New teacher applauds Michelle Rhee's quick response to problem

By Jay Mathews
Monday, September 13, 2010

Anthony Priest is one of those personnel office surprises -- a 44-year-old just starting as a teacher. He has two degrees in engineering from Georgia Tech and a master's in business administration. He does marathons and triathlons. In 2008, he was project manager for the redevelopment of a 300,000-square-foot D.C. office building.

But he decided it would be more interesting to teach math, so he accepted an assignment at one of the most chaotic public schools in the region, Spingarn High in Northeast Washington. Since then, he says, he has had many adventures, including a first-hand look at the inspiring and results-oriented (at least to him) management practices of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

His first contact with Rhee concerned the broken lock on his classroom door. Spingarn has hall walkers, students and non-students who stroll its long corridors and rarely go to class. Every day they would open the door to Priest's classroom, walk in, and yell at his students or him. There were threats, thefts, even assaults. The school's security guards were ineffective. He asked the principal several times to have the door fixed so he that could control his students better.

The principal told him that was not the problem. Three times, Priest said, she told staff members to observe his class and make suggestions. All three said he should lock his door. Finally, he sent an e-mail to the principal and an assistant superintendent asking that the lock be fixed. A week passed with no response, so he sent it again with a copy to Rhee, whom he had met before. Thirty minutes later, she copied Priest on her e-mail to a specialist in such matters. The next day the door was fixed.

The repair, Priest said, became "a huge help on my ability to control the class." But the school got worse. Priest had liked his principal, a Rhee hire, at the beginning of the school year. She once visited his class, something that the previous year's principal had not done. But to his dismay, she mounted a campaign to cut back on suspensions, praising the fact that they were down 60 percent in the first marking period. With miscreants unpunished, order disintegrated, Priest said.

By January, after the school was evacuated to search for a rumored gun, another teacher e-mailed Rhee asking for help. Rhee responded in 30 minutes and soon met the Spingarn faculty, with no administrators allowed. Ten days later the school had a new principal with a different approach to suspensions and other matters.

Priest applauds this, as do many educators, parents and students who have seen Rhee's lightning responses to e-mailed pleas for action. The chancellor has an impatience that many people like. It is the hallmark of her cohort of aggressive younger educators who are working in urban school districts and in some cases starting public charter schools.

As new teachers, they saw their schools were broken, tried to make quick changes and were told to slow down. They decided their students should not have to wait for a decent education, so they charged ahead. Some of the ones I have watched closely have had wonderful results. Others have struggled.

The Spingarn story has been repeated elsewhere in the District. Rhee appoints a principal who looks good but fails to deliver. She fixes the situation as best she can and appoints someone else. She believes, as do business-trained admirers such as Priest, that this is the best and fastest way to make improvements.

An older generation of school managers, and political leaders, tends to disagree. They think patience works better in the long run. Whichever way the election goes Tuesday, in the next few years we may learn who is right.

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