Summary: In an echo of assertions in recent posts that school district leaders need to listen deeply into the ranks in their effort to reform failing schools, we take a look at the current arrival point of the career of Michelle Rhee, once a bright star of the Washington, D.C., firmament, brought to ground by politics and her apparent inability to understand the full dimensions of her leadership role.
For perspective on the role of superintendent in school reform, we take a brief look at the career of former Washington, D.C., schools head Michelle Rhee. Laurel Rosenhall of the Sacramento Bee, in the February 4 Seattle Times (“Reformer Rhee is eager to shake up California schools”), profiles Rhee and her continuing efforts to shake up the teacher union establishment, this time with a lobbying organization based in California called StudentsFirst.
While I have not followed Rhee’s work closely enough to form a clear opinion, my impression is that she represents both the yin and the yang of school administration. On the one hand, she has been resolute and clear headed in forming her strategies for school change; she seems to have won some battles, but lost others, including in the end her job in DC. On the other, she has incurred the enmity of teacher unions; she has seemed to have a take no prisoner style that may simply reinforce the very resistance she criticizes. In short, she may have without intention become part of the problem. Apparently, a polarizing figure.
Her self reinvention as a lobbying force and political maven with StudentsFirst, at least in Rosenhall’s telling, displays some of the same blend of pugnacity with commitment to the cause of students as she displayed in DC. Her organization has challenged candidates of the California Teachers’ Association at the polls, but has also put forth legitimate proposals to my eye, including the expansion of charter schools, the removal of seniority as the primary factor in teacher layoffs, and the inclusion of student test scores in the evaluation of teachers, though I would probably disagree with her degree of emphasis.
Rhee is an agent provocateur, and so fills a necessary and useful role. She may be wise to remove herself from her line position in a school system; she may in fact be too hard charging for its complexities, perhaps too vested in her own intellectual command, too little willing or able to listen to and incorporate the intensities of others under her authority.
One wonders if she were in Jose Banda’s position in Seattle (see 2/18/13 post) how she would react. Mr. Banda, the relatively new Seattle superintendent, has seemed to proceed cautiously toward teachers who have refused to administer the MAP test to ninth graders. Rhee’s reputation, at least, would have her strongly sanctioning the offending teachers, thereby missing the opportunity to build bridges and breathe life into the energies of the staff involved, now mostly frustrated.
With this preamble, I attended with curiosity an event in Seattle at which Rhee was to be interviewed publicly. The pretext was a tour through which she is publicizing her new book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First. The very title broadcasts her apparent comfort with confrontation, and is maybe a bit over self-congratulatory, seeming to forget that many others, beginning with tens of thousands of teachers, also “fight to put students first.” Ironic, too, since it has apparently been fights with teachers, albeit in the form of union structure, that have made her reputation and, in the end, have cost her the opportunity to continue her arguably useful work in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, the interview event turned out to be a bit of bland, a game of slow pitch lobs from a gentleman she apparently knew. Though there was some turmoil and demonstration on the sidewalk outside from points of view not always pertinent to her appearance, and some derisive voice inside during the event, the affair was pretty tightly controlled. Questions were written out before hand and selected by organizers; there was no direct give and take with the audience, which ultimately reverted to Seattle polite, and so in this case what might have yielded stimulating interchange became more of a showcase, and an opportunity for Rhee to soften some of the edges around her public persona.
But there were substantive questions posed. To my ear, her responses to both the moderator’s and the audience’s questions were well within the contours of rational debate. For example, on the subject of the use of student test results in evaluating teachers, Ms. Rhee correctly pointed out that the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has endorsed the shift, though at a percentage below the 50% Rhee herself advocates. Her point was that her position wasn’t really all that radical from the point of view of at least one major teachers’ union; the conversation about how large a percentage of an evaluation should stem from students’ test score improvement in a teacher’s class is something “we can talk about” in a much less divisive way than if one side advocated such practice and the other side refused to go there at all, which is still the case commonly.
The AFT has seemed to me to be more flexible and willing to think progressively than the National Education Association, a larger and rival entity, as have splinter groups of teachers on local, state, and national levels. Fuel for a future post.
Meanwhile, at the time of her visit, Rhee was interviewed by a Seattle Times staff reporter, and it was there in the paper the next day that to me some of her more telling comments were reported (February 20, Sarah Freishtat, “Rhee has some advice for state schools”).
“’I did not think that my job was to have a communications and PR shop,’ Rhee said,” according to Freishtat. Left at such a dismissive, this statement (assuming accurately reported and not distorted out of context) would speak volumes of flip about the kinds of problems she had in DC. Intellectual arrogance and disrespect for the legitimate points of view of others would be starters. Pair such a stance with that of teachers and principals who already felt embattled before she arrived, and the conditions for full out war are already staged.
After Rhee demonstrated her lack of PR tact, Freishtat reports a more moderate version. “That said, if she could do it all over again, she would manage news sources better, Rhee said, making sure she understood the media and they understood her.” Well that’s better, probably true, and significantly more respectful of the points of view of others than the original petulant note.
However, she fails to include teachers in this particular outreach, and maybe thereby she betrays the source of whatever failure she encountered.
In paraphrase of Rhee, Freishtat reports the former chancellor “wanted to improve the education system, and unions wanted to protect teachers.” This latter is not a particularly nuanced position; it panders to the politics of union as whipping boy; it stereotypes what was a large collection of individual points of view; and it completely sidesteps what would arguably be Rhee’s own responsibility as leader of the school system to reach out both to union and individuals within the union in order to carve out common working ground. Instead, she seems to have chosen combat.
Hers is reminiscent of Joel Klein’s tenure in New York as a story of meeting the beast head on, and finally of an exit leaving a trail of blood, her own and that of others. In counterpoint stand the significantly more successful administrations in Montgomery County, Maryland, and New Haven, Connecticut, where collaborative efforts between district leadership, teachers, and teachers’ unions have reportedly made gains of the type that eluded Rhee, and upon which I have commented previously.
Michelle Rhee’s strategic retreat to head a lobbying organization (StudentsFirst) in California may in fact better suit her combative style. She is not wrong in charging that unions are an interest group that needs counter balance from groups such as hers whose constituency is more clearly students and parents. But she is wrong in assuming that unions cannot be or are not advocates for students, for clearly there are many within unionism whose higher priorities include the welfare of kids.
While clearly hammers such as hers are needed among the tools in a superintendent’s toolbox, before she would return to the line superintendent role one would hope that she has genuinely learned from her DC experience, beyond the need to tend to PR, which is a faux cause, and has become more adept at communicating direction and rationale down the ranks, and to accept and make strategic use of ideas that originate from grass roots teacher ranks — in other words, has refined the art of leading human beings in a common cause; communication is a keystone of the job. Otherwise, as I have noted elsewhere, she becomes part of the problem by her intransigent righteousness, and reinforces the worst parts of her opponents by inducing their retreat to defensive positions. Stalemate ensues, the kids do not come first, but egos do.