Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/ 9/2010

Rhee in D.C.: The myth of the heroic leader

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Larry Cuban. He is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, Virginia) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book, "As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin" was published in February.

By Larry Cuban
Even before Tuesday’s primary, the obits on Michelle Rhee and the future of the D.C. schools are being written. I have no crystal ball. I do not know whether Mayor Adrian Fenty will defeat D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray or whether Michelle Rhee will continue as D.C. schools chancellor.

What I do know is that the heroic view of superintendents (Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman—take your pick) breaking china in order to build a better district for students—an image loved by media and the public—is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment and cynicism over turning around failing schools.

How do I know?

Think Alan Bersin (1998-2005) in San Diego and Mark Shedd (1967-1971) in Philadelphia.

In less than 18 months, Bersin had given electro-shock treatment to a district of 146,000 students in an effort to improve student achievement: He fired administrators, altered the district central office dramatically, and installed a plan to improve achievement by realigning the bureaucracy. National media made him a rock star.

The teachers union and school board, however, fought Bersin every step of the way (after recovering from the initial jolt). He left in 2005. Since then, San Diego has had three superintendents each dismantling the Bersin reforms and in their own ways trying to heal the conflicts of those years. Disappointment and cynicism about school reform are at peak levels in the city.

Most policymakers have heard of Alan Bersin but few remember Mark Shedd in Philadelphia.

The president of the school board of this 285,000-student district, an ex-mayor of the city, wanted a superintendent who could deal with chronic low performance of the largely minority district, inspire teachers and principals to raise student achievement, and make Philadelphia a national lighthouse for school reform. He brought Harvard-trained Shedd from Englewood, N.J., where he had eased racial tensions over desegregation in a multiracial community.

The 41 year-old Shedd came, saw, and conquered Philadelphia with a deluge of lively ideas. At least, for a short time.

He decentralized the system to give principals more freedom to make decisions; he brought in new reading programs, encouraged the open classroom and service learning; established Black Studies at high schools and alternative schools such as the first “school without walls”; he gave students a "bill of rights.”

But he encountered a deeply resistant bureaucracy in his district office and members of the white community who resented his focus on black students and their problems. He also clashed with then Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo.

A rally of 3,500 black students demanding better schools turned violent after police intervened. More than 50 people were arrested and nearly 30 treated for injuries. Rizzo met with Shedd and the commissioner vowed that he would get rid of the superintendent. He did after he was elected Mayor in 1971.

Rizzo maneuvered the appointment of two “insider” superintendents during the 1970s who quickly dismantled Shedd’s reforms. A statue of Rizzo sits outside the Municipal Building. No statue honors Mark Shedd.

What’s the alternative to heroes entering and exiting leaving broken china scattered behind? Yes, some china must be broken. That’s the easy part. The hard part is building a strong political consensus among teachers, students, parents, and larger community that the job can be done, will take a lot of time, and the folks who can do the job are right here in River City.

Where has this occurred?

Tom Payzant in Boston (1996-2006), Carl Cohn in Long Beach, CA (1992-2002), Pat Forgione in Austin, TX (1999-2009), and Laura Schwalm (1999- ) in Garden Grove, CA.

They wore no capes and donned no tights. They slogged through a decade or more of battles, some of which they lost, to accumulate small victories. They helped create a generation of civic and district leaders and a teacher corps who shared their vision.

They built brick-by-brick the capacities among hundreds and thousands of teachers, principals, parents, and community members to continue the work. Yes, they angered many and, yes, they fought to win but they persevered. They left legacies that teachers, principals, and parents can, indeed, improve schools by working together.

These superintendents were non-heroic marathoners who finished the race, not sprinters going for the gold that faded well before the finish line.


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

By Valerie Strauss  | September 9, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  fenty and rhee, larry cuban, michelle rhee, michelle rhee and adrian fenty, rhee and d.c. schools, will rhee stay or go?  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: School board president: Ed reformers ‘just don’t get it’
Next: Why kids in school need to play


You should write about Arne Duncan. Although he was a marathoner, he decimated CPS with his policies.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 9, 2010 7:46 AM | Report abuse

Another thing about Duncan, although the press considered him a hero - the local population hated him.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 9, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

Another thing about Duncan, although the press considered him a hero - the local population hated him.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 9, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, Larry Cuban.

Posted by: dcintheworld | September 9, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

What is needed is common sense...a characteristic that far too many Superintendents, School Boards, and Principal's lack.

Very few will deny that there are problems that exist in public schools...and they are the same problems that exist in our society, today, they are not exclusive to public schools. While "narrow-focused, my way or the highway" management may get change, will it get the support that is needed for implementation and the effective changes you mention in order for the changes to be successful and lasting? Probably not.

