Michelle Rhee has a plan.
Hours after she stepped out of the maelstrom that is the D.C. public schools system, her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, having been bounced out of office, she launched a Twitter feed and a website, teasing would-be followers to find out what she'll be doing next.
Rhee is a Grade-A edu-lebrity, and she's the perfect bureaucrat for the Reality Show age, when personal brands matter as much as ideas. Or when, at the very least, ideas don't succeed unless they've got good brands behind them.
Rhee is well-liked by the major educational philanthropy organizations, and though I Tweeted last night that she's probably headed to the Obama administration or to another school district, she could just as well become the public face of a major, well-funded campaign to promote her ideas about teachers, merit pay, and reform.
Rhee courted the educational elite and charmed them. Oprah loves her. In a way, Rhee helped make it safe for liberal Democrats to gingerly question the hegemony of teachers' unions. Before Rhee, Washington, D.C. paid lip service to the idea that drastic reforms were necessary. After Rhee, every schools chief will be measured against her tenacity.
It appeared at times as if Rhee was dismissive of her real audience: the educational bureaucracy. She seemed indifferent at times to the emotions of teachers, parents, and students, most of whom were black and didn't trust her, initially, because she was just different. This sounds like a small point, but had Rhee kept her disdain for the current system and its leaders to herself, she might have built stronger and more lasting relationships with the constituencies she had to deal with. But Rhee doesn't self-censor. That's part of who she is.
And -- she was accessible. She did not cloister herself, nor did she shy away from town hall meetings. She showed up and made her case. Parents could talk to her, although they might not have liked what she had to say.
Which brings me to Diane Ravitch, one of our Brave Thinkers, so designated because she had the temerity to change her mind about her life's work, publicly admit it, and become a crusader for the opposite side. Ravitch believes that demonizing teachers is destructive to students, that charter schools are not a panacea, and that the current elite wisdom about education reform is based on false premises.
Ravitch has criticized Rhee's style, which was abetted by D.C.'s governing structure:
Rhee believed that mayoral control gave her the power to work her will and to ignore dissenters or brush them off as defenders of the status quo. Mayoral control bred arrogance and indifference to dialogue. She didn't need to listen to anyone because she had the mayor's unquestioning support. Mayoral control made democratic engagement with parents and teachers unnecessary. It became easy for her to disparage them and for the media to treat them as self-interested troublemakers.
There is definitely some truth to this. But maybe Rhee's reforms and her personality fit; she had to break balls in order to get things done in a city that spends more per pupil than just about any other, to no effect whatsoever. Voters don't like it when they are force-fed medicine.