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Posted at 12:10 PM ET, 10/31/2009

Enough feuding! It's time for a D.C. schools summit

By Valerie Strauss

I just might scream if I hear one more person invoke what is “best for the kids” in the growing conflict between D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and her critics.

Tension is rising over a seemingly growing gap between what Rhee says in public and what she actually does--and while everybody is arguing about who is right and who is wrong and who didn’t call whom back, guess who is going to suffer?

(Did I just invoke what is “best for the kids?” Okay, I’m screaming.)

Yesterday Rhee was hit by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray for deciding unilaterally to lay off teachers and staff instead of trimming summer school operations as the council had ordered to save $9 million. It was suggested that she broke the law; she said she was on solid legal ground.

My colleague Bill Turque wrote in today’s Washington Post that the dismissals have brought us to the most turbulent time of Rhee’s 28-month tenure as D.C. schools czar. The enmity between Rhee and her critics has never been greater. And the public debate gets ever more shrill:

She’s right! Research says kids need summer schools!
She’s wrong! Kids suffer when teachers are laid off during the year!
She’s wrong! She can’t ignore the D.C. Council and do whatever she wants.
She’s right! The D.C. Council only cares about adults, not kids!
She’s right! And people who don’t see it that way don’t care about the kids!
She’s wrong! And we’ll never trust her again!

Here’s the problem: The toxic atmosphere will make it impossible for real reform to take place. It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong.

It’s time for someone to make a high-level intervention and put a stop to this feuding. I’d vote for the man who hired Rhee in the first place and made her more powerful than previous schools chief. That would be Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Rhee seems to think she can do whatever she wants because she is sure she is on the side of the angels in her reform efforts. She clearly views Gray as being the defender of process rather than the poor kids.

Such characterizations are not only pointless but they are dangerous because they only increase a polarization that is sure to end in another failed reform, which would be tragic for the nation’s capital.

The more the bureaucracy doesn’t trust her, the more entrenched it will get, and the less it will do what she wants.

If you don’t think this will happen, look at what has gone on in the District for years. With every new superintendent and every new reform policy, the folks who don’t trust their leaders just dig in, waiting for the next boss to show up. That’s how we got to the place we are today.

Rhee would get a lot farther if she made her case to the public, explaining why she was doing what she was doing. She doesn’t have to be nice about it. She just can’t say one thing when something else is really true. And she has done that more than once in recent months, and not only about the layoffs.

I found disturbing a recent story about Rhee by Turque, in which he quotes a few principals who said that Rhee asked at a principals' meeting how she could regain the trust of teachers. Such a question indicates that she recognizes that having their trust is useful.

But when Turque asked her about it, she denied every saying it. My instinct tells me that the principals did not misquote her. So why would she deny having said it? None of the possibilities are good.

Does it matter? Yes.

I have said before that I fervently hope that Rhee is able to succeed where her predecessors could not. But no matter how marvelous her policies, she won’t be implement them by hedging the truth. It’s that simple.

So, Mayor Fenty, do something. Hold a summit. Bring together Rhee, Gray and whoever else matters.

Shame them, if you must, to end their feuding. Tell them to return each other’s calls.

Because at this point, the adults are sounding a lot more childlike than the kids.

(Editor's note: For Jay Mathews take on the Rhee-Council dispute, go to: this link in his Class Struggle blog. He thinks one aspect of Rhee's argument is right.).

By Valerie Strauss  | October 31, 2009; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools  | Tags:  D.C. Schools, Mayor Adrian Fenty, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee  
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Here, here! Rhee is not perfect, and the timing and method of this RIF was less than ideal (many good teachers were laid off while slackers kept their jobs).

On the other hand, there are people in this town (most of them without children in DCPS) who hate Rhee so much that they remind me of the Conservatives who cheered when Chicago lost the Olympics. Those politicos hated Obama more than they cared about their fellow out-of-work Americans, and these people who suspect Rhee is a she-devil seem to hate her more than they care about true reforms that could change the education landscape for our kids in the District.

