Rhee Starts Off Right

By Frederick M. Hess
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

One bit of the conventional wisdom hampering school reformers is the belief that if superintendents taking over troubled districts just concentrate on curriculum, instruction and "best practices," everything else will sort itself out. This myth has been promoted by education professors and others who think large-scale reform entails simply figuring out what a good classroom looks like and then replicating it as necessary.

The new D.C. schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty are exposing the bitter fruits of that mind-set. By looking closely at the agencies responsible for textbook distribution and personnel records, they have already revealed the astonishing incompetence, lethargy and lack of organization that have long been acceptable in the school system.

The District's textbook department, for example, had tens of thousands of books sitting in crates stacked in its warehouse, with no plan -- pressing or otherwise -- to get them to the schools. When former superintendent Clifford B. Janey tried to address the system, his emphasis was on short-term patches. Even after his administration spent $3 million on the problem, just one-third of principals send notification of their book needs on time, the warehouse operation remains a disaster and no reliable systemwide count of textbooks exists.

Regarding personnel, Rhee's staff has discovered more than 4 million documents relating to employee benefits, recommendations and payroll that have never been filed. The immediate concern for sorting through these papers is assuring the District of a "clean" audit. More critical is the longer-term need to track personnel, money and resources to competently manage a billion-dollar organization.

Rhee and Fenty are challenging the fiction that a massive, troubled school system can be transformed without tackling its infrastructure and organization -- a notion that has seduced too many would-be reformers. Individual schools depend on their districts to provide personnel, supplies, data management and other essential services. They cannot function on their own or independent of a coordinating strategy.

Addressing staffers at a school-year kickoff event at the Washington Convention Center last month, Rhee said her top priority is to reform D.C. Public Schools headquarters to provide teachers, schools and students with the support they need to be effective. High-performing organizations, whether they manage schools, hospitals or private businesses, require reliable data, transparent budgeting and high-quality human resources to get the job done.

Rhee understands that trying to maneuver around broken personnel, recordkeeping, budgeting and textbook distribution systems is neither feasible nor sensible. These aspects of the school system are critical "instructional operations" and are essential to enabling principals and staff to provide instructional leadership. They are necessary for creating conditions for systemic excellence.

Managing instruction depends on the right teachers and staff. If incomplete files, balky personnel systems or outdated technology make it more difficult to hire good people, train them or assign them to the right positions, expensive investments in instruction and curriculum yield little.

The District is not the only system facing these challenges. Just a few years ago in Buffalo, a key reason the school system struggled to remove ineffective teachers before they received tenure was that the requisite paperwork had not been created. In San Diego, a 2005 review of its school system's seven-year reform effort reported that even in the midst of impressive accomplishments, the district had for several years still required teachers to make staff requests by traveling to headquarters and depositing paperwork into a designated wooden box.

To his credit, the mayor appears to be giving energetic support and the requisite political cover to Rhee as she forges ahead. He has publicly offered support. "Everywhere the chancellor and our facilities director are going these days, they're having to turn around decades of a lack of urgency and a lack of attention to detail on really the basics of running a government agency," he said in a media briefing last month.

Fenty is exactly right. Pushed by concerned parents and impatient advocates to fix things immediately, troubled districts tend to reach frantically for results and find themselves with little beyond grandiose visions and a slew of chaotic initiatives. Ultimately, there is little use in worrying about painting the walls if the building's foundation is crumbling. Rhee is making clear her commitment to fixing the foundation and replacing the rafters, not relying on duct tape to patch trouble spots.

The work Rhee is tackling is not glamorous and will not generate hosannas from parent groups or education advocates. But delivering textbooks, filing paperwork and ensuring that the central office is responsive and efficient are part of the gritty, thankless work of preparing the D.C. school system, and its students, to succeed.

The writer is director of education policy studies at theAmerican Enterprise Institute.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company