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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/ 7/2010

The (D.C.) Odyssey, starring Rhee and Fenty

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Sam Chaltain, a D.C.-based educator and strategist. He was the national director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, an education advocacy organization, and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, which helps educators create democratic learning communities. This post first appeared on his blog, Chaltain is the author or co-author of five books, including "American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community."

By Sam Chaltain
A decade ago this month, I taught The Odyssey to a 9th grade classroom for the last time. Today, I’m reminded of Homer’s central lessons – now nearly 3,000 years old – as I watch Adrian Fenty’s tenure as Washington D.C. mayor speed towards a potentially spectacular, and tragic, end.

I mean ‘tragic’ the ways the Greeks did – as a form of art based on human suffering in which some people find pleasure, but all people find wisdom and insight. And although the election is still a week away, no doubt political scientists are already scrambling to understand why a young leader who, just four years ago, began a presumptively-lengthy reign of the nation’s capitol by winning every single precinct, may now soon be out of work.

“He would have evaded his doom if in his blind folly he had not talked so arrogantly.”

As befits a Greek tragedy, most of the mayor’s wounds are self-inflicted – chief among them his decision, in a multiracial city, to replace black leaders with non-black replacements in four of the city’s highest-profile jobs within the first six months of taking office. Of those replacements, only one is known both locally and nationally – D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. And of those replacements, only one has chosen to hitch her fate so directly to the mayor’s, and to next week’s primary election.

“Only a fool would challenge the friend who is entertaining him in a strange country.”

From the start, Fenty and Rhee have behaved as strangers in a strange land. In Fenty’s case, it was by turning a tin ear to many of the core supporters who had been most essential to his victory in 2006. With Rhee, it was by repeatedly making public comments that demonized the group most essential to her efforts – the city’s teachers.

“We came to grief through our own senseless stupidity.”

The lesson here – both today and in Homer’s day – is not that conciliation and collaboration are all that is needed to change a calcified system filled with entrenched interests, habits and resistance.

Real change is complex and evasive, and part of the tragedy in Washington D.C. stems from Fenty’s and Rhee’s potential to succeed where so many others have failed. There is still hope that they will, and that a dramatic victory coupled with deep reflection on past missteps will awaken in them a greater awareness of the long-term promise of collective capacity, as opposed to the short-term power of individual glory. But time is running out.

It may also be, as Andy Rotherham wrote this week in The Washington Post, that the very system thought to be so essential to their success – mayoral control – helped assure their undoing.

“It decreases the political demands on the leader of the schools,” Rotherham writes, “but it does not decrease the political challenges of running a school system . . . As we’re seeing now, with or without mayoral control, urban education reform is as much about politics as it is about technical expertise or results.”

“I have learnt to use my brains by now and to know right from wrong: my childhood is a thing of the past.”

The Odyssey survives in our collective memory because Odysseus’s long and difficult journey home mirrors the universal journey of life itself. Along each of our respective paths, there will be temptation, suffering, missteps and misfortune. Our only hope is to reflect on what happens and learn as we go.

Win or lose, the mayor and the schools chancellor have given us all an opportunity to learn from the journey that has led to this point. They have brought about massive changes to a system desperately in need of a new way of operating. And they have done so in a way that has likely, in typical Greek fashion, sealed their own fate.

There is a third way, but to take it we would be wise to remember the advice the aging warrior Menelaus gives to the young and impressionable Telemachus: “There should be moderation in all things.”


