(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?