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"Drill Bit" Leadership in D.C.

In D.C., it's looking increasingly like City Council Chairman Vincent Gray is going to beat Mayor Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary. This is a shocker. Given Fenty's deep pockets, huge 2006 victory, and positive developments on crime and schooling, he was widely thought a lock for re-election when this year began. In edu-circles, the question is what this means for D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who's had a tempestuous three years while struggling to transform a broken system that couldn't track personnel records, open schools on time, or provide textbooks to students.

When drilling through a tough surface, industrial drilling crews often require more than one drill bit. If the first bit wears out, they swap it for a second bit and keep going. Drill teams don't walk away even if they wear out a half-dozen bits; they keep pushing, using each fresh bit to extend the work of its predecessor. In this way, they eventually chisel through even the most resistant surface.

Dysfunctional school systems like the one Rhee inherited in 2007 are an especially tough surface. Most superintendents are like drills that merely skirt along the surface. Those who do not, who bite into rock and start boring in, can be worn out--as Andy "Eduwonk" Rotherham noted Sunday in a terrific Washington Post piece--by all the fighting and pushing they have to do. When it comes to teacher evaluation, the teacher contract, textbook distribution, special education, scheduling, data systems, and much else, Rhee's team has gotten DCPS to the point where it is functional. It isn't yet an especially good school system, but it's no longer broken and it's positioned to be something much more.

Unlike those industrial drill crews, municipal leaders tend not to swap a fresh bit for the old one. Instead, if a bit wears out, they back up, abandon their progress, and seek a less demanding path. That is the danger here. As much as I like and respect Michelle Rhee, I'm not concerned about her; if she leaves DCPS, she'll be inundated with compelling offers. And I'm not worried about her team; many folks are eager to start poaching the talent she's assembled. The shame is that so much of what Rhee has accomplished will be lost if Gray views a change in leadership as a chance to ease up or change direction rather than an opportunity to swap in a new bit.

The drill bit question looms especially large because, in addition to Rhee, D.C. state chief Kerri Briggs is also a mayoral appointee. If Gray doesn't make an explicit and straightforward play to keep Rhee, or to keep Briggs and find a new supe unequivocally committed to pressing on Rhee's wins, it will be one more depressing play of an all-too-familiar rerun. So, what will Gray do? Will he let Rhee go but keep Briggs and other key members of the DCPS team? Will he make a half-hearted effort to keep Rhee, while attaching conditions such that she's sure to walk? Gray knows that he needn't remove Rhee; he need only be sufficiently equivocal, and she'll spare him the dirty work.

Steve Peha recently recognized our tendency to treat the initial drilling as if it's the whole ballgame, pointing out, "Heroic leadership is exciting. It's all BANG! POW! WHAM! And the bad guys are taken care of. This is the stuff of great daytime TV drama. But it is not without risk... For example, Ms. Rhee has recruited many people. Will these people stay after she is gone?"

Gray strikes me as careful, deliberate, and a nice enough man. He said in last week's mayoral debate, "I do not feel beholden to anybody to do certain things because they endorsed me or contributed to my campaign." Given how hard the Washington Teachers Union is working for him--on the airwaves and on the ground--Gray's dealings with Rhee offer him an important chance to walk that walk.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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