Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 04/ 9/2010

Rhee's biggest, and most costly, failing

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Stanford University Professor Larry Cuban. He is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, 7 at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District) and district superintendent (7 years in Arlington, Virginia). He spent 20 years at Stanford and has been an emeritus professor since 2001.

By Larry Cuban
I do not know if Michelle Rhee will continue as D.C. schools chancellor even if Mayor Adrian Fenty, the man who brought her to the District, beats back his mayoral challengers in November. If he loses, Rhee will exit the parking lot of District offices on North Capitol Street for the last time.


Rhee has brought enormous energy, determination and rock-star glitz to a position usually inhabited by low-profile, dark-suited men who whisper in the ear of the mayor and confer quietly with key City Council members. Since August 2007, she has jolted the District’s Richter Scale with 7.0 temblors and repeated after shocks. That's what the D.C. schools needed.

But in one crucial area, she has not succeeded. If Rhee leaves by the end of 2010, it won’t be because test scores have either dipped or slowly risen or a combination of both. If she leaves or stays for only a short time, it will be because she failed to crack the hardest nut that "change-agent" D.C. school chiefs face: connecting to teachers.

Ask big-city superintendents Alan Bersin (San Diego 1998-2005) and David Hornbeck (Philadelphia 1994-2000) about their nasty struggles with teacher unions and how that doomed their change-agentry even after they negotiated new contracts with teachers.

The proposed new contract between the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) and Chancellor Rhee is a series of practical compromises that trimmed back Rhee’s "no excuses" agenda and gave union members important concessions.

The proposed settlement removes from the upcoming mayoral race the testy public exchanges between the union and Rhee.

The proposed contract includes things the WTU wanted (e.g., salary increases for five years, no major overhaul of compensation policies or loss of seniority, professional development) and what Rhee wanted (a voluntary program of teacher pay-for-performance similar to Denver’s ProComp and more flexibility in getting rid of excess teachers).

Both sides can come out and say they "won." But Rhee had already lost in the most important game in town: Working closely with 3,800 teachers to improve how and what they teach their students each day.

New tenure rules, new evaluation structures and the rhetoric of "no excuses" are important pieces of Rhee’s agenda for changing the D.C. schools. But the core of any sustained improvement in urban districts is the bond of trust between veteran teachers and their leader.

In nearly three years at the helm, Rhee has lost that trust, and that won’t change, even after the contract is approved by union teachers and the City Council, and even after many efforts to soothe teachers as a whole. How did this happen?

1. Trash talking about incompetent teachers. Of course, like bad doctors and lawyers, a small percentage -- probably in the 5 percent range -- do exist in the DC schools. But put-downs and thoughtless remarks amplified in the media have tarred the entire teacher corps. Rhee admitted as much in a Washington Post article (Feb. 9, 2009). "My thoughts about teachers have not always come through accurately. I do not blame teachers for the low achievement levels."

2. A promising system of evaluating teachers (IMPACT) has gotten caught up in the conflict between the teachers' union and Rhee. Chances of these new procedures recovering are slim. Chances of IMPACT being slowly sabotaged and disappearing when Rhee exits are high.

3. Rhee's credibility as a former teacher (three years in Baltimore during the 1990s) and someone who has teachers’ ideals and interests at heart has been seriously damaged. Her attitudes and actions implicitly divide D.C. teachers into those who are younger, energetic, talented and share her "no excuses" beliefs and everyone else -- mostly veteran teachers -- who do not. Since newer teachers often exit after a few years, the veterans dominate school faculties and monopolize the organizational wisdom of the D.C. schools.

Why does a chancellor or any big-city superintendent have to connect to teachers? Take all the vision, symbols, energy and incentives at the top of the school organization, lay them out on the table, and then wrap them up into a tidy package -- call it "leadership" -- and mail it to 3,800 teachers. It won’t arrive.

While each of these traits is important, chancellors still face the political conundrum that with all the whirl, press releases, private meetings with the mayor and council members and public hearings, it is the teachers who teach lessons daily. Like most of us who work in organizations, they do need to be inspired, consoled, and prodded. They need to see that the interests of adults and student learning converge, not take separate paths.

Teachers need to believe that those at the top understand the situation they face each day and are supportive, even as they push and prod. But teachers are also jumpy, irascible, and feisty agents in their own right -- a fact that too many superintendents come to understand too late.

Teachers can accept the prodding and shoving as long as they trust those at the top. Once the trust is lost, it is only a matter of settling the details of exiting that have to be worked out. And that is where the situation is now with Chancellor Rhee.

