Rhee's five big missteps

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 6:03 PM

Richard Whitmire's deft and revealing book about former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee chronicles a difficult time in the history of the city's schools, when good people fought hard against one another because of sharply contrasting views on how to help our children.

The book is "The Bee Eater," the title a reference to a moment when Rhee as a young teacher gained respect from her unruly Baltimore students by killing and swallowing a wayward insect flying around her classroom. The point was that this young woman had a taste for aggressive, if sometimes unappetizing, action.

The question of Rhee - her history, her iron confidence, her successes and failures - is still a hot topic. I got twice the usual page views on my blog last week just by raising the issue of her early teaching results. In this book, Rhee fans like me will enjoy remembering her unexpected success in bringing energy and sanity to the District's central office, closing 23 underused schools and getting an innovative new teachers contract. Her critics will nod as they read of her needlessly alienating city officials and good teachers and carelessly reawakening the race issue. Whitmire makes his admiration for Rhee clear but seems as baffled by some of her decisions as many of her friends were.

Now Rhee is one of the most recognizable education figures in the country. She is a hero to those who think urban schools need big changes and a villain to those who think the reform movement is off-track. The details of what happened to her in the District may seem old news to some, but those of us who care about the city's schools want to understand what went wrong. Whitmire gives us much to think about.

She left her job because her patron, then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, lost the election. Much of that was his fault. But she contributed to the corrosive notion that she was not fixing schools the right way. At the end of the book, Whitmire produces a list of "Rhee's True Missteps" worth remembering:

1. She failed to create public buy-in for the reforms. Whitmire mostly blames Fenty for this but says that Rhee could have worked harder to celebrate her improvements and drop the think-tank lingo when explaining to voters what she was doing.

2. She fought battles that didn't need fighting. The best part of the book is Whitmire's account of Rhee's quixotic attempt to remake a school that did not need remaking, Hardy Middle. I think Whitmire is too willing to accept Rhee's view that the school had problems, but he establishes a vital truth: Her actions at Hardy turned middle-class black families against her. She left the impression that she wanted them to stop driving their kids to Hardy from distant neighborhoods so there would be room for more white Georgetown families. That helped lose the election.

3. She made some terrible media judgments. She could be a reporter's delight, often saying exactly what she thought. But she developed unfortunate grudges against reporters she could not afford to alienate and eventually gave her enemies too much ammunition with insensitive quotes.

4. She drove out (some) good D.C. teachers. She tried to win over the best educators in the city, but too many of them decided she was too eager to run their classrooms her way.

5. Her team came up short on school supports. The District was a decade behind successful districts in useful data systems, diagnostic tests and lesson plans, so teachers who heeded her call to raise achievement experienced the bitter disappointment of finding little to help them do that.

Both those who love and loathe Rhee ought to read the book carefully. She is only 41, with plenty of energy and ambition. Few others are likely to have as much influence over where our public schools go from here.

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