Michelle Rhee Was Right

An interesting column in today’s Wahington Post by Richard Whitmire, asking the rhetorical question, “Was Michelle Rhee right?” The column centers on the analysis of Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor of schools in Washington D.C. and her insistence on rapidly moving reform forward. Whitmire, correctly I think, posits that the “conventional wisdom” is that Rhee moved too fast, and was not “inclusive” enough in implementing change. So she was right on substance but wrong on implementation. Whitmire calls this view “Michelle Lite.”

Among school superintendents and union leaders, the Michelle Lite theory is popular for different reasons. The key lesson learned in Washington, they agree, is that you can’t fire your way to success. Boosting teacher quality, they say, requires a tempered meshing of improving teacher evaluation and professional development.

Whitmire confesses he was not on board for Rhee’s philosophy originally. But the research he did on her tenure seems to have changed his mind. But more importantly he comes to the conclusion that Michelle Lite is not the answer either.

When Rhee took over in 2007, D.C. schools were tied with Los Angeles for worst-in-the-nation status. Rhee boosted the District off the cellar floor, with significant gains on the federal “report card,” widely considered the gold standard of academic achievement. Those gains came about the hard way, by firing principals and teachers with low expectations, minimal skills as educators or both.

That raises the question: Could Rhee have succeeded with a Michelle Lite approach?

I have concluded, as does Whitmire, that she would not have achieved those results with a Lite approach. Rhee has been heartily criticized for her take no prisoners style. What are the complaints? She did not include parents, she did not do enough to nurture incompetence before she fired people, that she was blunt about her goals, that she rolled over the forces of inertia without the requisite courtesy, blah blah blah. Yes folks were up in arms, but the question I have is this. Was it better to have someone like Rhee and achieve those results, or is it better to feel good but leave the kids in an educational wasteland? Truth be told I think that many adults who were offended by Rhee and Mayor Fenty would rather not have had the results. And that is a shame.

And I think that the question extends to other areas of public life as well. The American political system was designed to slow down government to ensure that majorities were not able to quickly impose dramatic change. That system is now used by the forces of the inert to slow needed change in our system. And the inert become very animated when change occurs and upsets their private domains, upsets their ego because of “lack of consultation”, or cuts out systemic incompetence. If our system is good at anything it is protecting governmental practices that are hugely wasteful, protecting incompetence, and making sure that any real change will take years and years. Rhee was not willing to settle for that, and she and her boss Mayor Fenty were the victims of the revenge of the inert. But the schoolchildren of Washington were the real winners, with the Rhee agenda taking them out of the educational no learn zone that they were occupying. Unfortunately the political business is occupied all too often by folks who do not wish to rock the boat at all. Michelle Rhee capsized the boat for the betterment of the kids in Washington, and she was right to do so.

Sunday Addition: The Michelle Rhee op-ed in the New York Times talking about her hopes for the State of the Union speech.

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