Should She Stay or Should She Go? Michelle Rhee and the Upcoming DC Election

(NOTE: This article also appeared in the Washington Post.)

It’s almost election season in DC, which means I need to decide once and for all if Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee – and, by extension, Mayor Adrian Fenty – deserve another four years at the helm.

Here are the arguments as I see them:

On one hand, it’s incontrovertible that Rhee has sparked both local and national conversations that were long overdue. Her decision to show up at a DCPS warehouse, with cameras, and shine a light on a system so dysfunctional and disorganized that it allowed seemingly scarce resources to remain unused was both brilliant and galvanizing. Her determination to confront the fecklessness of our current teacher evaluation system placed the issue front and center in discussions of systemic reform, where it belongs. And her millennial focus on eradicating the generational injustices of our school system has turned the issue into a mainstream conversation-starter. Those are major accomplishments for which she is largely responsible. Shame on the rest of us for not figuring out, much earlier, how to inject this work with a similar, undeniable sense of urgency. And woe is we if she leaves after just four years and the city returns to square one, denying us all the chance to make a more detailed judgment on the viability of her strategies for lasting change.

On the other hand, Rhee’s primary weapon – a fierce, uncompromising rhetoric – has also been her Achilles heel. She has recklessly alienated a majority of the very people she most needs for lasting reform to occur: DC’s public school teachers. Her unwavering reliance on “data” – and a limited definition of data at that – is leading us toward a system where schools and educators are incentivized to relentlessly, and with great discipline, move the needle on a single measure of basic-skills proficiency in math and reading. This is an extremely effective political strategy for it locates a nebulous and Sisyphean effort in a single, easily trackable number. It’s also, I believe, a largely illusory effort that hinders our ability to identify truly aspirational standards for children, and apply the same level of discipline and determination toward the establishment of a school system that is aligned around what young people really need in order to be successful in college, throughout their chosen careers, and as active and responsible citizens in our democracy.

In sum, my chief concern is that Rhee will be unable to generate what noted school reform expert Michael Fullan has described as the single most important resource for bringing about systemic change – collective capacity, or the ability to “generat[e] the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching.”

As I’ve written previously, this does NOT mean Ms. Rhee is merely required to give people more opportunities to collaborate. What is required, though, is disciplined, strategically employed collaboration that fosters a shared vision of how to create the optimal learning environment for children (as opposed to the optimal testing environment). As Fullan writes: “The gist of the strategy is to mobilize and engage large numbers of people who are individually and collectively committed and effective at getting results relative to core outcomes that society values. It works because it is focused, relentless (i.e., stays the course), operates as a partnership between and across layers, and above all uses the collective energy of the whole group. There is no way of achieving whole-system reform if the vast majority of the people are not working on it together.

There are many people I respect who believe this is exactly what Michelle Rhee is bringing about. I have just as many friends and colleagues who are equally convinced that Rhee will be unable to move the city any further on its overall reform efforts.

It may be clear which way I’m leaning, but what do you think? Does Rhee deserve four more years to make a true go of it and see if DC can achieve the impossible? Or is her relentless focus on test score data and an oppositional rhetoric a guarantee that any lasting change that comes about will not be the true change we seek?

Categories: Assessment, Equity, Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change, Teacher Quality

Tags: , , ,

Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Posted August 11, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    So Rhee took you in on the old Vallas throwing-open-the-warehouse-doors ploy, huh.

    Sorry to see you are still so gullible at your age, Sam. But in your attempt to be ultra-balanced, you are also ultra-selective in what you leave in and out on the deficit side of Rhee’s ledger.

    Rhee hasn’t just failed to be collaborative enough, a fault that all in her position could easily own. The same could be said regarding her supposed “over reliance on data.”

    Rather she has become the poster child (remember the Time cover) for the Ownership Society’s assault on unions and teachers. You failed to mention her arbitrary mass firings of hundreds of D.C. teachers, including some of their finest, without any reliance on data or due process. Her slander of those teachers, including her claim: “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school”?