Posted by: trace1 | October 30, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Thank you to the Post for regularly reminding me why I moved 1/4 mile into Maryland when I became a parent. The whole deal stinks.

Posted by: KS100H | October 30, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Rhee appears to have personality problems that will insure she is never successful as a school administrator, or, probably, any other high level management job.
When she first got the job, I got bad vibes about her resume. There's something wrong there.
We have to stop overlooking these personality problems in people in high position. Sometimes they are really bonkers.
And, I think Fenty is kind of dumb to be hiring anyone.

Posted by: edismae | October 30, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

As a DCPS product who is now a professor of neuroscience at a premier research institution, I applaud Rhee's willingness to stand up, be accountable, and put her reputation on the line to try to improve the schools. It's about time someone shook things up at the DCPS and she's succeeding in to forcing the city to finally address problems that have plagued the system for decades.

Unfortunately for Rhee, such a heavy handed approach requires substantially more political savvy than she has exhibited thus far. The major risk in trying to force such a dramatic change is that failure is worse than inaction. If she's serious about improving the school system, then she'd be wise to reel herself in and let cooler heads prevail.

Posted by: k-paul | October 30, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Valerie - thank you for writing this. You sound like a real adult.

I think almost everything you said makes a lot of sense. Here's what I don't think will work:

>Fenty can't solve the problem. As Mayor, he's in a position to, but his personality and his own poor relations with the council preclude it.

>Rhee won't change. I don't think she can and I doubt she would even agree to try. I think it’s more likely that she'd quit in dramatic fashion if any real attempts were made to rein her in. If she did agree to limitations, it wouldn't last long. She'd make another big mess trying to wriggle out of it the way she's tried (and often succeeded) in wriggling out of anything she doesn't want to do (or in her parlance, anything that isn't in the best interests of the children).

I think you’re on the right track, though. People with an interest in improving DC education need to work together productively. I think that can only happen in a post-Rhee era.

Posted by: efavorite | October 30, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse're refering to the non-spiritual school system, run by the non-spiritual people?

Posted by: starclimber9 | October 30, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad the Post actually let someone write/post a commentary that seems to have a grasp of reality.

A great idea, but Fenty's approach is not one of negotiation and is highly characteristic of Rhee's "take it or I'll get rid of you" approach. Both of them are bullies that lie to our faces.

for the record the prior DCPS reform efforts died because they did not have the support Rhee has had at any level. Previously, the Superintendent was independent and had to deal with an often contentious mayor and council, as well as a self destructive and dysfunctional School Board. Even I will admit the support from the mayor's office has been invaluable to what Rhee has been able to do good or bad.

part of the problem in this debate is the voices don't seem to reflect the needs of the people. Yes, the parties need to talk, but the focus needs to be on educational basics to start not simply new strategies, theories and approaches to education that are not proven. That part of the issue needs to be discussed as well.

Posted by: oknow1 | October 30, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

From Maryland,(though not very far),
I don't think Fenty is to be trusted.
After all, he put things into action.
And, like Catania and Gray, he's a politician first.
Maybe we ought to look for a group from the universities in DC to lead the way.
They're educators with leadership and political skills with a vested interest in the education of the people of the city.

Posted by: edlharris | October 30, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Valerie.

We all want qualified teachers for DC schools but improving the teaching workforce must be done within the confines of the law and common decency.`

