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Rhee needs to take a look in the mirror

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, September 26, 2010; 10:24 PM

Listening to D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, I noticed a familiar refrain. She readily accepts credit for success while always attributing failure to the shortcomings of others.

"People are uncomfortable when you change what is currently in place," Rhee told host David Gregory. He had noted that Mayor Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic primary two weeks ago in part because of "tremendous pushback" against Rhee's brand of school reform. "A lot of what you heard was 'we fired teachers,' " Rhee told him. "We just wanted to remove ineffective teachers."

In other words, she was trying to say, D.C. residents who pushed back were just uncomfortable with change and would rather have ineffective teachers in the classroom.

Such distortion is nothing new for Rhee. In fact, lots of young, hard-charging reformers in all fields find it easier to blame their clients rather than take responsibility for failures. The stakeholders really didn't want to change, they claim. The problem with owning up to a mistake is that it might cause the reformer's superhuman facade to crumble, revealing some emotionally vulnerable, in-over-her-head inner child.

Did you see that shaken look on Rhee's face after her meeting last week with presumptive Mayor-elect Vincent Gray? Asked by reporters what they had discussed, Gray replied: philosophy.

As D.C. Council chairman, Gray often tried to get Rhee to reflect on how her approach to school reform was being perceived in different parts of the city. Were her policies and strategies being clearly expressed? Was she open to feedback from residents who might have a better idea?

Rhee never answered. And as long as Fenty had her back, she reveled in her disrespect for Gray.

"That's not how my brain works," she told one interviewer. "I don't spend a ton of time thinking about the what-ifs. I'm a much better thinker when it's, 'Here's the situation, now what?' "

Now what indeed? Fenty is out. And with Rhee's supporters wanting her to stay, Gray's request can no longer be ignored with impunity: Schools chancellor, critique thyself.

Almost from the day Rhee arrived in 2007, everything she touched involving numbers became suspect: the amount of money in the school budget and how it was being spent, the number of teachers being hired and fired and why, the number of schools that were closed and their locations, the accuracy and meaning of her heavily marketed student test scores.

Does anybody really know what Rhee has done? Even for her strongest supporters on the D.C. Council, getting Rhee to come clean has been like pulling teeth.

"I need you to be a better communicator," Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) once told Rhee at a hearing. "I need more respect and understanding directed toward the chairman, and I don't know how many more times we can have this discussion."

Adding insult to injury, Rhee carried her disdain for openness and honesty into the national spotlight - burnishing her image as a reformer by mischaracterizing those who opposed her methods.

"I think part of the problem in public education to date has been that we all have to feel good; let's not ruffle too many feathers," Rhee told a group of bigwigs gathered at the Newseum recently for the premiere of the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,' " which features her as a hero.

What Rhee didn't say is that she has gone all out to make residents who live in the wealthier, predominantly white parts of the city feel good. And if their feathers got ruffled and needed smoothing, she went so far as to visit their homes for coffee klatches and pep talks.

So what happens when black residents on the other side of town start waving their hands - don't forget about us; we'd like to feel good, too? Rhee holds them up for ridicule. School reform is not "warm and fuzzy," she says.

As she told Gregory: "It takes courageous political leadership to make the tough decisions. You need to prioritize and have a singular focus."

Rhee has certainly focused a lot on reforming schools in the District's more well-to-do and rapidly gentrifying neighbor-hoods. If you thought her priority was supposed to be educating poor black children, you were wrong.

Admit it. Learn from it. Don't make the same mistake twice.

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