Schools Monday: Burning Down the House
Excluding gatherings of employees whose paychecks were signed by the schools superintendent, the last time I heard audiences cheering for the chief of the D.C. school system was, um, never. But as Chancellor Michelle Rhee made her way around town in meetings large and small ahead of today's opening of the school year, she is being greeted with enthusiastic applause and actual yelps of encouragement. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't heard it with me own ears.
What are folks cheering about? Rhee has been here for about 15 minutes and obviously hasn't had a chance to make any significant difference in what goes on in the classroom or in the outcomes seen in one of America's most dysfunctional school systems. But she has quickly done three crucial and potentially productive things:
1) She's sending the message that the lying and the phony cheer that pervaded this system for decades are finally at an end. For more than two decades, I've gone to one D.C. schools meeting after another at which superintendents and other top administrators said that things really aren't so bad and it's all the fault of the jackals of the media. Rhee is telling it straight: This thing is broken, period. People don't do their jobs. Heck, they don't even know what their jobs are.
Now, there's always the possibility that she's doing this to create a perception of problems that she can later announce have been fixed, and a Post story looking into how dire the purported shortage of textbooks really is found something of a disconnect between Rhee's rhetoric and what school principals are saying.
Still, Rhee won cheers at a town hall meeting at Murch Elementary School in Tenleytown last week when she announced that she has frozen all hiring at the system's central office. And the packed gym was nearly swooning when Rhee told the story of how she has gone through the system headquarters building asking each person what they do, only to hear fancy titles or something like this: "I do whatever Mr. So and So tells me to do."
"That is not a job," Rhee said. "They couldn't tell me what their job is. I'm not going to hire anymore people who don't know what their job is."
2) She's exposing the system's flaws in as public and forthright a manner as she can. Hardly a day went by in the run up to opening day in which Rhee and Mayor Blackberry didn't put on some dog and pony show for the assembled media, showing what a mess the system's personnel records are in, or how lousy the heating and A/C systems are in the old school buildings, or what a shame the textbook warehouse is. Obviously, this is PR designed to impress everyone with how awful things are now and how committed Rhee is to making them better, but for all its show biz aspects, it's also a strategy that makes sense. It buys the new bosses both time and credibility, yes, but it also commits them to showing progress--or else.
And it's working even with the system's teachers, as the Post's Theola Labbe reported.
3) She's getting the concrete stuff done, quickly and efficiently. This is the part I really wouldn't believe if I didn't see if for myself. But get in the car and check it out: There are new artificial turf fields at several D.C. high schools, right now. There are new roofs and new bathrooms and new windows at one school after another. Facilities czar Allen Lew may not be a miracle worker, and he's surely spending like a fleet of drunken sailors, but he is getting stuff done that people in the system have done nothing but whine about for decades.
Here's where it's important to take a deep breath and note that the hardest part in school reform is the soft stuff. You can and should fix the buildings first because it's a concrete task and getting it done shows that you care and that you intend to do the harder part. But I don't really buy the connection between spiffy buildings and better learning. Rhee goes on, as all school leaders do, about how essential it is to have a conducive learning environment, and I'm sure there is a nice morale boost that comes from working in a building that has decent plumbing and maybe some air conditioning. But bottom line: It really doesn't matter when it comes to student achievement. I have seen amazing schools in crapola buildings and pathetic excuses for schools in state of the art buildings. At bottom, schooling is a people-intensive endeavor--an art, not a business.
And that's where Rhee shows the most potential: She is trying to give everyone in the system--administrators, teachers, parents and I don't know about kids (that part remains to be seen)--permission to break the rules and charge ahead.
Here's what she told the audience at Murch:
"I realized four weeks into this job, I keep hearing all these people saying, 'These are the rules.' I realized people are following rules for rules' sake, without stopping to think, Does this make any sense?"
She told of getting an email from a parent about a middle school that's shifting its ninth graders over to the local high school this year as part of the D.C. system's change to middle schools consisting of 6th-to-8th graders. The problem was that the 9th grade textbooks were mistakenly shipped to the middle school rather than the high school. The parents asked if they could box up the books, throw them into their cars, and take them over to the high school. Oh, no, came the reply from central HQ. Those books must be returned to the central warehouse.
Rhee was appalled: "I was like, lady, do NOT send those books to the warehouse. I said, Thank the parents, get the books in the car, and move them over." Whereupon the crowd roared with approval.
This is all rah-rah stuff, of course, and Rhee is already hitting some brick walls, in the form of the insane union regulations that require the system to keep proven bad apples and give them plum jobs rather than hire some energetic, brilliant hotshot from outside. System insiders are saying that some of these barriers to getting rid of really bad employees are so firm that Rhee may seek new laws from the D.C. Council to bust through those walls.
The chancellor's tough talk is winning her friends and support, and if she does this right, she will bank that political capital for the hard fights yet to come. Rhee has put off all plans to close schools for a year, ostensibly because she wants to get to know the system better, but also because she needs a year of action and results under her belt before she takes on the no-win but vital task of downsizing the system.
What does the dynamic duo have in store for the next months? Fenty told me that the housecleaning has just begun. "There is a lot of waste," he said, and heads will roll. I asked Rhee if she can maintain this whirlwind schedule of exposes: "We're going to be uncovering things for a long time to come," she said. "In the next 12 to 18 months, I can see us still finding out things that have been going on for years."
At some point, of course, Fenty and Rhee will need to have allies and soldiers in the system, because right now, a whole lot of public school employees are running scared. But the new chiefs don't seem so worried about morale or having troops who are with the program. Some people will rise to the new expectations, Rhee said, and some will simply have to move on.
"I am going to kick down the barriers," she said. "I will have a direct relationship with the principals."
Gone are the days when principals spoke to regional superintendents, who spoke to associate superintendents, who alone spoke to the holy of holies. Rhee will spend the next three weeks meeting individually with every principal in the city, 140-plus of them. Some of those folks will become allies. Some will be gone. But all will get the message.
I was wandering outside a D.C. elementary school one evening last week at about 8 p.m., and a worker who was trying to get new windows installed scurried past me.
"Working late," I said.
"Clock's ticking, man," he said. "Whole new world now."
By Marc Fisher |
August 27, 2007; 7:48 AM ET
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