Bossing people around is easy, getting them to buy-in takes a little more skill.

Posted by: ilcn | September 9, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

This is a fascinating editorial that is on point. While I believe the Chancellor has made many important and worthwhile changes, she has not worked diligenlty to build relationships, shift paradigm and inpsire support from her teachers and principals; consequently, her initiatives are not sustainable.

A culture of distrust, fear and resentment has developed- an us vs. them mentality...this is unfortunate and not necessary to create change. Change can happen when you build trust and relationships. This is extremely important and perhaps in the end, it is the reason the Chancellor and Mayor are on the verge of receving a pink slip.

They are both tremendously smart, dedicated and hard working people. However, they lack the requisite experience in developing change, shifting paradigm and adaptive work. Perhaps prior experience in leading change is imperative for urban superintendents after all.

Rather than create support for the needed change (a difficult, cumbersome and incremental process)the Chancellor's strategy for making change was similar to Teach for America- find like-minded people, fire those who disagree and implement new district policy. In other words, change the team and the results will change. Unfortunately, by doing this she stifled buy-in, creativity and an important necessity- diversity in opinion of those who were already here. Change agents know that to make lasting change you have to be able to shift paradigm- not just team members.

Perhaps, the first responsibility of every superintendent who confronts a troubled district is to gather information and build capacity for change before they do it. In John Kotters book, Leading Change, he addresses important steps before change can take hold. Step 1 outlines the importance of building a guiding coalition who will assist in shifting the collective sentiment in order to develop buy-in from most of your people. Ideally, this would be the district's principals-however, the Chancellor squandered any support there by firing more than a third of them before she even spoke to them.

People are the instrument of change. You can add all the programs you want, implement new evalaution methods, fire people, and lead with data --if you haven't built a guiding coalition, if people don't trust your leadership, if you fail to build relationships--people will never work hard for you--they will never trust your policies and ultimately the reform you seek will never take hold. The Chancellor has had 3 years to build the trust of her constituencies, to shift the paradigm, to change the way we approach our teaching for our students and most of it has failed to take hold where it matters most- in the minds of our principals, teachers, parents, and students. There are only so many people you can fire.

Building lasting change is not about hiring outside members of a cult;reform and change without buy-in and relationship building from within will fail every time-every time!

Posted by: teacher6402 | September 9, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

I'd like to see the idea of the "rockstar" teacher and/or superintendent consigned to the dustbin. Not everyone can be great. We need good teachers in every classroom. We also need superintendents and/or chancellors who are mature and pragmatic and who understand that working together will accomplish more than smashing crockery and sweeping brooms for photo ops.

Posted by: sanderling5 | September 9, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Please add Jerry Weast to the list of non-heroic marathoners and Arne Duncan to the list of "rockstar" failures.

Posted by: lacy41 | September 9, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

You forgot the Braveheart reference for Michelle Rhee:

Posted by: edlharris | September 9, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I am fortunate to be a resident of Long Beach CA so I remember Carl Cohn well. My younger son was a student while Dr. Cohn was superintendent.

One thing I remember was that Dr. Cohn attended a banquet in which my son was honored. I'll bet he did the same for many other students. These are the acts of kindness and recognition that are remembered by students, parents and teachers. They might not make the front page of the local newspaper but together they make a huge difference because the stakeholders have been invited to the party.

I also remember Dr. Cohn's frequent praise of teachers. Yes, this was a man who had the sense to recognize the people who were actually delivering the service to children. He knew that a teacher is to a school what a doctor is to a hospital. If I recall correctly Dr. Cohn was always telling teachers that his job was to help them do theirs.

In sharp contrast to that, I was employed by a district that decided to "show those teachers who's boss" after No Child Left Behind. Suddenly there were pushy "consultants" coming into our rooms with clipboards and criticisms. I can't speak for other teachers but I know my reaction was to find as many ways to thwart them as I could. I'm not saying this was "right" but this is what frequently happens when teachers are left out of any attempt at reform. Multiply my reactions by the number of teachers in a school district and you have an idea of the amount of pushback that occurs when teachers are marginalized. Not only that, but for every teacher who is mistreated, you have a former student, spouse, relative, friend of that teacher who is making noise on that person's behalf. That's essentially what is happening in DC. When the election is over, Ms. Rhee is going to be surprised when she finds out who some of her most strident adversaries are.

Nothing will happen in education without the cooperation of the classroom teacher.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 9, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I also want to say "hello" to Larry Cuban. He visited my graduate program at The Ohio State University about forty years ago! He's always understood the power of the classroom teacher to make things happen. Thank you, Professor Cuban!