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 7, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, Guest Bloggers, Sam Chaltain  | Tags:  andrew rotherham and washington post, d.c. mayoral primary, d.c. schools, fenty and grey, fenty and race, rhee and fenty, will rhee stay or go?  
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Thank you Sam; you have not only written a very clear and illustrative 'assessment' of the reign of Mr. Fenty and Chancellor Rhee, but you have show the value of studying the liberal arts: in this case, literature, history and philosophy....and used them to create a metaphor. Would that we could guarantee our reformists find these aspects of education worthy of their scrutiny and inclusion.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 7, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Finally the intelligent reflective analysis that this important debate on the nature of public education requires and deserves. I am no Michelle Rhee fan, however, it would be hypocritical of me to declare her 100% wrong. There was a part of me who rooted for her success, even as I cringed at the self-destructive manner in which she set about achieving it. I rooted for her success because her success would be the success of the children of Washington, DC. What concerned me is the personality cult that she insisted be a part of it. Her success was not achieved simply because she was Michele Rhee, rather because there was a yearning for success by almost everyone, especially by many of the teachers that she vilified and victimized. Certainly change is difficult in an era of failure. There are entrenched interest that will stop at nothing to protect their legitimate and illegitimate perogatives. There are politicians, community leaders, teachers, and even parents who benefited from the status quo. To make this a "teachers bad, I'm the savior" narrative gave those entrenched interest the potent weapon they needed to galvanize support. Even now by injecting herself into the politics of the mayoral election she insults the intelligence of the residents of the district by suggesting that only she is capable of saving this system. I will conceed that she indeed was a catalyst, but reject the notion that she is the formula.
It is my hope that DC will continue this very important conversation. That it will no longer be cult driven, but rather be driven by the urgent necessity for our children to receive a quality education. I also hope that Mr. Fenty and Ms. Rhee will be reflective upon this election whatever the outcome, for clearly they will not cease to be a part of the conversation.

Posted by: 4therecord | September 7, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Fenty's demise, should it occur, is no tragedy (in the Greek sense), since it is not the work of the gods who control the fate of us earthly creatures. Rather it's the result of his own political miscalculations, buying into the so-called "reform" plan cooked up by, among others, the very ungodly "billionaire boys club," as Diane Ravitch dubbed Gates, Broad, and Walton funds. He hitched his opportunist political cart to a lame horse, Michelle Rhee, whose privatization plans, teacher bashing and political manipulations appear to be losers in the public eye.

While Chaltain, Rotherham and others may be wringing their hands over this modern "tragedy." Many teachers, parents and other voters will be celebrating a victory, albeit a small one, for the public good.

Posted by: MickeyK | September 7, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Want to peek into the soul of Michelle Rhee? Go back to the Time magazine feature, that of the broom wielding Chancellor in the iconic cover picture. In the story Rhee denigrates every other adult in the D.C. school system including her staff. She cruelly mocks teachers that dare speak of building an emotional connection with their students. She shamelessly and coldly exploits a true student leader at Anacostia High, young Mr. Rhodes, to advance her agenda. She seems to have no use for children being nurtured emotionally in the classroom. Just teach them to read for the test! And make sure there's no poetry involved! And if they get too rambunctious put masking tape over their mouths. Make 'em bleed!

To their great misfortune, Michelle Rhee was ushered into the lives of the District's children by the "global economy" when it was still viable. Globalization was at the very foundation of business model for public schools, charters, vouchers, data driven instruction, merit pay, standardized testing, and most perversely of all, paying students to consume the corporate, let's call it "the BP version of education". Globalization was the reason the Business Roundtable was interested in public education at all and the reason Bill Gates orchestrated the DCPS takeover by his male spokes-model Adrian Fenty. The corporate CEO's wanted a profit making private school system and Gates wants higher profits for Microsoft and ancillary companies like Kaplan Testing Company.

When the definitive history of Michelle Rhee's brief tenure in Washington, D.C. is written it will go something like this. For her lack of any discernible qualifications, the shocking appointment of Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of D.C. public schools, can be understood only when you realize that she was brought in to inflict maximum damage on the district's public schools. And as a cultist (Teach For America, New Teacher Project) and true believer she came at a bargain basement salary. Really qualified people were courted (Mayor Fenty even visited Miami with several members of the D.C. commission to interview Dr. Rudolph Crew) but that was just for show. They could not be counted on to mindlessly take a club to D.C.'s public schools and the boss Gates wanted Rhee. The havoc and chaos that Rhee caused was no accident. It was the plan!