Larry Cuban is a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12 and college. You can read his school reform blog here.


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | April 9, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  D.C. public schools, D.C. teachers pact, Larry Cuban, Michelle Rhee, Rhee and teachers  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Florida ed reform passes: Is it a model or disaster?
Next: Sorry Geoffrey Canada, but failure IS an option, a reality, and even a boon


Hope he's wrong. Not sure that he is.

Posted by: horacemann | April 9, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I think Cuban touches on an important point: the divide between new idealists, and old traditionalists. I believe connecting with this new generation is the best strategy, since keeping them in the profession is the only thing that can create long term, systemic change. So many of them now leave because of the entrenched, obstructionist old guard. It will be a difficult transition, but we need teachers that are willing to adapt to the new challenges we face in our classrooms.

Posted by: HappyTeacher | April 9, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

What a strange idea for America that the leader of a public school system will not be effective by simply blaming the lowest workers for all the problems.

Posted by: bsallamack | April 9, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Cuban's wise words can be summarized in one concise sentence:

Nothing will ever improve in public education without the cooperation of the classroom teacher.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 9, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Because the teachers are Barry cronies and jerks.

Posted by: bbcrock | April 9, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Mr. Cuban for your entire article, but especially the part concerning the issue of trust - to which might be added respect. One does not expect a leader to be always right,but if there is no trust and respect,it is very difficult to work for that person.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | April 9, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

The quickest and most effective way to damage American schools is to disparage its teachers. Traditionally it's been almost impossible to attract talented men and women to challenging schools and now it's going to be even harder.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 9, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

It shouldn't be old teachers vs. new teachers. Both groups of teachers should be working together to help the kids learn. If there is as large a rift as the author suggests then something should be done about it. Criticizing one group as "entrenched" is not the way to do it. Experienced teachers do have a lot to offer. New teachers are great too, but they need help, because teaching is not easy. These teachers should be discussing ideas together, not being pitted against each other.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 9, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Agreed C100, but I am just reporting what my experience has been. I know veteran teachers are well-meaning people with the best of intentions, but how that translates to relationships wih new teachers can be very frustrating. New teachers are often treated like children, and their opinions are valued about as much, especially if they hold an opinion that goes against the status quo. The fact is, the requirements for being an effective teacher, in many schools, has changed. It will take a new job description to get things back on track, but veteran teachers are the ones putting up the most resistance to new ideas.

Hopefully, my experience has been an aberration, but I suspect I am not alone.

Posted by: HappyTeacher | April 9, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

I promise you the problem is more than 5% of the teachers.

Posted by: Brooklander | April 9, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I promise you the problem is more than 5% of the teachers.

Posted by: Brooklander | April 9, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Happy Teacher

I hope you start to get the respect you deserve. I sort of know how you feel because even though I am older, I have moved a lot and thus have been "new" about 5 times. Switching grade levels, subject areas or even schools can make your feel new again. You're right. Some people are "resistant", not only that, they can be dismissive of new opinions without even knowing they are doing so. I am curious how has the definition of effective teaching changed in your opinion?
Do you mean that students are expected to interact more and thus are "noisier" or what do you mean?
Thank-you in advance for a response, if yu have time.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 9, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

c100 - I think effective teaching is still the same effective teaching as it always was in a lot of areas. But, I think much attention is now, correctly, being paid to schools in disadvantaged areas. With our mandate to educate all, and to hopefully prepare all for college or career, we now have to deal with situations where "effective" teaching is just the start of what is needed. We need to accept that some parents will never be involved. We have to realize that some neighborhoods are broken. We need to realize that our economy shifts and thrusts in odd ways. We need to adapt to new technology, and shortening attention spans. And, I believe, we need to accept that this might call for a teacher with a different mind-set, who doesn't blame parents or circumstance, who just knows from the outset that help from home won't be there. This has far-reaching implications for the profession.

That said, I feel that both "types" of teachers are vitally important for the future. I think we just need to be very more purposeful and honest about which teachers teach where.

