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Teacher in troubled school likes Rhee's impatience

Anthony Priest is one of those personnel office surprises--a 44-year-old just starting as a teacher. He has two degrees in engineering from Georgia Tech and a masters in business administration. He does marathons and triathalons. In 2008 he was project manager for the redevelopment of a 300,000-square-foot D.C. office building.

But he decided it would be more interesting to teach math, so he accepted an assignment at one of the most chaotic public schools in the region, Spingarn High in Northeast Washington. Since then, he says, he has had many adventures, including a first-hand look at the inspiring and results-oriented (at least to him) management practices of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

His first contact with Rhee concerned the broken lock on his classroom door. Spingarn has hall walkers--students and non-students who stroll its long corridors and rarely go to class. Every day they would open the door to Priest’s classroom, walk in and yell at his students or him. There were threats, thefts, even assaults. The school’s security guards were ineffective. He asked the principal several times to have the door fixed so that he could control his students better.

The principal told him that was not the problem. She told three different staff members, he said, to observe his class and make suggestions. All three said he should lock his door.

Finally he sent an email to the principal and an assistant superintendent asking that the lock be fixed. A week passed with no response, so he sent it again with a copy to Rhee, whom he had met before. Thirty minutes later she copied Priest on her email to a specialist in such matters. The next day the door was fixed.

The repair, Priest said, became “a huge help on my ability to control the class.” But the school got worse. Priest had liked his principal, a Rhee hire, at the beginning of the school year. She once visited his class, something that the previous year’s principal had not done. But to his dismay, she mounted a campaign to cut back on suspensions, praising the fact that they were down 60 percent in the first marking period. With miscreants unpunished, order disintegrated, Priest said.

By January, after the school was evacuated to search for a rumored gun, another teacher emailed Rhee asking for help. Rhee responded in 30 minutes and soon met the Spingarn faculty, with no administrators present. Ten days later the school had a new principal with a different approach to suspensions and other matters.

Priest applauds this, as do many educators, parents and students who have seen Rhee’s lightning responses to emailed pleas for action. The chancellor has an impatience that many people like. It is the hallmark of her cohort of aggressive younger educators who are working in urban school districts and in some cases starting their own public charter schools.

As new teachers they saw their schools were broken, tried to make quick changes and were told to slow down. They decided their students should not have to wait for a decent education, so they charged ahead. Some of the ones I have watched closely have had wonderful results. Others have struggled.

The Spingarn story has been repeated elsewhere in the District. Rhee appoints a principal who looks good but fails to deliver. She fixes the situation as best she can, and appoints someone else. She believes, as do business-trained admirers like Priest, that this is the best and fastest way to make improvements.

An older generation of school managers, and political leaders, tends to disagree. They think patience works better in the long run. Whichever way the election goes Tuesday, in the next few years we may learn who is right.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | September 12, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Anthony Priest, Michelle A. Rhee, Rhee got it done in a day, Rhee intervenes when school in chaos, Spingarn High School, some teachers like Rhee's impatience, teacher could not get principal to fix broken door  
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I'm sorry Jay, we're 3 long years into Rheeform and you're excited about the fact that the head of the schools acts as a 24/7 help desk for teachers and parents?

I admit, it was a very cool parlor trick the first year, but it speaks volumes about the lack of progress Rhee has made in improving processes at 825.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | September 12, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

I loved the bit about the suspensions. It is the same story in MCPS. Central office is all about lowering the suspension rate, so we simply stop suspending kids and do nothing about problem behaviors. PBIS (the behavior intervention program) works pretty well, but problem behaviors remain. Personally, I think if a student does X,Y, or Z they should be punished for it, no matter what their income or race is.

Posted by: PoorTeacher | September 12, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Actually this story gives us a glimpse into these awful schools. A rough minority of students wreak havoc and deprive the majority of the education that they deserve. I want to repeat what I just said: even in these horrible schools there are children, probably a majority, who want to learn.

