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September 20, 2010

the meaning of Michelle Rhee's defeat

Last week, Democratic primary voters dismissed the incumbent mayor of Washington, DC, Adrian Fenty. It looks virtually certain that DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will also be on her way out. She was the most prominent school district leader in the US, featured on the cover of TIME magazine with a broom as the symbol of her housecleaning efforts.

I have a somewhat unusual take on what happened. Most opinion seems to be divided among these reactions:

1. Rhee was a great reformer. She took over a school system that spends nearly $13,000 per student but only $5,355 on teachers, classroom equipment, and other forms of "instruction." She raised test scores, narrowed achievement gaps, and stopped the flow of students to charter schools, but was defeated by special interests--notably the teachers' union that spent $1 million on the election. The problem, in a sense, was "civic engagement"--the active engagement of people whose interests were threatened by her reforms. No wonder Rhee said (well before the election), "collaboration is overrated."

2. Rhee was misguided or actively malevolent, and DC voters exercised their democratic responsibilities when they stopped her. One commenter on Sam Chaltain's blog decries "her arbitrary mass firings of hundreds of D.C. teachers, including some of their finest, without any reliance on data or due process. ... This isn’t simply the case of another of those misguided, slightly inept reformers who needs another 4 years to carry out her unfinished business before taking a cushy job with the foundations. Rather, Michelle Rhee is a dishonest, megalomaniacal teacher basher--possibly the worst in the country, being egged on by her patrons who see her as the spearhead in their struggle against teacher unions."

3. Rhee and Fenty had basically the right policies, but their job was to persuade DC voters to support them, and they failed to do so. That is Rhee's own reaction. According to Education Week, "The chancellor said one of her mistakes early on was in how she communicated with the public. 'I sort of thought, "Well, OK, if we put our heads down and do the work, after two years we’ll have great results, and everybody would be happy." That was very naive of me,' Ms. Rhee said. 'We weren’t proactive and strategic enough about communication and thinking about how do we get out there and talk about the great things that are happening.'” According to this view, civic engagement is neither good nor bad; it is just a fact of life, and skillful leaders deal with it by effectively communicating.

4. The election had little to do with Michelle Rhee or the schools. It was between Adrian Fenty and Councilman Vincent Gray. Voters did not deliver a verdict on Rhee.

In my view, there was a need for housecleaning in the DC school system. News reports have revealed startling examples of bureaucratic failure: warehouses full of new textbooks that are never distributed to students, payroll systems that cannot keep track of employees.

Rhee presumed that the teacher matters most to a student’s success. Every classroom should be led by a competent and motivated teacher who is supported by efficient systems for distributing textbooks, cutting paychecks, and so on. The most skillful teachers should be deployed in schools where they are needed most, those where test scores are lowest. DC employs excellent teachers--far more skillful and dedicated than I would be--but also many poor ones. Consequently, the Chancellor’s priorities were to remove poor teachers, assign strong ones to troubled schools, and reduce bureaucratic waste.

Research lends her strategy some support: William Sanders and June Rivers deeply influenced national education policy by showing that more effective teachers could move student 50 percentile points higher on standardized tests.

And yet it is far from clear that one can cause better teachers to appear in the classrooms where they are needed most--and persuade them to remain there, year after year--simply through better management. Urban teaching will remain a frustrating job if the social context is difficult (for instance, the crime rate for adolescents in DC is three times the national average), the motivations and expectations of students and parents are misaligned with the goals of the schools, and even high school graduates face poor job prospects. Students will not comply with demanding curricula if they doubt there is a route from the schools to satisfactory employment. Teachers will burn out if the schools prove unable to remedy deep social problems. I have personally known teachers who were reassigned to more difficult DC schools and who immediately left for the suburbs instead.

In any case, imagine that the Chancellor's strategy worked, and she improved the impact of her teachers on students' test scores and graduation rates. If the teachers' impact is limited to the classroom and the school day, it cannot be profound enough to overcome crises in the broader society, from obesity and violence to a lack of jobs. Even if the teachers are able to change parenting styles and other aspects of their students' home environments, we should ask whether this change is desirable. Who are they to change a working-class culture to match the norms and expectations of Georgetown and Cleveland Park? As always, our social problems are entangled with culture and connected to our deep moral commitments, about which we have no consensus.

So I think the people of the District must be civically engaged to make their schools better in ways that they can endorse. More democracy is the cure, and collaboration is essential, not "overrated." But the form that civic engagement takes is crucial. Low-turnout primary elections are poor tools for the people of a large city to shape policy. Teachers unions have a right to participate, but political influence should not be a function of money, and no interest group should have predominant power.

Former Mayor Anthony Williams, with whom I have the honor to serve on the AmericaSpeaks board, introduced innovative ways for citizens of the District to discuss and shape policy. In particular, his Citizens Summits (large, representative, deliberative meetings) generated strategies to "support [the] growth and development of all youth." Summits and other manifestations of deliberative democracy are valuable but not sufficient; there must be daily opportunities for citizens, civic groups, churches, businesses, youth, and others to collaborate with schools on the actual work of education. That is truly an alternative to the strategy pursued by Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee, and we need to try it next.

September 20, 2010 8:49 AM | category: education policy | Comments



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