School Rhee-Form Interrupted
Why Michelle Rhee Is Leaving after Three Years Running the D.C. System

On Wednesday, D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee--once featured on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom, alongside the words "How to Fix America's Schools"--announced she would step down after a little more than three tempestuous years. Her announcement, expected since the primary defeat of her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, drew the sorts of accolades and brickbats that have characterized her tenure.

There's been much attention paid, deservedly, to Rhee's willingness to remove ineffective educators and negoatiate a new contract with the Washington Teachers Union that dramatically altered the shape of teacher compensation and tenure. Drawing less notice is her success cleaning up a system that was profoundly dysfunctional in nearly every way.

Transforming dysfunctional systems is inevitably disruptive. It provokes discomfort, even when you can demonstrate clear progress.

On her watch, D.C. public schools pioneered a cutting-edge teacher evaluation system, fixed a broken personnel system, overhauled textbook requisition and distribution, shuttered dilapidated and half-empty schools, addressed a massive backlog in its special needs caseload, slimmed a bloated central office and built a respected data and research operation.

There are three key lessons for reformers. First, mayoral control has limits. In recent years, many reformers have suggested that mayoral control is the be-all, end-all of accountability. The problem is that this advice is derived largely from the experiences of two exceptional mayors: Richard Daley in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York.

Elsewhere, ugly politics still rears its head. Fenty was upended by a challenger who attacked him as high-handed and inattentive to community sensibilities. Rhee's efforts were hardly the sole reason for this, but Fenty's staunch support for her tough-minded measures became a primary point of contention. With Fenty out, the bottom fell out for Rhee.

Second, it's a big mistake to imagine that things would have been different in D.C. if only Rhee or Fenty had been "nicer." Education reformers love to talk about the importance of reaching consensus.

If the goal is to improve a reasonably performing organization, that's a viable strategy. Rhee was hired to clean up a disaster zone. You can't do that without bruising feelings--in communities where schools are being closed, among fired principals and central staff and in the teachers union. When it comes to troubled systems, even a thousand get-to-know-me sessions and stakeholder roundtables won't suffice.

Rhee can testify to this, because she held scores of community conversations in 2007-08 when pursuing desperately needed school closings--only to be slammed for inadequate efforts to garner input or secure community buy-in.

Third, even "action hero" reformers can't do it all by themselves. Rhee and Fenty operated on the premise that, if they could deliver impressive academic results in the first couple of years, their critics would melt away. Well, Rhee delivered impressive results, and the criticism and conflict only built--to the point where Rhee and Fenty were drawing support from less than 30% of the local African-American community.

Transforming dysfunctional systems is inevitably disruptive. It provokes discomfort, even when you can demonstrate clear progress. Even among parents of kids at failing schools, who welcome the thrust of the reforms. To win the debate, would-be reformers need credible local allies who are consistently explaining why the harsh medicine is necessary.

Rhee's experience proves it's not just about mayors, manners or academic momentum. Turning troubled urban school systems around requires community cover and local political muscle. That's where cheering reformers failed to deliver for Fenty and Rhee.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

Photo Credit: Bigstock/Pixart

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Frederick M.
Hess
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.


    Follow AEI Education Policy on Twitter


    Follow Frederick M. Hess on Twitter.

  • Email: rhess@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Sarah DuPre
    Phone: 202-862-7160
    Email: Sarah.DuPre@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.