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 9, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

I don't know exactly what the four you cite did, but I note that they all have educational degrees. At least two of them were once teachers. If you take Duncan, Rhee, Klein, and Thornton (now Chicago) they have three years of educational experience among them. Rhee taught for three years in Baltimore and performed her first miracle there. As Marshall Petain is alledged have said at Lourdes, "All those crutches and no wooden legs."

Posted by: mschwaegerl | September 9, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse


Excellent analysis! A fine example of truth being spoken to power. Just hope they're listening.

Posted by: vscribe | September 9, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

"I don't know exactly what the four you cite did, but I note that they all have educational degrees."


Duncan , Klein and Rhee do not have educational degrees. I don't about Thornton.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 9, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Look at this:

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 9, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse


I'm not able to access the link that you gave above. Could you please give me the name of the article. Thanks.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 9, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

The view of the school superintendent as the hero leader seems to be an extension of the corporate CEO hero model, with apparently similar rates of success.

Unfortunately public school districts do not have the deep pockets of rich shareholders to pay the escalating competitive salaries these pseudo CEO superintendents believe they deserve and which the corporate model says you should pay if "you want the best." In my state about 15% of superintendents make more than the governor and even districts who pay less are overextended in their ability to pay these kinds of salaries.

Americans need to get over the "cult of the hero personality" which irrationally vests superior wisdom and efficacy in individuals to solve complex problems.

Posted by: speakuplouder | September 9, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

When confronted by unbelievably complex, multi-faceted, seemingly intractable social problems, the desire for a deus ex machina, whether to anticipate miraculous and swift success or to blame the current situation on, is instinctual in the US. Perhaps due to the strong bent towards individualism.

What is always interesting to me is the frequent seduction of leaders, who seem to begin to embrace this uber-human image. Maybe power does corrupt our image of self?

The randomness and lack of control over mega-systems and events are frightening to us culturally, I guess. Like Dr. Cuban, I was irreversibly affected by the ideas of James March, who resisted the heroic models of leadership very persuasively. But letting go is difficult!!!

Posted by: dsacken | September 9, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

Try this:

Posted by: edlharris | September 9, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Tackling long-term problems with cooperative, shared leadership is unglamorous, often unrewarding and plain hard work. Much easier to let the hero ride into town, fire the silver bullet, and make the townsfolk safe and free from worry.

Posted by: speakuplouder | September 9, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Remember that almost all officials who led and presided over the decades of decline in DCPS had ed. degrees. Degrees are no guarantee of success in any way.

Linda TRT says cooperation of the classroom teacher is essential in reform. She is right, as she often is. Too bad we don't have that cooperation in the District, and haven't for many years before Rhee showed up. The educators tend to like ironclad job security, high pay, no or light evaluations, whether they are great teachers or ineffective. Finally, note the years of chaos Cuban describes in the wake of the departure of the superintendents that are more like Rhee than the second group. That is what we will get if she leaves. I am voting for Vince Gray for a variety of reasons, but not because of his weak, pushover stance on education and his weak performance at Human Services. Leave No Teacher Behind.

Posted by: axolotl | September 9, 2010 8:35 PM | Report abuse

"Finally, note the years of chaos Cuban describes in the wake of the departure of the superintendents that are more like Rhee than the second group."

I think you miss Cuban's point that those superintendents like Rhee are sprinters. Their short tenures are part of the problem. The chaos you speak of is caused by the churn not the departure of their heroic facade.

Unionista por la vida.

Posted by: stevendphoto | September 9, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

This article is cute, but unrealistic. Today's students need superintendents who can fix their broken school TODAY, not in 10 years after they've dropped out and ended up in jail.

Posted by: RL67 | September 9, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

"This article is cute..."

How condescending. Has Rhee "fixed" DC's broken schools during her tenure? No. Look at the DCCAS results. Now Rhee will cut-and-run like the other "heroes" while the real heroes labor on without the fan fare. U.S. reading and math scores have been stagnant since the 1970's. Good luck fixing anything TODAY let alone a complex system. Do we need to change the adage to Rome was built in a day? Schools mirror society and we are all complicit in their ills and cures. If you're not part of the solution then...What have you done lately to help these students?

Posted by: stevendphoto | September 9, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse

Steven -- no, the article is not cute. You are cute, and obviously on the side of, if not one of, the unionistas.

They want it to take forever to effect improvements. Delay is the easiest way to block change. Manana. And the other commenter is right -- maybe another generation with broken lives will be victimized while a subset of teachers dithers and blocks any kind of change. The DCPS is a monument to no-change that Rhee challenged, with some good results and some not and others indeterminate. But all were opposed by the unionistas. Some good/great teachers were not snookered and have no fear of Impact, or management, or the parents, or the godforsaken Washington Post. No one is responsible for the state of the DCPS. Leave No Teacher Behind.

