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.