Three Reasons to Cheer for Rhee's Fast Start

By Raw Fisher from Marc Fisher's Blog
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

As D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee made her way around town in meetings large and small ahead of yesterday's opening of the school year, she was greeted with enthusiastic applause and actual yelps of encouragement. What are folks cheering about?

Rhee has been here for about 15 minutes and obviously hasn't had a chance to make any significant difference in what goes on in the classroom or in the outcomes seen in one of America's most dysfunctional school systems. But she has quickly done three crucial and potentially productive things:

1) She's sending the message that the lying and the phony cheer that pervaded this system for decades are finally at an end. For more than two decades, superintendents and other top administrators told employees and parents that things really weren't so bad and it was all the fault of the jackals of the media. Rhee is telling it straight: This thing is broken, period.

Rhee's message is intended in part to create a perception of problems she can later announce have been fixed, and a Washington Post story looking into the purported shortage of textbooks found a disconnect between Rhee's rhetoric and what school principals are saying.

Still, Rhee won cheers at a town hall meeting at Murch Elementary School in Tenleytown last week when she announced that she has frozen hiring at the central office. Parents nearly swooned when Rhee told of going through headquarters asking each person what they do, only to hear fancy titles or something like this: "I do whatever Mr. So-and-So tells me to do."

"That is not a job," Rhee said. "They couldn't tell me what their job is. I'm not going to hire any more people who don't know what their job is."

2) She's exposing the system's flaws every day. In the run-up to opening day, Rhee and Mayor BlackBerry put on almost daily dog and pony shows for the media, showing what a mess the system's personnel records are in or how lousy the heating and A/C systems are. For all its show-biz staginess, this strategy buys the new bosses both time and credibility, and it commits them to showing progress -- or else.

3) She's getting concrete stuff done. Check it out: There are new artificial turf fields at several D.C. high schools, right now. There are new roofs and new bathrooms and new windows at one school after another. Facilities czar Allen Lew might not be a miracle worker, and he's surely spending like a fleet of drunken sailors, but he is getting stuff done that people in the system have done nothing but whine about for decades.

Now, take a deep breath and note that the hardest part in school reform is the soft stuff. You can and should fix the buildings first because it shows that you care and you intend to do the harder part. But I don't buy the connection between spiffy buildings and better learning.

Everybody likes to work in a building with decent plumbing and some air-conditioning. But I have seen amazing schools in awful buildings and pathetic excuses for schools in state-of-the-art settings. At bottom, schooling is a people-intensive endeavor -- an art, not a business.

That's where Rhee shows the most potential: She is trying to give everyone in the system -- administrators, teachers, parents and I don't know about kids (that part remains to be seen) -- permission to break the rules.

Rhee told of getting an e-mail from a parent about a middle school that's shifting its ninth-graders to the local high school this year as part of the system's change to middle schools consisting of sixth- to eighth-graders. The problem was that the ninth-grade textbooks were mistakenly shipped to the middle school. The parents asked if they could box up the books, throw them into their cars and move them to the high school. Oh, no, came the reply from central HQ. Those books must be returned to the central warehouse.

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