “Market State,” to borrow the phrase of an cheerleader for Market States.

But what the Market gives it also takes, and now that Rhee is getting balanced coverage curiosity will shift to her second act. Her behavior is not unusual for a celebrity like Madonna, but she shouldn’t compare herself to another reputed jerk, Lawrence Summers. Compare Summers vast knowledge of economics to Rhee’s thin knowledge of the “touchy feely” world of education. Had she spent less time on her Blackberry, read more deeply, listened, and learned about education, she would not have set herself up for such a fall.

You go to war with the prima donnas you have and not the ones you might want. “Dugout Doug” MacArthur may be the closet example to Rhee. He had great public relations and got his parades. But the American people had second thoughts about a man who so disrespected our constitutional democracy. Moreover, you can debate whether his boneheaded goofs caused more or less harm than his victories, but still he had far greater knowledge of the way the military works than Rhee has of the actual realities of schools and learning.

Education is a people business. Would you want people like Rhee to nurture your own children? Would parents want the type of civil war that Rhee is trying to provoke to take place in their children’s schools? How much toxicity and scorched earth do we want dumped on children’s schools and Rhee sets out to destroy the village in order to save it?

The watchdog that didn’t bark in the Time article is interesting. Why didn’t Rhee push the issue of her pre-election goof when she was apparently on the verge of calling a press conference which would have been very harmful to Obama. Pretending that words are like test score numbers and have no real meaning, she was apparently going to ask for a state of emergency, and ask Congress to suspend constitutional, property, democratic, and contract rights in the District of Columbia. How many allies did she loose when people realized that she would even contemplate such a thing?

Rhee would probably recoil at my characterization of her threat to ask for a national emergency, but I suspect that just means she hasn’t thought through her own proposal. Had she taken inventory of what she was proposing, she would have realized that she’s going up against some of the most time-tested principles of American civil and constitutional law. But perhaps she’s right. When George Washington set his wimpy precedent and stepped down afer two terms, it showed a lack of High Expectations. The entrepreneurial zeal of Aaron Burr would have attracted far more talent.

The blackberry behavior is inexcusable and any excuses for such behavior are poor excuses. If you are with people in a meeting, whether a group or just a few or even one-on-one, your attention should be on those you are face to face with. Her behavior, as characterized in this article, is atrocious. I once had a teacher say to me to watch how other teachers behave and you can see in what way their students will behave. Would we want our students to behave as Ms. Rhee behaves? I think not. Personally, I would take the blackberry from her and let her know that she could pick it up from me when class is over.
As far as officialdom goes, if you are in a meeting keep your BB in your pants where it belongs and focus - FOCUS! - your attention to those who deserve your attention at that moment. That is called common courtesy.

For a $275K /year educational leader who "doesn't give a crap", I'd suggest the following, Alec Baldwin's soliloquy from the screen adaptation of "Glengarry Glen Ross"

This will take 7 minutes, but you learn more about rhetoric than you will about educational leadership from the Time piece.
Readers here who model teaching on who and what was hot in "Boston Latin" will want to read about Ms. Rhee's model of leadership and staffing at the school level, today, from the WaPo's experienced education reporter/columnist, Jay Mathews.


High expectations, and the courage and will and fortitude to make them happen are more important to DC than another superintendent that can go into classrooms and smile at students destined to stay in a life of poverty bc no one is willing to push everybody harder and break down the barriers to reform.

(Like insane rules that dont allow school principals to hire and fire and be held accountable for results.)

The single most important factor in a childs education is quality teacher, not a superintendent who smiles.

Is she dealing in impressions rather than details? I kind of assume that getting details right is not high on her list of priorities.

Oh, c'mon, Lynette, why is it always blame the tea...Whoops, my Blackberry just vibrated. Sorry, gotta' go.

In any normal context Rhee sounds crazy. The number of emails, the multiple blackberries, the crazy hours, the no smiling, the combative nature all seems completely beyond reason.

But if you look at student test scores and realize that DC has been utterly failing generations of young people condemning them to poverty and hopelessness, then there is rhyme to Michelle Rhee's reason.

She used to be a teacher, so maybe she believes the old classroom adage "Don't smile until Christmas."

Jay, you say, "The number of emails, the multiple blackberries, the crazy hours, the no smiling, the combative nature all seems completely beyond reason."

But then imply that generations of poverty, etc. bring "rhyme to Michelle Rhee's reason."

I'm stumped. What is the connection between between a person seeming beyond reason and that same person successfully solving a long-term difficult problem?

Jay, I think I got it -- are you saying it takes an anti-social, obsessive-compulsive personality to solve a difficult problem?

If so, what makes you think that?