    No Sam. This isn’t simply the case of another of those misguided, slightly inept reformers who needs another 4 years to carry out her unfinished business before taking a cushy job with the foundations. Rather, Michelle Rhee is a dishonest, megalomaniacal teacher basher–possibly the worst in the country, being egged on by her patrons who see her as the spearhead in their struggle against teacher unions.

    The fact that Mayor Fenty has tied his political future to Rhee’s is most unfortunate. And the fact that Rhee’s patrons have threatened to pull out their funding of public education in D.C. should Rhee leave, is despicable.

  2. Posted August 12, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Being apart from DC’s school system, I am in no way an expert on Michelle Rhee. I read as many texts in favor of her work as I do against it. What Rhee evokes in me generally is an aversion to central control and the idolatry of standardization.

    I disagree on the standardization of curriculum and assessment with educators and reformers (inside and outside schools) whom I respect and with whom I share common beliefs about the importance of community education, authentic work, and the use of technology to provide equity in universal access to new, meaningful learning opportunities near and far. However, I do not share (what I term) “pop reformers'” Candide-esque faith in standardization and testing as the best of all possible levers of equity.

    I believe instead in inquiry and idiosyncrasy. I believe in measuring learning by following it where it goes. I believe in helping students shape learning into excellent products – which a standardized test is not. Even if a standardized test is good at measuring what it does, what it measures is not good enough to address gaps in equity, opportunity, and democracy. It is not freedom to know what adults tell you to know, It is not freedom to know what everyone else knows. It is freedom to pursue a passion to the point that you can affect change in your life and community. It is teaching to help students learn to do so.

    It’s not that there isn’t any data or information to collect about such teaching and learning, it’s that we haven’t yet chosen to look for it on any scale comparable to the kinds of studies and meta-studies done on traditional instruction and politically-staked reform programs. Please, anyone, correct me if I’m wrong – I’d love to see such large-scale research on authentic, democratic education.

    As more avenues to education and employment arise outside the gated community of standardized testing, standardized curricular materials, and college admissions, I hope our society finds tests to be unnecessary and harmful limits on kids, their learning, and their lives.

    So, I want people with Michelle Rhee’s conviction and tenacity to turn their talents towards crafting the relationships, stories, reforms, and schools that will change American public education into a more authentic and democratic institution than it is today.

    I also want teachers to take responsibility for transforming the profession instead of protecting and replicating it as it is. We need to trump the new pop reform status quo with an authentic schools status quo. We can’t stand on how we’ve worked before – on the freedoms we’ve enjoyed. We need to draft, share, and engage America with a new pact between teachers, students, and their communities.

    We have to be able to say something more than, “No,” to the Michelle Rhee’s of the world. We have to do something more than say, “No,” as well.

    RiShawn Biddle, author of Dropout Nation – which I make a point to read daily -, wrote recently on the anti-intellectualism of traditionalists who eschew the data championed by pop reformers. I think the larger problem is that educators by and large have taken sides on one debate about a very limited set of accountability measures while there are others to be had – how and why we school as we do are more arguments than how we should assign blame for what we do now.

    I don’t know that I want a Michelle Rhee of collaboration or authentic education, but I want teachers to make stances and positions like Rhee’s moot through their own actions in reforming what it is they do. A teaching body confident in its own purpose doesn’t need a cult of personality or level-4 leader to coerce it into doing what’s right or popular.

    I can’t tell anyone what changes to make overnight (democratic education), but I can’t think of a more important job for teachers than reinventing teaching for students’ benefit. Teachers in school systems large and small need to engage in this work – to partner, at least, with receptive administrators in pursuing waivers and drafting and passing code that legalizes authentic education – community-based and/or technology-mediated work that lets kids can follow their learning through projects and problems that matter to them and their communities.

    Thanks for the invitation to respond, Sam –

  3. Sam
    Posted August 12, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the responses.

    Mike, if trying to understand a situation to a degree of complexity that requires not seeing any of the parties involved as purely evil or purely self-righteous is a result of the callowness of my youth, so be it. And if “recklessly alienating” isn’t sufficiently critical language for the things Rhee has done in an Op-Ed-length piece, I guess I lack the appropriate vitriol and word count for a good ol-fashioned dress-down.