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 30, 2009 7:03 PM | Report abuse

people never ask the question of why we have a chancellor instead of a superintendent. The position was created because Fenty wanted or instructed to hire Rhee. She does not have the endorsement to be a superintendent. Therefore she does not look at things from an educational standpoint. She always says, and I quote" the best interest of children, and not adults", but the decisions made have affected the children. Breaking the law, not communicating with the parents or guardians of the children attend DCPS. She is not an educator, but approaches educational reform from a business approach. This approach is not dangerous, but will not sustain for a great period of time. I hope we could get back to the purpose of Public Education as it was when Horance Mann open the first public school in this country. When we say it is for the children, we are right, but for them to be productive citizens in society. In DC, it has gotten away from that notion. If we want our kids to be successful, then we need to look at what they are being required to learn and know. It is not the fact that their is not a curriculum in the system. Teachers are confused about what to teach, because there is not a clear and functional system in place. Several people are telling what you need to do, but they don't mesh. People will tell you have to use the standards, but they are so vague and too many that it makes it hard to use as a foundation. When you speak about a summit, the summit should not be about the adults getting along, but rather about focusing on the content the students need to be a productive citizen in our wonderful city.

Posted by: mike99541 | October 31, 2009 8:03 AM | Report abuse

Great article. In 20 years of working from the higher education side to encourage reform in the District, however, this just seems like history repeating it self. The same pattern is now playing out with the unreasonable situation between UDC and the Mayor's office covered in today's Post. I think Rhee's approach has advantages and disadvantages, but there is no doubt that the culture of assuming clashing ideologies (and the associated characterizations to which you refer) is a very entrenched and long term problem. I fear that even an olive branch is extended in good faith and the sides meet, some greater intervention is required to develop the level of reasonable trust and common purpose that is so desperately needed.

Posted by: aflagel1 | October 31, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Very thoughtful analysis. Unfortunately, true reform is a dead letter as long as Rhee, and probably Fenty, remain in charge.
In Rhee's case, the gap between vision and achievement is probably to wide to bridge, primarily because she simply has not proven herself sufficently qualified to manage change in a publicly accountable environment. It isn't enough to have good ideas or a revolutionary vision. If you can't manage people, build governing coalitions, collaborate respectfully with stakeholders whether you like them or not, and demonstrate a little humility now and then, you're not going to move a public policy agenda. Setting aside for the moment any deficiencies of personality and temperament, Rhee's unnecessary and damaging polarization of the community stems in great measure from the shallowness of her management experience, particularly in the public sector. She's alienated parent and community groups, religious congregations, teachers, the DC council, and many of the very constituencies needed for accomplishing revolutionary and lasting reform. The art of politics is often mundane, but vital when the stakes are high. It's probably time for the Chancellor to take her own advice and demonstrate that this is not about adults -- in this case herself -- but "the kids". That would mean declaring that her work here is done, resigning, and leaving the work of reform to someone with the qualifications, experience and temperament to do the job.

Posted by: GoDoZo | October 31, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

As a DCPS parent who initially supported Rhee, I have to say, I think it's too late. I don't think this damage can be repaired and I can't imagine trusting her again.

It has never been easy in DCPS and Rhee's brand of reform has only made things worse.

Let me be very clear, I am very much for reform. I am very weary of Michelle Rhee's drama. I simply don't care for it as a parent and I can see how it hurts my child and those who teach my child.

Moreover, I don't think Rhee has the educational experience or expertise to build a healthy schooling system in DC.

I do appreciate though that Ms. Strauss is willing to write something other than what amounts to a love note to Rhee. (I'm guessing there will be a glowing editorial on the Chancellor and summer school in the Post on Sunday, no?)

For those of us who have children in the system, this is not a purely intellectual debate. Michelle Rhee's actions have hurt the children of DCPS.

I think it's time for Rhee to work her miracles elsewhere. My children have suffered enough.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | October 31, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Silly me, the glowing editorial on Rhee was in SATURDAY's paper! My bad... Please amend that part of my previous post.

I just wish one person who worked in a power position at the Post actually had their child in a District of Columbia Public School. Methinks you would not be so adoring of the Chancellor.

Ah well, thank goodness we have a completely separate and unequal education system here in DC. It allows those who pen editorials to complete ignore those of us who actually send our children to public schools.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | October 31, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse


I take objection to one piece of your otherwise well-written commentary, namely:

"The more the bureaucracy doesn’t trust her, the more entrenched it will get, and the less it will do what she wants. If you don’t think this will happen, look at what has gone on in the District for years. With every new superintendent and every new reform policy, the folks who don’t trust their leaders just dig in, waiting for the next boss to show up."