Posted by: axolotl | September 9, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

Apparently there is a parallel universe out there where axolotls wonder if they are men and men wonder if they are axolotls. If that reference doesn't make sense then you don't know much about axolotls or literature.

"Steven -- no, the article is not cute. You are cute, and obviously on the side of, if not one of, the unionistas."

Ya think? I only started signing my posts with the moniker "unionista." Thanks for the catchy label. And yes, I am cute in many different ways.

Leave no pundit informed. After the Rheeformers have slashed and burned the teacher corps you will see that too will have no significant IMPACT on student achievement. If teachers have no fear of IMPACT than they are misinformed or clueless. 55% of their evaluation based on an invalid, one-time tests? P-lease. No one in the "real world" has that kind of weight put on a quantitative measure of their performance.

Check out School Finance 101's post about "Value-added and the non-random sorting of kids who don’t give a sh^%t."’t-give-a-sht/

I find it laughable that you think Rhee made a difference in the lives of DCPS students. If anyone made a difference in their lives it was their teachers who you like to demonize so.

Posted by: stevendphoto | September 9, 2010 11:38 PM | Report abuse

stevendphoto wrote: Check out School Finance 101's post about "Value-added and the non-random sorting of kids who don’t give a sh^%t."’t-give-a-sht/
That was a good article. Another thing--there are kids who DO give a sh^%t but who get so sick of all the testing that they just don't try to do well on the test. I had to proctor MSA's in a 3rd grade class last year. It was interesting to watch kids whom I knew were smart just give up and bubble in anything. One kid kept pushing his pencil off his desk so that he could get out of his seat to pick it up. He just couldn't sit for such an extended amount of time. Some would get frustrated and ask for help and the teacher and I could only answer, "Read it again. Do your best." I can't tell you the looks of frustration that we would see after saying that. This type of testing is not a natural way for kids this age to show what they have learned. Some of these kids who performed poorly know so much more than the MSA's will ever show. The sad thing is that the teacher will be accused of not doing his or her job, when in reality they have.

Posted by: musiclady | September 10, 2010 12:01 AM | Report abuse

Most "reformer" don't even understand the problems, and there are several. 1) The core of the school is the teacher. They are the ones in contact with the students. Principals and Superintendents can issue top-down orders, but unless the teachers feel ownership of the process, it is not going to happen. The best systems have programs where all stakeholders are involved in change, not just the ones who suck up to the boss. 2) You can lead a horse to water but..... Who is supposed to make education important to the students? 3) How do I teach a student who is chronically absent? I received a negative comment in my evaluation for failing students with a 75% absentee rate.(more than 1/2 of the class) Over half of the abences were due to administrative suspensions. 4) Parents are not only not involved, but many have actually told me that school didn't help them so they see no reason to push their kid to do well. That is an impossible hurdle. 5) School systems are not businesses. There is no quarterly bottom line. You cannot run a school like a business. The children present too many vairables. 6) Budgets are cut regularly. I understand that people object to taxes, but if you are going to have children, it is going to cost money to educate them. Cut my budget and ask me to do more? Then expect to pay me like the professional I am. 7) Students and parents object to frequent tests, then they complain about single unit tests as "high stakes tests". I could do a personal evaluation of each student if I had the time. (in HS, at 30 kids per class and 2 evals/day..) Nope- won't be ready for the State testing. That will be my fault too.

The reality is that teachers have a minimum of a bachlors in subject, plus specific training to translate that to the classroom, plus an internship where they practice under supervision, and yet there is very little respect for what they are ecpected to do. Remember, I not only teach your child, I deal with lack of nutrition, social angst, abuse in their personal life, medical issues, family vacations during school time, Helicopter parents who are sure their kid is more important than yours, peer pressure from the street, and a society that expects genius children from kids who don't want to be there in the fist place.
Make this a joint collaboration with teachers, administrators, parents and students all setting goals and objectives, and all sharing the pain of failure together, (not just pointing fingers of blame), make families and education important to the child, and create realistic goals, (not just every kid should go to college) stop social promotion, and put some of the responsibility on the student, and maybe we can see a change in education. Why do charter schools and private schools work? Because everyone involved has a stake in the success or failure of the student. I suspect it would work the same way in public schools if only it was given a chance.

Posted by: DrPhrogg | September 10, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Schools are not broken, but they have developed some serious rust, then been painted over with the whitewash of innovation by "educational leaders" who have never been in the classroom. We complain that students don't learn math, but we give them calculators in the early grades so that they don't need to learn math- they have a crutch. This program was handed down from the top, and encouraged by the standardized testing. Problems like this are simple to fix.

Posted by: DrPhrogg | September 10, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company