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What Are Your Lessons For Michelle Rhee?

My colleague Bill Turque, the Post’s D.C. schools reporter, has taught me just about everything I know about the inner workings of the city’s public schools and its one-of-a-kind schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee. He has an intriguing piece today on the second anniversary of her effort to turn around what is probably the worst urban school system in the country, if you don’t count Detroit. Bill says Rhee learned four big lessons: fame can bite, money doesn’t always talk, politics matters and beware unintended consequences.

I think he has those exactly right. But aren’t there more? Use the comments to this post to tell us how you think Rhee is doing, both good and bad. Should Rhee be so friendly to public charter schools? Is she handling the teacher contract properly? Is it so important, as Rhee says, to have teachers who think that disadvantaged students can rise high with good teaching?

When I interviewed her Tuesday for a video post on, she said about 10 percent of the system’s principals will have to go, and most of the rest will have to prove themselves, even though she hired them. Is that refreshing candor or popping off? Tell her, and us, what she should be doing between now and her third anniversary.

By Washington Post editors  | June 14, 2009; 1:00 AM ET
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Keep those feet to the fire and don't be afraid to "settle hash"....keep it up!

Posted by: andio76 | June 14, 2009 2:39 AM | Report abuse

Two of the most prevalent complaints by teachers are the lack of adequate support by most administrators in discipline and the hypocrisy by many administrators in saying they support high standards, yet chastize teachers whose high standards result in many students earning low grades. There is public relations deception in many school systems, whereby lofty standards are promoted in public rhetoric and supposed school goals, yet the curriculum in fact is often diluted by many teachers so student failures will be minimized.

Teachers should have high standards of discipline and curriculum, but they need the support of administrators, to maintain either or both, which are necessary to improve many public schools. My suggestions to Ms. Rhee are two: for her to require all administrators in middle and high schools teach one class each semester, not an A.P. class to motivated students, but an ordinary academic class having many unmotivated students. Second, Ms. Rhee herself should teach such a class at one of the most challenging secondary schools in Washington DC for a semester.

Perhaps these experiences would result in Ms. Rhee and some of the administrators having more empathy with the very challenging tasks facing most teachers in the city schools.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | June 14, 2009 2:50 AM | Report abuse

If we use the analogy of the teaching cadre as the military, then Ms. Rhee would do well to consider taking a less mouthy and impulsive style of leadership--the kind shown by those military professionals who have moved up too fast and have not taken the time to truly earn the trust of ordinary soldiers. Like Omar Bradley or Paul Freeman, the most exceptional military leaders earned their place after a long, difficult, and often frustrating climb. You can't become a colonel after 3 years of soldiering--I think the same applies for public education.
After 13 years of public school instruction, I can say that Michelle Rhee has not earned my trust. Rhee strikes me one who spends as much time cultivating a public perception of her own effectiveness--lots of noisy statements and sound bites--but does not do the hard, mundane work of identifying with and motivating the teachers and administrators she leads.

She moved up too fast, too early. Aggressive, smart, sure of herself? You bet. Experienced, wise, trusted?

Not yet.
No, not yet.

Posted by: theodorebrown | June 14, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Well, its a shame you don't like Asians who want to revise the "worst urban school system" in the country. It's also a shame you learn everything you know about schools from a Post reporter. It's also a shame you think so poorly of a highly educated, intelligent, hard-working school administrator that you have to quip about her "popping off". God knows we wouldn't want Rhee to be "friendly" to schools of any kind. AND ABOVE ALL, anyone KNOWS that disadvantaged students can't rise high with good teaching, so its really not important to even think about it. You, sir, are a prime example of mindless demagoguery that limits excellence.

Posted by: chatard | June 14, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I love the candor. As a former Washingtonian who lived through the disaster that were the Barry years, combined with the wave of 'dis'respect urban culture that developed in the 90s, anything that can 'sweep up the mess' is better than the disaster that has become urban youth from the schoolroom to the subway.

Love him or hate him, Rudy Giuliani did wonders for NYC by punishing the slightest of crimes, no questions asked. Once a hell hole, Manhattan once again became a destination by the end of the 1990s.

While I fully understand the relationship between labor and management, the keys to success for Ms. Rhee will be to set a sharp tone, lay down the law in a fair way, but never, ever, waver. Her job is to be cajoling but a velvet hammer when needed; her principals' jobs are to be the hammer. And their job is to set rules for teachers to administer classrooms.