I have not worked in DC, but reform-fatigue is all too common in urban school districts -- and not just among "bureaucrats" but among teachers as well. It is not just a matter of trust, but that the reforms pushed down from on high are often senseless and sometimes harmful. It seems like you are buying a little too much into the reformista party line that simplistically divides the world into those in favor of "reform" and those "clinging to the status quo." Untested, precipitous, ill thought-out reform IS the status quo in many urban school systems. What makes you think that the policies that Rhee is pushing are thoughtful and well-designed? The problem is not always that the bureaucracy (and principals and teachers) resists, but that it too often goes mutely along.

Posted by: dz159 | October 31, 2009 11:28 PM | Report abuse

Michele has made improvements already.
We voted for Mayor Fenty SPECIFICALLY to improve the
schools.If you don't like the Mayor then dont vote for him.
Otherwise,let Michele do her job. They deserve the chance.
What? Is anybody else going to better?Look at the DECADES failed schools!!!

Posted by: shred11 | November 1, 2009 1:38 AM | Report abuse

Rhee does not know how to run the DCPS schools, plain and simple. Stop using her as the crutch to attack the minoities in the school system. There are no computers, supplies, and a clean environment for the students. You are using this blog to continue an argument about Rhee. She is incapable of running any school district.

Posted by: realitygirl2 | November 1, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Rhee does not know how to run the DCPS schools.

Posted by: realitygirl2 | November 1, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

How the heck did DC schools get to a point where they don't have the funding to pay for teachers? The thing that's wrong here is not the people trying to fix the problem, and having to fight over too scarce resources will not solve any problems. It makes them worse, and DCPS would be better if they weren't run on a band-aid budget that's left the schools wrecked for decades.

This is yet another reason why DC needs home rule, the US Congress has left the place a wreck for longer than any of the readers here have been alive.

Posted by: Nymous | November 1, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Rhee is going to be changing her personalit, so I don't think there will be any reconcilation.

Posted by: aby1 | November 1, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

This whole story turns on the idea that because of this feuding there will be no progress, but you're overlooking the fact that under Rhee, THERE IS PROGRESS ALREADY!

The tide is turning in the right direction--improved test scores, improved buildings, right-sized schools.

Stop stirring drama for a second and review the results data.

Posted by: jswanson1 | November 1, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse


There are no improved test scores. The improvement on the national math scores started under Rhee's predecessors, not Rhee. And the improvement on the DC CAS is suspect because as far as is known Rhee instructed the schools to teach to the test ahead of time.

Posted by: resc | November 1, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

When Rhee mouths the line she's "doing what's best for the kids, she simply parroting a new slogan created in ultra-conservative think tanks. She's not alone. Joel Klein is doing it in New York City, Paul Vallas is doing it in New Orleans, in fact, every graduate of the Broad Center for Superintendents is singing the same tune. There isn't an ounce of sincerity in one of them, especially Rhee! They are all ideologues who do as Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Jeb Bush and other super-rich men instruct them.

These think tanks are places like the Hoover Institute where neoliberals crawl around considering how unions, public schools and Social Security can be destroyed and the US can be transformed into a vast slave labor camp.

Since the DCPS is overwhelmingly populated with African-American children and other children of color, Ms. Rhee comment implies that until she came along, no one cared for these children. No one cared, not their parents, not their teachers, not the men and women who represent their parents in political office, no one BR (before Rhee).

Seems like a fair question next time you see her, Chairman Gray. Ask Ms. Rhee if she really believes that she thinks cares about Black children more than you do. Ask her to go back in her life and cite concrete and demonstrable acts that prove her anti-racist credentials and superior wisdom.

Posted by: natturner | November 1, 2009 8:12 PM | Report abuse

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