Posted by: natturner | September 7, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Many seem to be writing the Fenty/Rhee team off a bit prematurely. Or has the election already been held?

Many in the progressive camp are also critical of the way she treated some DC teachers. All she ever did was state the interests of the children in the District would be a higher priority than those of the adults. My assessment of her actions along these lines - if the shoe fits, wear it; if it doesn't, you have nothing to worry about.

There are actually a number of teachers pleased with the new contract where linking student test scores to teachers (over time) will count as fifty percent of a teacher's evaluation. Can you imagine? There are actually teachers in the District not threatened by such a provocative concept. These teachers are not afraid to have their performance matched to the students they teach. Again, what a novel idea.

Posted by: phoss1 | September 7, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

"There is still hope that they will, and that a dramatic victory coupled with deep reflection on past missteps will awaken in them a greater awareness of the long-term promise of collective capacity, as opposed to the short-term power of individual glory."

I don't think Rhee has reached that point in her growth yet.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 7, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Oh my goodness!!! Maybe if she leaves, Secretary of Education Duncan will want her job????!!!! A win win for the nation.
I find it so interesting as I just read a heading that the Chicago mayor is leaving. According to the article, he has been credited for saving Chicago's public school system? I hear others who disagree with this, but the media doesn't report this.
I don't get why the media presents info as one sided. I just don't understand.

Posted by: tutucker | September 7, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

“We Believe in Mayor Fenty” – Please check out the videos that we have created in support of the Mayor. It shows a Ward 6 mother supporting Mayor Fenty, a Ward 3 mother, and a small Latino business, La Morenita, expressing their strong support.

We also created a poster for each Ward, where you can print, post and show your friends that the Mayor Believes in the District.

Twitter: @WeBelieveFENTY

Vote FENTY – September 14, 2010!

Posted by: davidgdo | September 7, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

Fenty and Rhee needed to be far more collaborative. Sit down with the people you disagree with, extend an olive branch, and make concessions. Your foes might be willing to work with you, if they think you're geniune and see that you're willing to meet them halfway or even one-third of the way. Fenty and Rhee are a part of the young, arrogant, "post-racial" America. The older generation is not. These individuals still have memories of the pre-civil rights movement and when you could get arrested for trying to vote. For Fenty to come in and get rid of the Black leadership and to replace them with nearly all non-whites was suicide. Rhee never worked as a principal or an assistant principal, does not have a PhD. and some how she ended up becoming a chancellor of a large urban school district. If a young Black Man or Black woman were hired with such weak credentials, they would have quickly been labled as a quota or a politcal hire. I say good riddance to Fenty and Rhee.

Posted by: rankcon | September 8, 2010 5:46 AM | Report abuse

they didn't deserve all this flowery rhetoric. "To thine own self be true," in their case, when City Paper asks "is Adrian Fenty a jerk?" they don't even have to wait for the answer. Sad thing is i bet she leaves before he does, sinking ship and all. wish i knew what these "results" were he always brags about, don't see it.

Posted by: rufkd | September 8, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

To rankcon
I am African American,55, and lived in a time of segregated movie theaters and other facilities which I remember. I am also post racial. The notion that age somehow dictates perspective is absurd. There are plenty of folk much younger than I am who are very race conscious. I don't give a hang what color or race you are, you still need to be competent. The superficial, in your face attitude of this administration conceals the incompetent infrastructure that they have put in place to achieve meritorious goals. Ms. Rhee's lack of credentials is relevant not because of her race, but because of the long term damage her "make it up as you go along" tactics have caused. I am a teacher and voted for the contract. I have no problem with accountability. She does not even have to collaborate with me. But do not come at me with some half baked evaluation system designed not for student achievement but for attacking teachers. Make it competent, make it comprehensive, and do not leave loop holes in it big enough to shove a federal building through. My problem with Rhee is not that she's strident, arrogant, and unresponsive, my problem is that she's incompetent.

