Even Rock Star Superintendents Stumble: The Case of Washington, D.C.

I do not know if Michele Rhee will continue as Chancellor even if Mayor Adrian Fenty beats back his mayoral challengers in November. I do know, however, that her performance will be an issue in the campaign affecting her decision to continue, even were Fenty to win. Why is that?

Rhee has brought enormous energy, determination, and rock-star glitz to a position usually inhabited by low-profile dark-suited men who whisper in the ear of the Mayor and confer quietly with key City Council members. Since August of 2007, she has jolted the District’s Richter Scale with 7.0 tremblors and repeated after-shocks. The DC schools needed that.

Rather than review all of the major changes she has brought to the DC schools in less than three years, most of which have been highlighted in the media, I want to focus on one issue. No, not test scores. Should she leave by the end of 2010, it won’t be because test scores have either dipped or slowly risen or a combination of both. Should she leave, it will be because she failed to crack the hardest nut that “change-agent” D.C. school chiefs face: connecting to teachers.

Ask big city superintendents Alan Bersin (San Diego 1998-2005) and David Hornbeck (Philadelphia 1994-2000) about how their nasty struggles with teacher unions doomed their tenure even after they negotiated new contracts with teachers.

The proposed new contract between the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) and Chancellor Rhee contain practical compromises that trimmed back Rhee’s “no excuses” agenda and gave union members key concessions. The proposed contract includes things the WTU wanted (e.g., salary increases for next five years, no major overhaul of compensation policies or loss of seniority) and what Rhee wanted (a voluntary program of teacher pay-for-performance and more flexibility in getting rid of excessed teachers). Both sides can come out and say they “won” but the fact of the matter is that Rhee had already lost in the most important game in town: working closely with 3800 teachers to improve daily how and what they teach their students.

New tenure rules, evaluation structures, and the rhetoric of “no excuses” are important pieces of Rhee’s agenda for changing D.C. schools. But the core of any sustained improvement in urban districts is the trust between veteran classroom teachers and their leader. In nearly three years at the helm, Rhee has lost that trust,

How had Rhee lost that trust?

1. Trash talking about incompetent teachers. Of course, like bad doctors and lawyers, there are probably less than five per cent of below-basic teachers in the DC schools. But put-downs and thoughtless remarks amplified in the media have tarred the entire teacher corps. Rhee admitted as much in a Washington Post article (February 9, 2009). “My thoughts about teachers have not always come through accurately…. I do not blame teachers for the low achievement levels.”

2. A promising system of evaluating teachers (IMPACT) has gotten caught up in the conflict between WTU and Rhee. Chances of IMPACT being slowly sabotaged and disappearing when Rhee exits are high.

3. As a former teacher (three years in Baltimore during the 1990s) and someone who has teachers’ ideals and interests at heart, Rhee’s credibility has been seriously damaged. Implicitly, she has divided DC teachers into those who are younger, energetic, talented and share her “no excuses” beliefs and everyone else—mostly veteran teachers—who do not. Since fresh teachers enter and exit after a few years, the veterans dominate school faculties and monopolize the organizational wisdom of the DC schools that could help newcomers.

Why does the chancellor (or any big city superintendent) have to connect to teachers? Take all the vision, symbols, energy, and incentives at the top of the school organization, lay them out on the table then wrap them up into a tidy package—call it “leadership”–and mail it to 3800 teachers. It won’t arrive.

With all the whirl of national publicity, private meetings with the Mayor and Council members, public hearings, Rhee still faces political conundrum that it is the teachers who teach daily lessons, not her. Like most of us who work in organizations, teachers need to be inspired, consoled, and prodded. They need to see that the interests of adults and student learning converge, not take separate paths. Teachers need to believe that those at the top understand the situation they face daily and are both supportive even as they push and prod. But teachers are also jumpy, irascible, and feisty agents in their own right—a fact that too many superintendents come to understand, often too late, however.

Teachers can accept the prodding and shoving as long as they trust those at the top. Once the trust is lost, then it is only a matter of time and details for exiting that have to be worked out. And that is where the situation is now with Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Even Rock Star Superintendents Stumble: The Case of Washington, D.C.

  1. Brian Hirst

    This problematic dynamic is found in much smaller districts. The one in which I work with 125 teachers would be a good example. Trust was broken, every issue was a power struggle and later comments from our superintendent on the value of the teaching staff never felt genuine.

    My hypothesis on why superintendents with this approach are hired is that school boards are made up of business people, politicians and others who do not understand how the positive relationship between a superintendent and teachers is a must for increasing the amount of effective teaching within a school district. School boards have it in their mind that the district’s leader needs a kick-ass, take names approach and so they hire someone that they believe will carry this out. Boards also want a superintendent who is primarily financially skilled not human resource skilled.

  2. Terrific analysis of what goes wrong in such relationships, but when teachers became unionised, they lost all credibility as a profession amongst the rest of the populace, hence so many of the problems with state education systems worldwide.