Instead of scapegoating teachers, Rhee and others could copy the methods used by other urban districts. In Long Beach, CA, for example, these persistent disciplinary problems are not allowed to disrupt classes. Instead, they are counseled, warned, and then removed from regular high schools. The law requires that they be educated, but they don't have to be educated with well-behaved kids. Actually this is what many successful parochial, and now charter, schools are doing: accepting only the kids whose parents agree to support a reasonable standard of behavior.

If only the parents of these kids cared enough to show up at this school tomorrow and demand changes. Their children would would get immediate relief. And, yes, I feel so sorry for the teachers too. I wish each one of them a position at Suburban Country Day.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 12, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

Oh, so this is why she replaced Patrick Pope???

Please, Jay.

Posted by: edlharris | September 12, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Or put her in charge of operations.

Posted by: edlharris | September 12, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

I agree with title1soccermom. I applaud Rhee for her responsiveness. I've emailed her a few times and when I do I get results. But something is wrong with a system when you have to email the top person to get something done. If Rhee were making lasting changes, getting something as simple as a door lock fixed should be a task that never reaches her. The system is still broken and she's not done a good job of fixing it.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | September 12, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

On the eve of an election which could seal Rhee's fate, I'd say this article is damning with faint praise.

Posted by: efavorite | September 12, 2010 9:56 PM | Report abuse

Since the print journalism appears to be an industry headed for the same fate as blacksmithing, perhaps Jay is trying out for his new job as a flack for KIPP schools or for Rhee's campaign to be the next Superintendent of Public Instruction in CA.

I learned something early in my career. The plural of anecdote is not data. Why is this anecdote (of which I agree their are a number) worthy of a blog post two days before an election....hmmm.

To be clear, their have always been people who have been able to work the DCPS bureaucracy to get what they need - they existed before Rhee, and they will exist after her.

Posted by: dyedwab1 | September 12, 2010 10:45 PM | Report abuse

"......An older generation of school managers, and political leaders....... think patience works better in the long run. Whichever way the election goes Tuesday, in the next few years we may learn who is right...."

Okay, it seems very obvious to me that sometimes you need patience, and sometimes you need to be quick.....why is this an either/or situation?!?

Also, fixing doors is not something Michelle Rhee should be micro-managing;if she were a really adept administrator she would have a GREAT facilities person working for her.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 12, 2010 10:56 PM | Report abuse

Faint praise is right. Rhee would be qualified to oversee the fixing of locks, etc. She's done good things with nuts and bolts. She's just incapable of leading a people person operation.

And you gave more evidence for that. PBIS is OK but as a complement, not a substitute for disciplinary consequences.

But what did Rhee do? She hired a principal and announced a campaign to reduce suspensions. She's the one who sent mixed messages to the entire system.

Rhee on this is like many/most administrators with no understanding of neighborhood schools. The long term goal is reducing suspensions - but that takes time and patience. The short term goal should be the RIGHT number of suspensions. Nobody can say what that target is. This column is actually another example of the doomed destructive approach of data-DRIVEN vs data-INFORMED accountability.

Posted by: johnt4853 | September 13, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

The desire to lower the suspension rate comes from the top. It looks to me like that policy is the flaw and that the first principal had been told to implement it. It is good that Rhee has gone back to the stricter policy of her predecessors. Young teachers and experienced teachers will applaud a strict policy that allows students to learn. Good for Rhee, for having the courage to go back to the previous policy and admitting her mistake.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 13, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Good posts, full of interesting information. I will have to take a closer look at PBIS. I get what dyedwab1 says about anecdotal evidence. I share the same view. But we have provided a ton of data about the DC schools in the last 3 years, including a nice summary of the numbers on firings from Bill Turque on the education page this morning. We all interpret that data in different ways. I thought these particular anecdotes from inside a sadly typical high school would add something in the last days of the debate. Next Monday I will have a column about DC high schools that appear to be getting better, and why I think they have chance of continuing to do so no matter who is chancellor.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 13, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Rhee is an expert of hiding child molesters in DCPS schools as a "Damage Controller." Why did Rhee allow Mr. Weismiller to be Riffed on October 2, 2009?