Posted by: 4therecord | September 8, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

4therecord, you're not African American. Let's act like grown-ups and tell the truth. You're saying that Ms. Rhee's lack of credentials is not relevant. That is is totally unrealistic. You don't hire someone for a critical leadership role who clearly lacks the experience and credentials, then that person comes in and fires hundreds of qualified teachers. Now those teachers are filing all sorts of lawsuits and Rhee is likely off to California. We need leadership. Leadership for this type of role starts with years of experience in the classroom and as an assistant principal and a principal. Then some experience running a comparable school district. We need a person with field experience and leadership experience. Rhee brought none of the above. As for your notion of "meritorious goals", there is only so far you can go with that. Teachers can't make kids learn. Many of these kids are in the foster care system, are illegals who can barely read English, etc. It would be nice to have a Chancellor in place who has actually ran a school district before or maybe even worked as a principal. It's about LEADERSHIP, not personality. A true leader inspires, collaborates, and builds bridges.

Posted by: rankcon | September 8, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Chaltain is mistaken in his suggestion that the entrenched interests could have been dealt with in a kinder, gentler way. If Mayor Fenty and his appointed Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee go down to defeat, so be it. The "real" people of the DC--those whose children attend the public schools will have been snookered once again by those who benefit from the embarrassingly broken status quo. To borrow a phrase, it takes an abrasive man and woman to build a smooth-running, effective urban public school system--especially one that was broken beyond repair.

Posted by: Watersville | September 8, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Will someone please explain, so that many of us really understand be4 we vote, where else in America:

Someone can become school district head, where principals as direct reports, when they themselves were never a principal?
Or an Asst Principal?

With 3 total years of teaching?

Nevermind a PhD cause not even in Mayberry can one have this role WITH A PhD and never being a principal first.

Cause it's difficult to manage plumbers when one has never been one themself, especially when the whole plumbing team knows this.

Posted by: morrisday1 | September 8, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Rankcon, you need to reread what 4therecord wrote. 1) why do you think 4therecond is not AA? why pick a fight on that point? 2) 4therecond actually said that Rhee's creditentials ARE relevant: "Ms. Rhee's lack of credentials is relevant not because of her race, but because of the long term damage her "make it up as you go along" tactics have caused."
I think you owe 4therecord an apology.

Posted by: sacramentogirl | September 8, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Will people stop saying that the mayoral election is on September 14th. That's the Democratic primary. Everyone can't vote in the Democratic primary. I'll be glad when this city matures and finally elects someone of a different party. The Democrats run a monopoly in this city.

Posted by: forgetthis | September 8, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Why thank you sacramentogirl for quoting me correctly. My wife, my 13 brothers and 2 sisters will be amazed to know that I am not African American (I surely look that way in the mirror). Certainly not as amazed as I am. All of these years I have been checking the wrong boxes. I assure you rankcon that I am 55 and until you changed my designation I was African American and proud of it. Don't get your hackles in a tether. The meritorious goal that I referred to is improving student achievement not just in DC, but across this country. I agree with you fully that Ms. Rhee is not qualified to run a school system because of her lack of credentials. However, where our opinions diverge possibly is that I see the evidence of her incompetence in her functioning as well as in her resume.

Posted by: 4therecord | September 8, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

The media loves to say that DC teachers hate Rhee but the numbers speak for themselves: they voted nearly 4 to 1 to APPROVE the reform-laden contract she offered them!

Posted by: RL67 | September 8, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

It certainly helps to appoint someone who is actually qualified and committed to tackle the education issue in DC. Although part of the problem in the past has been bad leadership in the school systems, it is not the main reason why black children are behind their white counter parts. If the problem is just bad leadership, everyone should be affected, not just Black children. But that is not what we see.
Could it be that we are treating the symptom rather than addressing the cause. you don't need to read Homer to understand the reality in DC school system today. We need to address the economic issues of the households where these kids come from. The answer is very simple to why kids in Johannesburg are doing well in school and kids in Soweto not doing well. Now the solution is not a simple one.

