Schools Monday: Rhee On Her Own
She starts out alone, literally. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee walks into a conference room at The Washington Post to meet with editors and reporters and unlike nearly every other public figure who joins us for such conversations, she has no aides in tow, no press handlers carrying folders of snazzy pie charts and carefully massaged messages. Rhee is making it clear that she's got the info and the 'tude to handle this on her own.
And for 90 minutes, she takes nearly all questions--the only "no comment" comes on a query about just how much of the school system's central office she plans to sack in the coming weeks. She's feisty, funny and frank. As a parent with two kids in the D.C. public schools, she says, "I can see all of the things that drive other parents crazy," such as the requirement that parents register their kids every year and the fact that after-school care starts several weeks after school opens.
Like the mayor who hired her, she does not hesitate to rip her own staff and system. Like Adrian Fenty, she's comfortable talking about race and class as if they weren't the city's political third rail. "I am not going to allow them to dictate the decisions we must make," she says of the small but vocal group of protesters who accuse her of placing the brunt of her proposed school closings on poor black neighborhoods. When a member of her staff suggested that she close a school in affluent, white Ward 3 just for symbolic balance, Rhee says, "I thought that was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard."
She can be disarming, warm and embracing. But then, in a flash of pique, we see the side of Rhee that those much-maligned central office employees are about to face: The chancellor, asked why she has allowed a TV crew from PBS to follow her around but has been stingy about giving time to a Post reporter, flares at Post schools beat reporter Theola Labbe and, in front of a room full of top editors, calls her out for supposedly not portraying the chancellor's comments as she'd wished in some recent story. Public figures complain to editors about their coverage all the time, as they ought to if they believe we've gotten something wrong, but it's rare to see such a personal hit in a large gathering like this. A whoosh of recognition sweeps the room: So here's how tough (and perhaps rough) this young chancellor can be.
What makes Rhee different and potentially special is the fact that even after half a year in the District's strange political culture, even after living for a while in a system that is deeply satisfied with mediocrity or less, she is angry and appalled when she runs across the complacency and righteousness that permeate the schools. She describes how central office workers have gone years without performance evaluations, and how when one of her mid-level bureaucrats finally got a critical evaluation, the employee marched in to see the boss carrying a thick binder documenting the many ways in which she didn't agree with her evaluation. Rhee, needless to say, let the worker have it. She calls this resetting the norm, and it is perhaps the most important piece of management she can take on.
But Rhee said surprisingly little about what exactly she hopes to change in the classrooms where students live. She is, perhaps correctly, focused on the larger, systemic issues--which buildings, what staffing, whose contracts, how many dollars. She says parents and voters should begin to see test scores and other measures of student performance start to move in the right direction in the next 12-18 months, but she warns, reasonably enough, that it will be many years--at least eight, she predicts--before the District might be called one of the better urban systems in the land.
That's the sort of pipe dream school superintendents have been hawking for decades, without the slightest real hope of getting there. But Rhee has set the bar higher than any of her predecessors, and with her whirlwind entrance, she's raised hopes and expectations. There really are new fields and repaired windows and more consistent heating in some schools. And at least some younger teachers seem very much energized, even as some older ones hunker down to see if they can survive this fresh hell just as they made it through previous threats of reform.
"I am only focused on the people I am serving," Rhee says, arguing that it's wrong to put so much blame for the low quality of a D.C. education on parents who fail to participate in their kids' schooling. "There's no doubt that people who have kids in the school system should be less than satisfied. Fundamentally, we have not been able to improve the quality of instruction we provide. I have seen firsthand how parents are often treated by the schools and I frankly can't blame them for not wanting to jump up and volunteer for two hours in the schools. Unless we are giving parents what they need, it is very hard for me to make demands on parents."
Rhee has weathered the storm over school closings far better than did any of her predecessors who made similar efforts over the past twenty years. She has not only met and faced the opposition, she's even won many people over--if not to her specific list of schools to close, then at least to her overall approach and commitment. "Frankly," she says of those who organize rallies against her and demand that one or another school be saved, "the adult agenda has been dictating decisions for too long, and I'm not going to allow that to happen anymore."
I hope Rhee came to see us by herself because she's confident and knowledgeable about her path, and not because she is a lone wolf. She will need allies, yet her first order of business is to clean house. Hers is a lonely task.
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