What's Next for Michelle Rhee?

By Marc Ambinder

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.

Or maybe, as Ravitch says, you can't reform a system without the support of its participants.

On her website, Rhee's middle initial, "A," is made to look like a grade on a report card. Her mission statement makes clear that her teacher-centric reforms are central to her own thinking:

Since her powerful experience in that Baltimore classroom, she's been a true agent of change, devoting her life to a straightforward but world-changing principle: Students in urban classrooms can exceed even the highest expectations for achievement -- but only if they have the right teachers. The most crucial factor in the educational success of our children is the quality of the teachers who guide them.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said of Rhee:

Although we had legitimate differences about how to do it, Michelle Rhee and the AFT never disagreed on whether the District of Columbia's public schools were in need of reform. Despite our differences, there is no questioning her commitment to the goal of improving education in Washington, D.C.

Weingarten told me that Rhee's central failing, in her mind, was "her disdain for relationships":

Rhee came in with a huge amount of wind at her back because everyone wanted change. Virtually all of us were rooting for us to succeed. The issue in education that the so-called reformers don't understand, is, it's about relationships. Students and teachers, teachers and principals. Relationships are very critical. When you have disdain for relationships and want to bust them up, you're actually busting up the one thing that [binds] a student to success.

Weingarten says that Rhee's reforms won't be scalable, and that attrition rates among teachers will exceed 80 percent over five years.

Like Rhee, Weingarten has been in the trenches and knows her brief really well. She and Rhee are like traveling gladiators, appearing opposite each other in forums ranging from "Waiting for Superman" to NBC's education-palooza. In a way, even though they represent only two of the very many different philosophies on education reform, their public disputes have spurred an arms race: may the best ideas win. That's good for everyone.

Weingarten's union affiliate in Baltimore has just finished a contract negotiation with the city, which Weingarten says she's excited about. It includes "pay for performance" scales, but it puts money into things that make teachers teach better, she says. Andres Alonso, the superintendent in Baltimore, was Rhee's successor. Metrics-wise, he's doing quite well, with test scores rising by double digits and enrollment increasing at a higher pace than Washington's.  The Washington Post's Robert McCafrey notes:

Alonso, like Rhee, has fired teachers for unsatisfactory performance. But he's been clear about the grounds, having principals take time to do it through the existing evaluations process. Alonso has also closed many schools with low enrollments, but added other options including new grade 6-12 schools run by external operators. He's improved communications with the city by expanding the office of community engagement.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/10/whats-next-for-michelle-rhee/64517/