Posted by: slowasturtle | September 8, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

slowasturtle, may be hard for you to believe this, but I have 3 white direct reports. I'm not. Go figure,they work for me. Cause all of "us" are not uneducated and making $2 per hour.

Posted by: morrisday1 | September 8, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

No matter how good Grey may or may not be the fact remains is that if elected he owes his soul to Barry and Ward 8 and the price will be steep. Fenty is a jerk but he got stuff done and DC will see an unwelcomed return of Barry politics. So I guess you have to vote which evil you want.

Posted by: KBlit | September 8, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

kblit, many feel the same about Rhee.

She stays, she keeps making change to shake things up that needed shaken.

She stays, school test scores have actually gotten worse since 2007. And only 10 of 121 schools just passed an external audit.

So that's elections, usually damn if ya do, damn if ya don't. But Rhee going to Cali appeases many.

Posted by: morrisday1 | September 8, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse


You missed the whole picture. you know there were free salves during slavery. Does that mean there was no slavery?

You probably don't make $2 an hour and you are probably a professional. However, your situation cannot be used an an example to counter my argument. In DC, almost all the poor households are black and of course their schools are the worst.

Posted by: slowasturtle | September 8, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

“I have learnt to use my brains by now and to know right from wrong: my childhood is a thing of the past.”

Sadly, none of this can be farther from the truth as regards Fenty. Or Rhee, for that matter.

P.S. @natturner: Bravo!

Posted by: nan_lynn | September 8, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

It just amazes me...that this has become an African-American and Asian issue. For some apparent reason it has evolved into whether whites like black over the other regarding the Mayor's race. Then it morphes if one black will retain the asian-woman. How does a black candidate loses face with his community because he favors his black fraternity brothers.

Yet, there's a candidate who admits he's the first African-American to infiltrate an all-white fraternity at a predominantly white university. Then we have an Asian woman who was sought after by the white Deputy Mayor of Education, Victor Reinoso to run the helm of DCPS that is about 90% of black students in a city that has about a 70% African-American demographic.

We are questioning as blacks if a black family unit is too little too late for the exposure as it in now speaks of Mr. and Mrs. Adrian Fenty...and the world can only ask...what the whites are thinking when the Asian Chancellor is engaged to marry the Black Mayor of another city?

Last night you have Ron Moten and Marion Barry debate about the candidates...and one is saying give Fenty one more chance...and the other is saying it is too late...then the other recants...we forgave you Barry? Then the room goes silent.

What I want to see is the true Mayor's race race... I want to see those blacks who honestly hate Fenty go against those whites who honestly support Fenty. And let's be fair...I want to see those blacks who like Gray go against those whites who don't like Gray.

How did Bruce Johnson of WUSA-tv get the first interview of Fenty's family this week...plainly put it was because he's Fenty's frat-brother? K A Psi...till they die. All things that are fraternal are not that bad. Marion Barry was a fraternal member too...but I guess sex-phi-sex is not recognized by the greek council.

You can be black-balled in more ways than one.

Posted by: PowerandPride | September 8, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

slowasaturtle, I have no kids in Dc Schools. So ...

And the 3 whites still report to me, and earn less.

Posted by: morrisday1 | September 8, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

The sad part about blacks are this, etc. is (1) Whites got the education by preventing all others from the same for 300 years, then some bask in how smarter they are. Should be, only ones reading and writing for 300 years. Only ones playing baseball, golf, etc. forever, but everytime they let others play, others take it over. (2) Fenty or Gray: the next mayor will not look like GW Bush (3) slowasaturtle, talking about dumb blacks in DC - why stop there?

Why not talk about the Discovery guy, yesterday's Montgomery County crazy shooting, UVA, VA Tech, Columbine, etc.

So called smart kids - right? But crazy as h ___

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