Posted by: HappyTeacher | April 9, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the detailed response. I am a little disappointed to hear that people have not already accepted the things you mention. On a brighter note, some parents will cooperate, although not always in the way you would expect. I have found they are more open if you listen to them. I have heard teachers give advice to parents that I know I wouldn't be able to follow myself. But, yeah, if the teachers are blaming the parents then that won't help, that is for sure. Plus, honestly have the teachers walked in the parent's shoes? Get the teachers who blame parents to work 2 or 3 jobs and take the bus to each and then show up to conferences or whatever they are claiming is necessary.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 9, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of broken neighborhoods, I was at a school where the kids in my class were in rival gangs. (I didn't know that at first because of course that info was confidential, LOL) The staff development person kept claiming that pairing kids up randomly would help. Not realizing that one of the gangs (at a higher level) had killed a cousin of one of the kids in the class I couldn't figure out why my students wouldn't work together. I kept giving them social interaction lessons. (eye contact, be polite, etc.)Then when a counselor mentioned what had happened, I woke up to reality and decided that differentiation for that class meant to go back to rows. At the time, it was very hard for me to change my mind from what I thought would be the "ideal" learning situation.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 9, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

I remember Larry Cuban saying this about Rhee in November of ’08:
“sprinter superintendents err in jumping on unions too early in their long-distance race for better student achievement. They suffer from ideological myopia. They believe low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities result in large part from knuckle-dragging union leaders defending seniority and tenure rights that protect lousy teachers. Such beliefs reflect a serious misreading of why urban students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate from high school.”

He was right then and is really right now – trust is gone. It has been gone for a long time and there’s no getting it back. The many good teachers especially know that Rhee is no friend to teachers. She has no respect for them at all. She is a terrible leader.

Posted by: efavorite | April 9, 2010 10:55 PM | Report abuse

Excellent article, Mr. Cuban. You summed up a lot of what I have been trying to say in my blog,

It also didn't help Ms. Rhee's cause that she does not appear to be on speaking terms with the truth.

And while "bbcrock" may be right about all of us teachers being jerks -- it probably comes with the territory -- very few of us are or were cronies of Marion Barry.

Posted by: TexasIke59 | April 10, 2010 12:30 AM | Report abuse

Happy Teacher--I think the traits you assign to older teachers are personality traits that can show up with any age or level of experience. There are those who simply don't like change. Not all older teachers fit that mold however. Having taught for 34 years, I can honestly say that if I was still doing things the same way that I did 30 years ago, I would have gone insane with boredom by now. Some of us enjoy change and constantly look for ways to improve student achievement. Some of us also like working in schools that have diverse and economically disadvantaged students. I know that I make a big difference with these kids and I learn a lot from them as well.

It's a shame that you've had the experiences you've had with older teachers. I teach in a school in which each team collaborates constantly. The teams are made up of teachers at both ends of the experience spectrum. We all have a lot to learn from each other. In my experience, this is more the norm. Hopefully you will find that to be true as well!

Posted by: musiclady | April 10, 2010 1:11 AM | Report abuse

Excellent commentary.

When I hear Miss Rhee express her distaste with thiose who teach for many years, I think of some of the teachers at my former high school, DeMatha Catholic High School.
There are teachers who have been there 30, 40 or even 50 years.
(More than Miss Rhee has been alive).

Posted by: edlharris | April 10, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

As an older person who has worked in a school for 17 years as a social worker, I'd like to add my two cents. People who are new to an endeavor often come in with an energetic upbeat approach and belief that they are going to make dramatic changes. Those of us who have been around for a while know that to sustain real change takes time (and energy) and that new techniques and approaches can sometimes make an added difference but often don't. In my field, new therapy techniques come along every few years. Some provide effective additional techniques to use as part of a holistic approach. Some turn out to not be particularly useful although their champions energetically assure everyone that they have discovered "the way". I'd put Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan and charter school advocates in this category.

I think that the comparisons expressed in these comments between older and younger teachers are unhelpful generalizations. Some teachers who have been in the field a long time may no longer be effective but I give you a comment that Ms. Rhee made about her own teaching experience. In her first year, she was totally swamped and clueless as how to manage a classroom. In her next year, she team taught with an "older" teacher. By her third year, she felt some competence. A previous superintendent in the district where I work said that she felt that it took three years for a new teacher to be able to competently run a classroom. This looks pretty accurate. Incidentally, this superintendent related to our staff in the same way Ms. Rhee has, lost trust, never developed mutual respect and is now gone. This is a shame for many reasons. Like Ms. Rhee, she had tremendous energy and hope for change but couldn't figure out how to pull it off.

Posted by: bdhirst1 | April 10, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for a well thought out article. As many have commented trust is important. As a veteran teacher I appreciate the comments of the person who recognizes the need for all levels of teaching experience.

When I was a new teacher I looked to the experienced teachers for advice and support. It is unfortunate that the attitude these days seems to be that we are old, burned out, and useless.

Posted by: Jutti | April 10, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company