What did Rhee do to protect Ayanna Blue, Special Education Emotionally Disturb student at Shadd School SY 08-09, who was raped on numerous occasions in a DCPS classroom under her leadership?

FYI: Mr. Gary Washington, Principal of Spingarn HS and Spingarn Stay SY 10-11 has been an administrator over 15 years in DCPS and was trained by the late Percy Ellis. Mr. Washington is definitely from the old school regime and was not had picked for Rheeform New School Leaders program.

Enough is Enough!
Vote for Chairman Gray for Mayor on September 14, 2010.

Posted by: sheilahgill | September 13, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I also appreciate dyedwab1's concern over my career prospects, but I think the Post is willing to keep me on, at least online where I can't take up desk space or butt into the cafeteria line.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 13, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

In my oped piece on teachers being assessed by testing, I had four criteria. The second was "teachers can remove disruptive students from their classroom on a daily basis".

I can't even begin to describe the subtle pressure that administrators put on teachers to keep behavior problems in the classroom. "Give them a pass to another room!" "Let them pass out papers instead of doing work!" And of course, all the time, they assure teachers that if the students are *really* disruptive, that they should send them out. Meanwhile, they have meetings with teachers who have been giving too many referrals.

Happens again and again. And as Linda points out (and lord knows I don't often agree with Linda), the problem kids are a handful of the whole.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | September 13, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

"I learned something early in my career. The plural of anecdote is not data."

Posted by: dyedwab1

But that's how this blog works; one anecdote is worth 100 peer-reviewed studies. The answer to research is never research, rather it's: "I've seen different results" or "people I respect believe differently." That's why individual observations or experiences are of limited value unless validated by systematic study. Our society has, not surprisingly, accepted the idea that all "opinions" are equal, whether supported by research or not, or even in contradiction to well-established fact. Mr. Priest is like the climate-change skeptic who claims his experience with a heavy snow storm disproves the scientific consensus, which is based on peer-reviewed research.

"Also, fixing doors is not something Michelle Rhee should be micro-managing; if she were a really adept administrator she would have a GREAT facilities person working for her."

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large

Great leaders attract great people to work around them, and they encourage those great people to be creative, to discuss and argue ideas, and to learn. Rhee does none of this, so she surrounds herself with yes-men/women and inexperienced cult-followers. As with her education beliefs, mediocrity is the goal, and one that seems beyond reach. No COMPETENT person will ever work for Rhee, never mind great.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 13, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad Mr. Priest is impressed. If he thinks his words of praise will guarantee him job security with Ms. Rhee, he better think again. Look what happened to his principal, one of Rhee's chosen hires.

It seems to me the root of the problem is not the door. (It takes 3 people to observe and come to the conclusion he should lock it, duh?) That students and outsides are permitted to walk the halls and disrupt classes is unacceptable. The outsides should be charged with trespassing; the students should be warned and if the warnings go unheeded, suspended. The idiot principal (a Rhee pick) who would not suspend students to keep the percentages down should be fired. Most of all if Rhee were doing her job she would address the lack of security that is one big source of the problem. It is a safety issue for students and teachers. Does anyone really think a lock is the answer when you have what could be armed thugs roaming the halls? If the current security could not handle the school situation, find one that could. That would really impress. And that is part of creating an environment for students to learn and teachers to be effective. Too bad Ms. Rhee has not caught on.

Posted by: Frustratededucator | September 13, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

for mcstowy---I think the many researchers whose papers I review here, and link to the full texts, would disagree with you.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 13, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Face it, there is research from the finest universities and nonprofits proving just about any position one wants to take in ed. policy and management and pedagogy.

Listen to parents, listen to kids, listen to teachers who don't betray a consuming self interest and who take no responsibility for classroom results and who want to be free of pesky evaluations and being managed.