Management rights here are to ensure that the mission of the public school is carried out. Period. In the birthday cake incident, it is lack of discipline by teacher(s) that allowed it to happen. A principal's job, in this case, is to send a clear message that this action will NEVER be tolerated. Period. No union in the world can back it up, since any good contract stipulates management rights to ensure the mission is met, and in this case, learning does not occur, the mission is not met, and reprimands - or firings - are a fair result.

There are many cases, where an urban principal has "cleaned house" simply by laying down ground rules and never wavering. Ms. Rhee appears to be doing the same by requiring that her principals, and teachers, meet the challenge. More power to her.

Posted by: wxdancer | June 14, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Ms Rhee has awarded herself a failing grade of " F " for her performance to date. Given the need for consistency and fairness she ought to resign immediately just as she has terminated others who have " failed" by her performance standards. Is this not logical?

Posted by: ronsydel | June 14, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Chancellor Rhee's brand of courageous, aggressive, impatient leadership led her to take on the biggest, most contentious issues first: closing schools, firing underperforming teachers and principals, and attacking the collective bargaining agreement.

There's a political cost, as well as a social cost, in the form of "trust", with taking on these kinds of issues with the kind of fervor that has characterized her administration. She's now experiencing that cost, with teachers and Council members--as well as many school reformers who should be her natural allies--but who have found themselves bobbing in the wake created by her relentless pursuit of her priorities.

I am sure that Chancellor Rhee will learn that evidence-based preschool instruction is a feasible, cost-effective foundation for long-term systemic reform. Scaling up preschool that builds vocabulary, phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and critical social and emotional skills will reduce crippling special education costs and complement strategies to improve teaching and learning. This could be accomplished in the near-term through partnerships with existing providers and longer-term by investment in new teacher training and professional development systems.

It should become a priority that will build political and social capital, as well as enrollment and better test scores.

It is preferable to provide disadvantaged students with early language, literacy, math, social and emotional skills through data-driven early interventions, than it is to remediate them after they've experienced failure in the primary grades.

Posted by: JackMcCarthy | June 14, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Rhee might want to take advice from President Obama, who has both intellectual brilliance AND interpersonal skills. On the subject of teacher performance and evaluation, he had this to say:

"So far, teacher's unions have resisted the idea of pay for performance, in part because it could be disbursed at the whim of a principal. The unions also argue - rightly, I think - that most school districts rely solely on test scores to measure teacher performance, and that test scores may be highly dependent on factors beyond any teacher's control, like the number of low-income or special-needs students in their classroom.

But these aren't insoluble problems. Working with teacher's unions, states and school districts can develop better measures of performance, ones that combine test data with a system of peer review (most teachers can tell you with amazing consistency which teachers in their schools ae really goood, and which are really bad.)" from The Audacity of Hope, 2006.

So if Ms. Rhee really wants to help DC children, she might want to work WITH teachers and not against them. Frankly I think it's too late but you never know.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | June 14, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

A leader is not defined by their title, but by the number of people they engage as followers. As a DCPS teacher, I applaud the Chancellor’s honest self-appraisal of her performance. Chancellor Rhee has made an excellent first step in establishing a trusting relationship with her constituents. Hopefully, Chancellor Rhee’s honest self-appraisal will empower all adult stakeholders in our schools to hold themselves to the same high standard of accountability. Like the Chancellor, I am extremely disappointed with my performance this year. When I looked at my student roster at the beginning of the school year, I had a large number of students who had scored “proficient” and “advanced” on the most recent DC-CAS assessment. I was stunned several weeks later when STAR Pretests indicated these same students were actually several grade levels behind in reading and math. Sadly, raising scores multiple grade levels by the end of the school year still left some of my students below their current grade level. Like our Chancellor, I find no solace in having done my very best. I am ashamed. I can only hope those policymakers, education marketplace advocates, public school advocates, teachers’ unions, and the media emulate our Chancellor’s honest self-appraisal regarding their own roles in promoting the divisiveness that threatens the future of our nation by destroying the future of the children entrusted to our care. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, we will all hang together or we will all hang separately.

Posted by: mrpozzi | June 14, 2009 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Rhee has made waves attacking - sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly - those veteran teachers who fail to fulfill the demands of the profession.

With her reputation as a serious reformer established, I'd like to see Rhee exert some leadership on the ranks of young educators who look up to her. She can speak out and ask dedicated young teachers, both those in TFA and those on parallel tracks, to stick with the school system, to follow her in staying put in urban schools, and to learn from the mistakes she has made in her first couple of years.

Posted by: teachercertified | June 14, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

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