    Chad, thank you for offering a post so grounded in what you believe — and not simply what you dislike about someone else’s beliefs. As you say, the challenge right now is not to fight fire with more fire — but to have educators become more proactive and solution-oriented activists. Those of us on Twitter should conduct our own self-test by reviewing our last 100 tweets and seeing how many were primarily about attacking someone else, how many were about sharing information more neutrally, and how many were actually about solution-oriented ideas. That, to me, is the challenge Rhee poses. I disagree deeply with some of the strategies she is pursuing. I also know that I realized for a long time that teacher evaluation systems were a joke — and yet I never said anything publicly to challenge that issue and demand we come up with something better. So bravo to her for making the issue unavoidable — and shame on us a second time if we don’t articulate a better way forward and help ensure that the result of this conversation isn’t a new system that relies on test scores for 51% of a teacher’s evaluation.

  4. Posted August 12, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink


    We both know that you lack neither vitriol nor word count when you need it. Like all of us, yours is selective. Yes every issue is complex and every person changeable. And then comes a time to put aside on-the-one-hand…but on-the-other, and take a stand. In D.C. and every other community being assaulted by races to the top, mass teacher firings and testing madness, this is the time. If not now when? I look forward to reading about your stand on Rhee.


  5. Sam
    Posted August 12, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Hey Mike,

    Fair enough. I guess where we differ is in what constitutes an effective stand. To me, the only measure of success is one that will require some of the people “on the other side” to change their views. That means my/our task is to widen the understanding of what an effective education is, and to get other people to see the errors in the current path. This happened with Diane, even though as recently as a few years ago someone would have thought it impossible. So to me, incendiary language is more about making the speaker feel good and righteous, and less about slowly and steadily moving a diverse field of educators toward a more viable and equitable end-goal. And I’m still hopeful that sort of change can occur — maybe not with Rhee herself, but with a lot of her current supporters, who are my target audience. That will never happen if I paint her in extreme terms and pursue a policy of No Quarter on every issue. So I am choosing to pursue a different path.

  6. Posted August 12, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Good luck, Sam. And thanks again for inviting my comments and opinions.

  7. Posted August 12, 2010 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    From the start, I liked Michelle Rhee’s courage. Toward the end, I cringe at her allegiance to the lowest common denominator of standardization practices. And in the same way I didn’t actually believe George W. Bush Jr. was as socially conservative as we were led to believe, I don’t believe Michelle actually believes in the culture of testing. I don’t think she believes in it because it is contrary to her actions—which have broken the mold–and demonstrated her sense of rugged individualism. Michelle Rhee doesn’t strike me as status quo. We didn’t begin hearing a lot about the testing and scores and all that rhetoric from her until it began spilling from the mouths of the administration over there at 1600 Pennsylvania.

    Michelle is young, ambitious and most likely doesn’t want to sink her rising career by going against the big boys. This is probably wise. I believe that the only reason she and many other taut the standardization lines is because they don’t know what else to hold up against a crumbling system…they believe these are the only tools they have. They remind me of my brothers reliance on duct tape—once used to hold a car door on–but not for long. The problem here is not one incompetence, ruthlessness or meanness…it is a lack of dialog and a lack of listening. Nobody is listening for what works…nobody has time for what works…standardization is the default mode–nothing more.

    Let Michelle stay– get her an executive coach– and find her an equally strong minded team to reinforce her conviction and provide her some space to absorb the heat. Let her learn. Tell her to start listening more—we are all convinced she has courage–now let’s expect the vision to emerge– I would like to see Michelle Rhee and everyone else in Washington now provide some dialog about the standardization dilemma. That is a place to begin…

  8. Steve
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Timely post, Sam. I have tremendous respect and admiration for Michelle Rhee’s work, but I’m not sold on Adrian Fenty and I strongly disagree that our vote for Mayor should be a referendum on Michelle.

    Fenty’s job is bigger than Michelle’s. It involves all of the city’s public school children, not just those in DCPS. DCPS may have about 55,000 kids, but the charter schools enroll about 27,000 public school students. Since there is Mayoral control of DCPS but not charters, it’s fair to give more attention to DCPS, but I don’t think the city has been giving all students equal *resources*. Not even close. Fenty has failed us in several ways.