Ask yourself why DCPS has been on a trajectory toward abysmal bad quality for most of its decades under home rule, even if arrested for short stints by people like Rhee. If you want to damn tests, don't blame her for a dip or a trend.

Most of all, Vote Vince, and

Leave No Teacher Behind

Posted by: axolotl | September 13, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

title1soccermom -- in whatever you do as a mother and/or careerwoman, are you significantly better than you were three years ago? Do you really think arresting the DCPS free-fall and getting things to go positive is a 3-4 year gig?. Especially with some virulently anti-change unionistas trying so hard to block the way? And even when the voting teachers overwhelmingly approve the contract, then some number of them want to disown their own choice. And some seem so eager to play the race-based card, the old standby argument loved by some of my fellow District citizens who love to play the victim, even when demographics make that a hoot. Just look at the Council and the city government; we get the kind of government we deserve, every time. Yeah, poverty will take forever to wipe out, and getting parents to be attentive is a very long pull, too. Teacher quality is much easier to address and to the point of public schools that are structured with classrooms led by, er, teachers. Teacher quality is where Rhee has made progress, and try as he might, ole Vince, if elected, is going to break his pick if he and the Barry cabal try to roll things back But the probabilities are 99 percent that he won't try. He is totally risk averse and would rather court churches than defend DCPS in court. If he's lucky, the good teachers won't quit when he becomes a union doormat.

So, vote Vince and....

Leave No Teacher Behind

Posted by: axolotl | September 13, 2010 7:08 PM | Report abuse

I am really shocked at all the negative comments about Mr Mathews and Ms Rhee. As a journalist, he is allowed to share his opinions;actually, that's his job. He isn't really asking you to agree with him, but to consider what he is saying in a thoughful way. Ms Rhee, whether you like her personality or not, has done much good for a failing school system is a very short amount of time. School actually opened on time this year in the District of Columbia without the usual horror stories. The kids had books,teachers and schedules; a big change from years past. You may not agree with her all the time, but I do believe she has worked miracles in a quite disfuntional school system. Not every decision is correct, and some are wrong, but the end results have been worth the constant abuse she takes from a community that should be grateful that they now have the beginnings of a school system that people will actually want to send their children to again.

Posted by: julietgood | September 13, 2010 8:31 PM | Report abuse

IF you think schools opened without scheduling problems then you should talk to parents at Hardy Middle School where students who had already taken Spanish 1 were assigned French 2 and students who had already taken Algebra were placed in Pre-Algebra math. What happened at Hardy was no different than what happened at Eastern in Rhee's first year.

As for the suspension policy Mr. Priest blames on his principal, that was a directive from Rhee herself. According to my administrator they were told by Rhee that any student problem was the responsibility of the teacher. Not even fighting was to be a reason for suspension - if there were student's fighting it was the teacher's fault for allowing it to happen. Again, this was from Rhee.

I am tired of teachers who drop her a line to fix a computer, a paycheck, or a lock, and because she fixes this one problem they see her as the answer to our system's prayers. This kind of leadership is cheap. It is short-term and does not solve the deeper problems in our schools. I don't think you realize, Jay, how many times you have quoted teachers here who praised Rhee while actually condemning her policies.

I don't want the person in charge of my school system to be personally answering problems such as broken door locks and missed paychecks, I want them to actually get the system to work. If she is still doing things like this - and she is - then one has to wonder where her focus is, on the large or the small.

One last thing, I agree totally with McStowy, on this blog "one anecdote is worth 100 peer review studies." Time and again you talk to one or two people at most, do no real digging of any depth or magnitude, and come away with the solutions for us all. You are darn lucky the Post keeps you on as a reporter.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | September 14, 2010 6:58 AM | Report abuse

The "have less suspensions" policy is/was clearly from the top, as it is in other districts.

