by request: more thoughts on Michelle Rhee’s leadership

One of my very engaged Twitter followers asked me to elaborate on why I like Michelle Rhee’s policies and management style. This is also a good time for me to talk about Richard Whitmire’s recently released book about Rhee, called The Bee Eater.

 Let me talk about management style first because I have less to say about that. First, I want to take this opportunity to state that management is a BIG issue in education, at least as far as I have experienced it. Being a rockstar teacher does not mean you can manage adults and utilize the collective skills of your human capital effectively.

It seems I need to split up the discussion of Michelle Rhee’s management into two realms: the central office and the entire school system. I’ll start with the central office.

Before she gained notoriety as a firer of teachers, Michelle Rhee made headlines in D.C. by firing central office employees. I’m going to defer to Whitmire’s accounts for Rhee’s first two years on the job (before I got to the central office). Whitmire reports:

 “During breaks between meetings Rhee would wander the hallways and drop in on workers unexpectedly. Rhee would ask what did they do and invariably they would answer with their title. No, Rhee would protest. Not your title. What do you do here? The answer was always the same: What my supervisor tells me to do.” (80-81).

Rhee and Fenty got the D.C. Council to approve a law making central office workers “at-will” employees in January of 2008, and Rhee used that power to fire nearly half the central office over the course of three years. (Of course, this is a law that remains in effect regardless of who holds the title of Chancellor – I can remember my boss looking at our team during a meeting last April and saying, “you all know you’re at-will employees, right?” after someone asked a question about what would happen in the (at that time, seemingly impossible) event that Fenty lost the election.)

Now, I work for a big consulting firm on a project within the Department of Defense. I can tell you: there are too many people doing jobs that half as many could do without breaking a sweat. I believe the same was true at DCPS before Rhee arrived. In my experience during the 10 months I worked in the central office, the problem was that there were too few people, not too many – a welcome change. Everyone was busy at every moment; no one worked regular eight-hour days. In some environments that kind of workload and pace might be problematic or unsustainable; in Rhee’s central office, all of the people with whom I interacted were just so excited to be part of meaningful reform. Although we might not have loved our individual assignments or the way our individual teams were managed, we felt proud to say that we worked for Michelle Rhee because we knew that we were really getting things done.

Before the central office moved to newer, nicer, and smaller quarters last February, I got to attend monthly meetings during which all of the major leaders in the school system were present and reported to the Chancellor on a particular topic. Every chief, every instructional superintendent, and everyone with an important role came to these meetings. I came as a spectator. I absolutely loved watching Michelle Rhee absorb (very quickly) whatever information was being presented to her and then start to ask questions. When people ask me now what Michelle Rhee was like, I always answer because of what I saw during those meetings. The “no excuses” attitude that comes out in the media isn’t an act – that is how she actually functions. If someone presented a bad idea or didn’t answer her questions in a satisfactory manner, Michelle Rhee didn’t hesitate to voice her opinion. She was kicking ass and taking names 100% of the time. Was she intimidating? Hell yes! But she came off as the brave warrior for reform that D.C. needed.

You also have to hand it to her – the woman barely slept but made a point of responding personally to every single email she received. I saw proof of this as her employee and as a member of the general public. While working in the central office, I emailed her twice. Both times, she answered within 50 minutes of receiving my email. This is particularly impressive considering that the first time was in the midst of the mess created by the reduction in force in the fall of 2009; I emailed her the day after she had spent hours being grilled (with no effort at diplomacy or politeness) by the D.C. Council. Response time: 43 minutes. Neither of my emails was directly related to my work; neither explicitly required a response from her at all, let alone a response less than an hour later. I see that as evidence of how seriously she took her job.

Now then, that’s mostly about Rhee’s management of the central office. Managing an entire school system, even one as relatively small as D.C., is a different beast.

I am young, so I am by no means highly qualified to talk about what makes a good manager of small or large groups of people. However, one thing that I have observed is that creating a strong culture and sense of common identity makes a big difference in how invested and successful employees are in their endeavors. While I think Rhee accomplished this (albeit more by example than by design) in the central office, she was much less successful at creating a similar culture of goals and expectations among the workforce in the schools. That being said, I don’t think that’s necessarily her fault, and I’m not sure how many superintendents could claim to have accomplished anything similar.