    The political aspirations of the Mayor have been hinged on the success of DCPS only and that’s his own mistake and failing. His tunnel vision will cost him a lot of support in the election and it has been bad for the city. The Fenty Administration does not realize the extent to which charter schools are responsible for keeping families in the city and generating revenue for the city. In my son’s school, I’ve spoken to a huge share of the parents and so far every family’s second choice school was another charter school, a school in another district, or in some cases, they would pay for private school rather than DCPS. I hope that will change in the future, but the reality is that 27,000 kids and their parents are in DC in large part because of the possibilities opened up by our charters.

    If Vince Gray is elected Mayor then it will be a real test of both people if Chancellor Rhee and Mayor Gray can work together. I think Vince can do it, but if Michelle requires unconditional mayoral support to do her job well, she doesn’t deserve to stay. I’m an optimist. I hope that Michelle or at least the people who share her reform orientation and sense of urgency will lead DC’s schools going forward, but I will not cast my ballot in September as a referendum to keep one person in her job.

  9. Leigh Dingerson
    Posted September 13, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Hi, Sam. Rather than elaborate on my feelings about Rhee here, I’m going to just give you the link to an article I wrote for Rethinking Schools. It will be in the fall issue of the magazine, appearing later this month.

  10. Sam
    Posted September 13, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this, Leigh. I’m going to tweet about it now so more people will read your extremely thorough analysis. I do think we who lack faith in the validity of tests as a way to accurately gauge the health of a school (or the quality of a teacher) can’t have it both ways — just as we should question people who trumpet a rise in scores as evidence of a system’s progress, we should resist the urge to point to drops in scores as evidences of its shortcomings. I also think, as I wrote in the other piece about The Odyssey and what Homer would think about Fenty’s and Rhee’s behavior, that if this election goes it the polls suggest it will go tomorrow, they will have no one to blame but themselves for their remarkable, and rapid, rise and fall.

  11. Posted September 13, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Michelle Rhee is bad for kids, bad for parents, bad for teachers, bad for schools, bad for communities, and bad for Washington, DC.

    Unless, of course, you happen to be white and/or affluent. Then she’s a wet dream come true. Like big guns that have come in blazing in other urban districts with primarily minority school populations (or general populations) – e.g., Bobb in Detroit, Klein in NYC, Duncan in Chicago, Duncan in the USA – Rhee has an agenda, one that appears grounded in kicking teachers to the curb, ignoring parents, breaking unions, and using test score data both to punish teachers/administrators and other stakeholders while manipulating things as much as she can get away with in the media to make it look like her baloney is making kids actually learn more. She’s a charlatan and not a particularly pleasant, engaging one. And sad to say, when DC gets rid of her, she’ll rise, not fall. Her type always does.

  12. Sam
    Posted September 13, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, Mike. It does seem the chorus to oust her (and him) is steadily growing, while the base that supports has failed to add any new voices for some time now. The problem, as I’ve written in some previous posts, is that our polarized sides of the education debate will need each other if we’re ever going to get anything meaningfully done. Yet elections like these, and movies like Waiting for Superman, only seem to deepen the polarization, not alleviate it.

  13. Posted September 13, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    anyone read the lead article in yesterday’s NY Times week in review? Testing the Chinese Way? After she weighs the pros and cons of testing, the author concludes, “But let’s face it, life is filled with all kinds of tests — some you ace and some you flunk — so at some point you have to get used to it. ”

    Her last two paragraphs (her children grew up in china and were tested to death):
    When we moved back to New York City, my children, then 9 and 11, started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical. They didn’t last long. It turned out they had come to like the feedback of testing.
    “How do I know if I get what’s going on in math class?” my daughter asked with obvious discomfort after a month. Primed with Beijing test-taking experience, they each soon tested into New York City’s academic public schools — where they have had tests aplenty and (probably not surprisingly) a high proportion of Asian classmates.

    So……Corporate CEOs decided in 1989 to transform education by starting to test everyone to death. MIchelle Rhee jumps on the bandwagon…we have been testing children to death in most states, and will continue to do so…..socializing millions of future students to grow up to be citizens like the Chinese government wants them to be?

  • Read Sam’s Books