I feel it is based on these ideas: 1) there were too many suspensions in the past and the kids being suspended don't learn anything outside of school, 2) there are too many suspensions from minority groups (the argument is that they are punished more harshly than other kids, and 3) the data is published in the newspapers, etc, so schools "look bad" if they have a lot of suspensions.

No one looks at suspension data and says, "this school is very strict, they are a good school". Instead the assumption is that the school is not trying and that the teachers have poor classroom management skills.

I think perhaps there were too many suspensions in the past and that it is unfair sometimes about who gets the harshest punishments. However, the solution is not to allow fights to go on and for kids acting like thugs to roam the halls.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 14, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

I also think that the door being fixed is a good step, it is not the real problem. The real problem is our insistence as a society that some kids are allowed to act like criminals in school and our only response is to blame the teachers. That school clearly needs more security and a place to put the kids who are disruptive in the hallways and who are so willing to disturb classes in progress instead of attending their own classes.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 14, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

I don't want the person in charge of my school system to be personally answering problems such as broken door locks and missed paychecks, I want them to actually get the system to work. If she is still doing things like this - and she is - then one has to wonder where her focus is, on the large or the small.

I think you're describing a micro-manager. Micro-managers have to have input into every decision. They can't or won't delegate. They don't develop good mid-level managers because they don't trust anyone but themselves.

Posted by: sanderling5 | September 14, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I think celestun100 has a good point. Other principals I have spoken to also sensed an anti-suspension mindset from some parts of headquarters, although I have not heard Rhee express a view on that issue.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 14, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

"although I have not heard Rhee express a view on that issue."

Surprising, especially considering her willingness to spout off at the month to Jeff Chu and others.

Maybe she, if she's still around tomorrow, could speak as sharply about suspensions as she did to the reporter from WPFW-FM last Friday.


Posted by: edlharris | September 14, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

She would not openly express it, nor would Dr. Weast or any other superintendent of a big school system, however, what are we supposed to think when we are asked again and again to look at the data or write an email to the counselor instead of a referral?

This is an incorrect use of data and it goes on all over the country, not just in DCPS.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 14, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

"there are too many suspensions from minority groups (the argument is that they are punished more harshly than other kids, "

Actually, the argument is that there are MORE black and Hispanic kids suspended, not that they are punished more harshly.

In other words, if students were all suspended for exactly the same behavior, and these students were disproportionately black and Hispanic, the policy would be discriminatory, even though the discipline was fairly applied.

"I think perhaps there were too many suspensions in the past "

Oh, please. When? 1896?

Has there ever been any evidence that black or Hispanic students have been suspended for the same behavior for which white students got a pass?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | September 14, 2010 11:01 PM | Report abuse

Ack! I originally had a long rant about how everyone accepts anecdotal evidence about supposed racism in the past 50 years, when there isn't all that much supported, and had mentioned something about Plessy to Brown to the Civil Rights Act. Then I said oh, to heck with it, and deleted it all--except I used the wrong date!

Obviously, I meant 1965, not 1896. Apologies for seeming insensitive.

And my point was this: I am very tired of having disproportionate IMPACT waved around as evidence of disproportionate TREATMENT. We have spent well over 40 years working hard to provide equal opportunity to all. While there's all sorts of talk about how schools were racist in some recent past, there's precious little evidence.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | September 14, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand why Rhee is incapable of hiring a principal correctly instead of hiring one that always does not work out that forces her to rehire someone else.

Posted by: ericpollock | September 15, 2010 4:30 AM | Report abuse

Criticism of a top boss who gets involved at the nitty gritty level is misplaced. In acting that way, the top person is attempting to model the sort of behavior he/she wants others in the organization to emulate, i.e., if you see a problem, just fix it, don't buck the matter to someone else and don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. It can be a good technique for instilling a service attitude -- if the target audience is shown that not having such an attitude can lead to an early exit.

Rhee's problem apparently is that too few people seem willing to play by her rules.

Posted by: AConcernedCitizen1 | September 16, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

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