Focusing this much on Rhee's Blackberry habits is inexcusable. schoolboy, for someone who hangs his hat on the objectivity of data, you sure are drifting far afield in this one. How can you possibly read that entire article about the atrocious education that real children in a real American city are getting and come away from it thinking about the one person who has taken a serious crack at fixing it, "man, that woman needs to fix her interpersonal skills." WHO CARES how she acts in meetings?

Your analysis - your LONG analysis - of Rhee's style, from someone I thought was a serious thinker, is enlightening. Throughout the presidential campaign, I found myself getting disgusted by the media's focus on trivialities, verbal blunders, and style, rather than substance, and I wondered to myself, "does anybody actually care about this stuff? And if so, who is it that focuses so intently on the meaningless?" I, the elitist liberal that I am, assumed it was the uneducated. Thank you for disavowing me of that misperception.

Socrates - if Rhee were a brilliant scientist working alone in a lab to find a cure for cancer, or a computer nerd, hovering over his or her computer day and night, writing the perfect program to solve a difficult and important problem, then no - interpersonal skills wouldn't matter so much.

But she's working with a huge system of PEOPLE - children, teachers, counselors, security guards, police, administrators, parents, politicians, union leaders - so yes, interpersonal skills are important, very important. I

Hey Socrates, let me clarify the focus of my post. I am raising questions about Chancellor Rhee's leadership practices. Specifically, I question if spending 1,500 hours in the past year responding to e-mail is a good use of her time, as it suggests a misplaced precision in her attentions.

I am also led to wonder if she is developing a leadership team that can work collaboratively to lead the DC school system, or whether she is operating as a "Lone Ranger" trying to do it all by herself. Is the volume of e-mails to which Rhee responds evidence that she does not trust her direct reports to handle routine problems and activities? As other posters here and elsewhere have pointed out, successful school reform involves changing the behavior of stakeholders in the system, including teachers and principals. An individual in isolation is unlikely to be able to promote such behavioral changes through the dint of will or personality, no matter how many e-mails she fires off. The media gravitate towards "Great Man" accounts of leadership, but the scholarly literature has found such theories to be limited in their ability to account for successful organizational change.

For this reason, I agree with you that there was too much attention to the personality traits of the presidential candidates during the campaign. The President is "the decider," but a President is surrounded by a Cabinet, and operates as well in a system of checks and balances. These contextual features minimize the relevance of individual personality traits (although it's still the President's show, for better or worse.) In contrast, the public representations of Chancellor Rhee do not document the presence of a leadership team or a system of checks and balances that dampen the impact of her distinctive leadership style.

In other words: "She is a despot."

Why do we read books when there are real, live people we could be learning from?
Why do we read and write blogs when there are real, live people we could be talking to?

Email is asynchronous. If someone sucks at presenting, I have to sit there for 20 minutes while they babble on and read their PowerPoint slides. If that same person emails me their lame presentation, I can skim it (and it's faster for me to read the slides than for them to read them aloud).

There's also value in forcing people to summarize. See: Twitter.

And, dangit, information-based management is a very strong management style that education seems to be lacking in. We're getting better at gathering a little data here and there and putting it onto slides, but we need information junkies to take it all in, draw out what's useful, and use it to make decisions. It seems like that's what Rhee's doing, and I think the general sentiment is that her style is foreign, not that it's wrong.

Dave - I'm not exactly sure what you're saying, or how you purport to know what the "general sentiment" about Rhee is, but I for one think her style is wrong. She is a despot. That is plain wrong and there is nothing foreign about it.

I'm a DCPS parent and I fully supported Michelle Rhee the first year. There is so much wrong with this school system, I figured we needed somebody tough.

I can tell you now, a year and a half into her reign, things are worse than they've ever been.

I don't she has plan beyond, "blow it up."

As for the emails, it's true, she responds to every single email. Then she forwards your request on to her crack team of colleagues who fail to do anything.

What's the old Who tune that goes "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

She's the 4th leader of this school system since my 4th grader started school. I figure she'll claim victory on the last guy's test scores and move on soon...

Hmm, could this be part of the reason for her management by Blackberry? She's spending every other week out here in Sacramento helping her old buddy and advising him on education, even though the school district is run by the state through a local school board, and the boundaries are not contiguous with the city, and the city includes more than just that one district? The charter non-profit she sits on the the BoD of owes our district $1M too. Wonder what red ink they'll have in D.C.

Hilarious Pogue. LOL!

I would take a few seconds of your wit over some fully present but incompetant joker any day. I promise ...I am not blame the teacher. I WAS an urban teacher and I know what is going on from the inside. And I say Go Michelle.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • lynette: Hilarious Pogue. LOL! I would take a few seconds read more
  • A. Mercer: Hmm, could this be part of the reason for her read more
  • concerneddcpsparent: I'm a DCPS parent and I fully supported Michelle Rhee read more
  • sara: Dave - I'm not exactly sure what you're saying, or read more
  • Dave: Why do we read books when there are real, live read more




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