Michelle Rhee replaced an extraordinary number of school principals during her 3+ years as chancellor; although she fired some of the same ones that she hired, in general the intent of that turnover was to hire school leaders who not only met her high level of expectations but also shared her philosophy of accountability and working with urgency to satisfy the educational needs of every child in the system. The best principals are the ones who can take create a school culture according to their own beliefs, and like superintendents (but with many more examples of success), they often fail to do so, either because of lack of leadership on their end or because of severely entrenched ideas among school staff. (The best principals can overcome even that.) Changing the philosophy of a workforce that has long been used to low expectations for performance or giving excuses does not happen overnight, nor does it happen in three years. I think that we can only judge Michelle Rhee but so much on this point.

That being said, clearly her worst mistakes were in her communications with teachers. The media did not give her any assistance; indeed, one of the things I found most disturbing in Whitmire’s book was his report that editors at the Washington Post instructed Bill Turque, the reporter charged with DCPS specifically, to “cover Michelle Rhee like she was a big city mayor” (180), something that I find appalling and deliberately destructive. Turque and his colleagues at the Post covered all of the controversy and only talked about real issues in the school system on off days. It’s a pity, for instance, that no one talked about the efforts Rhee made to connect with teachers and other community members. She dedicated an hour each Wednesday afternoon to meet with teachers at one school without the presence of administrators to hear and address their concerns. I was able to accompany her on several of these visits and don’t think she received any credit for proactively putting herself out there like that. I never saw her refuse to answer a question or try to skate around the issue even during the meeting that she later referred to as the most hostile she had experienced. She also had “office hours” in different parts of the city and used this as time to meet with parents, teachers, and other community members who had concerns.

Rhee failed not so much in her efforts to reach out to teachers as in her execution of those efforts. Because DCPS is a small system with fewer than 4,000 teachers, word travels pretty fast along the grapevine about what teachers experience when they meet with someone as important as the Chancellor. Unfortunately for Rhee, her style of communication didn’t generally win her any supporters despite the number of meetings that she had with teachers. I was present at the meeting at Spingarn High School that Whitmire mentions on page 216 and saw Rhee at her best as she listened to the serious concerns of teachers about the situation in their building and promised to fix the school, but even at her most “heroic”, Rhee still came off very cold. At the hostile meeting mentioned above, I watched as the audience of angry teachers seemed to get more offended as the meeting went on and kept thinking of a few small things that she could have done to change their perception of her. Part of Rhee’s strength is also her downfall: she is so sure of herself and her convictions that she never appears to be on the defensive, so it was easy for teachers to feel like she wasn’t listening to them or didn’t care what they thought.

All of that being said: show me one person who has assumed such an unpopular viewpoint and immediately won the majority over to that opinion.  At the end of the day, no amount of personality or sugarcoating detracts from the fact that Rhee’s main belief is that bad teachers are the major reason that more poor students in this country aren’t on grade level and that she wants them out of the job. The IMPACT evaluation system only launched during Rhee’s third year; teachers spent two years before that getting the impression that she cared only about firing them. By the time the system for facilitating (and legitimizing) any such firings came into existence, the teachers were so scared or angry that they weren’t too willing to examine the possible merits of the system, and the messaging of the system could have been much better. (I say this having worked on the IMPACT team.)

Michelle Rhee is only one person, and like anyone, she makes mistakes. If nothing else, she woke up a city that had been hitting the snooze button on change in the education system for far too long. I have great hopes that Kaya Henderson, who today was announced as Michelle Rhee’s permanent successor, will continue along the same path without falling into the same traps. Kaya’s personality is the exact opposite of Rhee’s when it comes to how she interacts with large groups of people, and I think that will go far in implementing the same Rhee-forms.

Richard Whitmire’s book The Bee Eater was published in 2011 by Jossey-Bass in San Francisco. I’ll be writing about it again, and it is well worth reading just to learn more about education in D.C.

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About educationescritora

I'm a former high school Spanish teacher and central office employee. I believe that excellent public education will be a catalyst for positive social change in our country and that we cannot wait any longer to deliver the teachers, knowledge, and skills that our students need.
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