    Teachers are indeed, “jumpy, irascible, and feisty agents in their own right” and if there was any profession where this individuality is desperately needed, it’s teaching…but when they come together as part of a trade union, they are just another mob.

    • Brian Hirst

      I know that I could reply to JoeN at his web site but, hey, Joe, you started it.
      I am a member of my union and a strong believer in unions. Where do you think wages, salaries and working conditions would be for teachers without a union? To say “when teachers became unionized, they lost all credibility as a profession” is ludicrous. They may have lost credibility when they took no action nor any initiative on the issue of teacher competence but this is true for every group of skilled workers. It does dismay me that teachers have not done this.

      If teachers were to be “jumpy, irascible and feisty” without union protection they’d be quickly dismissed. This is because the people with whom they would be feisty (and with good reason) would be their administrators who are in general a timid bunch and, from what I have seen, not particularly good at identifying weaknesses and strengths in their staff.

  3. Brian,
    In the spirit of a fair exchange of views rather than a web spat, in answer to your question, “Where do you think wages, salaries and working conditions would be for teachers without a union? ” the answer is… exactly the same place as they are for every other profession, and it is so, so much more civilised and pleasant to be able to negotiate one’s own worth.

    On administrators, I agree with you and UK local authority staff tend to suffer from precisely the frailties you ascribe to US administrators. But surely it’s no coincidence that they have usually worked their way up a largely unionised ladder and are often the most politically active members of their profession? Remove the ladder and maybe you’d have some feisty individualists who do understand great teaching there instead.

    • Steve Davis

      Is it really more civilised and pleasant to be able to negotiate one’s worth? I assert that it is not. Civilised and pleasant are characteristics of what a collective bargaining process should be like. What are individual teachers going to negotiate with, test scores and anecdotes? Here’s a scenario set in motion by this reasoning. Teacher X’s scores and anecdotes may be better than the guy down the hall (teacher Y); pay teacher X more. Maybe if teacher X negotiates real well, they’ll just fire the guy down the hall, hire a recent grad to fill the gap and give teacher X a lot more money, until he becomes teacher Y (no seniority in RIFS). Further complicating the matter, perhaps teacher X’s test score were only better than teacher Y’s because teacher X had more Pernathas and teacher Y had more Victors (Cuban, “Victor and Pernatha: Ill-Fitting School Reforms”). Paying most teachers more money wouldn’t make them work any harder; they already work as hard as they can. They shouldn’t have to negotiate their worth with their superiors; they negotiate their worth every every day with each of their students.

      I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe that becoming an administrator in the U.S. has anything to do with working your way up the unionised ladder. What do you need to be an admin. in CA? 1. masters in something, 2. pass a test or coursework or both, 3. a political-in is always nice. Administrators belong to a separate union and have separate contracts; they are management. I don’t see how that’s climbing the unionised ladder.

  4. Steve,
    Agree that my view is very UK-centric, but there is no reason at all why the scenario you describe of teachers being judged on pupil performance is necessary at all. I think that is one of the most pernicious trends of recent years: the determination to make teachers increasingly responsible for a child’s performance. Ironically I think it is in some ways a result of unionisation because the policy makers felt it was the only way they could respond to endemic poor performance. Treat everyone the same.

    In the private sector it is of course normal to negotiate ones’ own worth, it happens even in private schools, to a limited degree. I remember once being surprised once to discover a less experience colleague was being paid a chunk more than me purely because she had done a much better job of negotiating when she joined the school. I didn’t resent her for it. It just taught me to be better at it myself.

    Teachers need to be individuals if they are to be any good, and it doesn’t help them or their pupils when they are treated as clones, whatever the excuse.

    • Steve Davis

      Joe, I enjoy the back-and-fourth.
      Thank you for the dialogue.

      The current political climate makes it unlikely that (public) teachers will be able to negotiate their worth without using pupil performance as an indicator of their effectiveness. The current goings on in the Washington DC public school system bare this out. As you note, individuals’ salaries may differ purely based on their negotiation skills or lack of them. This seems to fly in the face of the ideal of a meritocracy. Sounds like corporate America to me. Even though I believe that I am a skilled negotiator, I would rather be judged on test scores (although I am against pay for performance in general) than on my negotiating ability. If I wanted to glad hand and manipulate people, I would go work in corporate America. Where does the money come from to pay the person who is a better negotiator? It comes from a (presumably) deserving colleague. A compensation system like that would likely undermine collaboration. I like things to be up front and in the open; I like a predictable, transparent salary schedule. I don’t know much about the history of unionization in American schools, but I believe that a major impetus for unionization was to counter local politicians from loading schools with their cronies after elections. Is this belief erroneous? Anybody out there an expert on the unionization (back to U.S. English) of American schools? I would also argue that the union protects teacher’s individuality by providing them with due process rights and a buffer between them and their management.

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