Michelle Rhee: courageous but cold

Michelle Rhee resigned 48 hours ago, and I haven’t seen much else written about it besides the initial media coverage.  No one can seem to decide what this really means for education reform in DC or the United States. The New York Times (http://j.mp/bvt6Qp) points out:

“Washington’s new teacher evaluation system, which combines calculations of student academic growth with classroom visits by teams of evaluators, is now in place across the Washington schools, which educate less than 50,000 students. During the Race to the Top competition, by comparison, state legislatures passed laws revamping teacher evaluation systems in similar ways across a dozen states, encompassing thousands of school districts that collectively educate perhaps 13 million students.”

 The article ends with a quote from TFA alum and Colorado state senator Mike Johnson, who said, “Maybe Michelle’s greatest contribution is that she is no longer an anomaly.” I think that’s about as best as anyone can do at this point.

So what do I think about Michelle Rhee and her legacy?

I started my time in DC education the same week she did, arriving for Teach For America induction a day after Mayor Fenty appointed her Chancellor. At that time, I didn’t know much about her other than that she had done TFA and had some big plans for fixing schools in DC. I taught in Prince George’s County, so I was somewhat removed from the shake-ups taking place in the District. I think Rhee was cast fairly early as an enemy of bad teachers and unions, and I couldn’t agree more with prioritizing the human capital crisis like she has. Bad teachers plague the public schools that most need excellent teachers, and unions help to keep them there regardless of what outcomes they produce for children. “Waiting For Superman” does a dynamite job of illustrating this problem.

When I interviewed for positions with DCPS, a number of people asked me what I thought about Michelle Rhee, and they seemed particularly curious to hear my take on the infamous cover of TIME magazine in which she holds a broom as if to sweep out the bad teachers. Does she look intimidating? Yes. Would this make me feel uncomfortable if I were a teacher? Maybe, but only if I weren’t an awesome one.

Teacher quality is an incredibly complicated issue, and now is not the time for me to get into it. I will say for now that part of the reason many teachers (of both poor and good quality) despise reformers like Michelle Rhee is that they can be pretty blind to their own faults, particularly those who have been in the classroom for a while. At a really horrible school, it’s easy to feel like you’re doing a good job if you can just manage your classroom effectively. (When you have peers who struggle to control their students, you’re automatically a better teacher if your kids stay in their sits and appear to be paying attention.) But this doesn’t mean you’re actually a good teacher in the sense of providing meaningful, challenging, student-centered instruction. Hearing the Chancellor constantly talk about crappy teachers would be pretty offensive to anyone who thought they were doing a good job.

More than anything else, the public has criticized Michelle Rhee for her communication style. She is far from warm and fuzzy and sometimes appears to have no filter whatsoever. It’s a shame. I really admire her attitude in that it SHOULDN’T be about keeping adults happy when it comes to doing what’s best for kids, but I also think there are small adjustments she could have made over the last three years that would have gone a long way.

I accompanied Michelle Rhee to several of her weekly meetings with faculties around the city. I was with her at Spingarn SHS a week after the incident with the gunman last year, and that was a truly inspirational meeting – after teachers shared concerns and proposed solutions, the Chancellor pledged her commitment to fix things quickly, and sure enough, the Chief of Police was in her office the next morning along with a bunch of other people who were going to give the school an overhaul. Teachers there appreciated that toughness. But I also went with her to the meeting she later referred to as “the most hostile” she’d ever had. These teachers were NOT pleased about the new evaluation system or the impending merger of their school with another, and they let her know that in no uncertain terms. Instead of saying something simple like “I really understand why you feel that way, so let me explain as honestly as possible what our decision-making process was”, the Chancellor kept her stony game face on and responded to the fury of the teachers with her usual cold firmness. She might as well have given them all the finger for how well they responded.

One of the toughest things about working in the central office was seeing just how political education becomes at that level. Should the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools compromise on her values about what’s best for kids? Absolutely not.  But as an inherently political figure, would it be wise to compromise a little on style of communication? Yes. (The same goes for Mayor Fenty. It’s possible we wouldn’t have to deal with a future Mayor Gray now if Fenty and Rhee had both been a little more responsive to feedback about their communication styles.)

So what’s next for Rhee? No one knows yet. But her new website, http://michellerhee.org, suggests that improving her personal brand is now a priority and is raising questions about a future run for public office of some sort. I think she’s an amazing and courageous leader and would love to see her in a position to influence an even larger population of kids, but she’s a long way off from having the people skills necessary to get there. I look forward to seeing how things develop.

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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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