(D)issing (C)ollaboration

October 7, 2010 | Blog

Something’s rotten in the District of Columbia. That appears to be the assessment made by the city’s voters in last month’s Democratic primary in which they ousted one-term Mayor Adrian Fenty in favor of City Council President Vincent Gray. This effectively makes Gray the next mayor in a city where Republicans are inconsequential in its political system.

Mayor Fenty, of course, hired Michelle Rhee to serve as Schools Chancellor in June 2007. Both have governed in a non-collaborative, take-no-prisoners style and numerous election post mortems have identified that style of leadership — both his and hers — as a primary reason for Fenty’s defeat.

Here are the three best analyses I’ve read about how Mayor Adrian Fenty (and, by association, Chancellor Michelle Rhee) lost DC:

(1) Sam Chaltain, 9/15/2010: “Why Adrian Fenty Lost the City — and How Vincent Gray Can Win It Back”
(2) Judith Warner, New York Times, 10/1/2010: “Is Michelle Rhee’s Revolution Over?”
(3) Dana Goldstein, The Daily Beast, 9/15/2010: “Obama Loses a Mayor”

In his blog post, Sam Chaltain draws from his new book — American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community — to underscore how Fenty and Rhee went wrong.

[A]ny organizational leader … needs to develop three foundational skills: self-awareness, systems thinking, and strategically-deployed collaborative decision-making…. When these three skills start to take root in individuals and the organizational culture of which they’re a part, a palpable shift takes place. Transformational change, and the collective will and clarity needed to achieve it, becomes possible…. To me, the most accurate (and damning) criticism of Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee was that they failed to understand, or even value, the importance of addressing the human elements of change.

Judith Warner, in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, diagnoses the self-destructive leadership style of Michelle Rhee.

[T]he night after the mayoral primary, Rhee appeared at the Washington premiere of Davis Guggenheim’s much-talked-about education documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” and told an assemblage of prominent Washingtonians that the election results “were devastating, devastating. Not for me, I’ll be fine . . . but devastating for the school children of Washington, D.C.”

In the local blogs that buzzed with outrage after Rhee’s comment, a theme became clear: people — even people who seemed destined to most benefit from the work of a committed reformer like Rhee — don’t like to get the message that their communities are on the wrong track. That their schools are no good, the teachers in them subpar; that their decision to back a politician who doesn’t share the reformer’s particular style of quasi-missionary zeal would consign their kids to disaster.

It became clear that people don’t much like stern-faced do-gooders telling them how to think and what to do; that they prefer “a reform agenda that’s being done with people, not to people,” as Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently put it. They don’t like collective slap-downs — like the one Rhee managed when she referred to the hundreds of fired teachers indiscriminately in an interview with a business magazine as people who “had hit children, who had had sex with children.” They don’t like to see respected members of their community seemingly compared to dirt, as Rhee unthinkingly did by agreeing to pose on the cover of Time wielding a big broom. They like policy makers who at least appear to be taking their concerns to heart, as Rhee pointedly did not, bluntly telling the magazine: “I’m not going to pretend to solicit your advice so you’ll feel involved, because that’s just fake.”

Dana Goldstein, a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University, writing in The Daily Beast, said:

The words used to describe Fenty by the 53 percent of District residents who opposed his reelection—brash, arrogant, condescending—are really descriptions of his schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a woman who has said, over and over again, “Collaboration and consensus building are quite frankly overrated in my mind.”

Indeed, the tragedy of Fenty’s loss is that the Michelle Rhee reform agenda may now be aborted before it has been fully implemented, giving education reformers one less data point in their search for strategies that work.

One hopes that if D.C.’s new mayor, Vincent Gray, asks Rhee to stay on, she will. (Gray has been unclear about his intentions on this question.) But one also hopes that, in Fenty’s defeat, Rhee has learned a lesson crucial to any effort at institutional reform: Collaboration and consensus building aren’t overrated, after all.

Undoubtedly, DC schools have made progress under Fenty/Rhee on numerous metrics. Test scores. Student enrollment. Supplies. Basic functioning. I have been both complimentary and critical of Michelle Rhee in past blog posts. But the lesson of the election perhaps is that substance and results should carry the day, but style is not inconsequential, especially when it gets in the way.

Leadership style matters in any enterprise, even in education, despite denials by prognosticators (such as The New Republic‘s Seyward Darby who said “the future of D.C. public education doesn’t rest on personal style”) and reformers (such as Andy Rotherham AKA Eduwonk who dismissed the style issue and said the “more serious problem is intense organized opposition to what she’s trying to do.” I reject these notions that Rhee’s longevity is irrelevant and that opposition to Rhee was purely substantive. Compare her to Ronald Reagan, a president who maintained strong personal support through much of his presidency even when the public disagreed with numerous of his public policy stances. He achieved that through a tremendous force of personality, an uncanny sense of people, and an upbeat vision of America — and got more done as a result. A very different approach to leadership.

Leadership — and personal — style matters for urban school superintendents because it is directly related to their longevity and to the sustainability and breadth of their reforms. And they are closer to the ground, addressing issues related to people’s children and to teachers’ careers, where everything is more personal. They need to engage with stakeholders and connect with them. It gets to Larry Cuban’s excellent point about sprinters versus marathoners. “A sprinter in D.C., however, may not last to change how nearly 4,000 teachers teach and 55,000 students learn. Or look at San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin who ran out of gas in 2005.” In short, we need the latter, Cuban says.

A key part of leadership style is inclusiveness and collaboration. It is apparent that the absence of effective partnerships — or even willing dialogue — between the Fenty/Rhee team and teachers, parents and the school community (and DC’s African-American community, in particular) may have been exactly what led to the dissolution of this political partnership between the mayor and his city. Rhee’s rhetoric, including claiming falsely that unspecified numbers of teachers were dismissed because they had sexually assaulted students probably wasn’t a good way to build community either — and her public image, seared into public consciousness as the broom lady on the cover of TIME magazine, simply made things worse. None of that — none of it — was necessary to get the job done. In fact, it made it more difficult and has put the entire enterprise in jeopardy.

Now, there were those who were critical of Rhee since day one because of the content of her reform agenda. Perhaps those naysayers never could have been brought along. And there were others whose support was undoubtedly lost by the wave of changes advocated and unleashed by Rhee. That’s an unavoidable consequence of leadership. But there were many others who could have been and should have been brought along. The problem was that there has appeared to be an overarching focus on doing reform TO people as opposed to adopting reforms WITH people. Substantively, the balance was off a bit as well. Rhee’s decision to rhetorically highlight and prioritize teacher evaluation (and the resulting teacher firings) and to downplay efforts to build teacher capacity is telling. DC’s winning Race to the Top proposal arguably has the least focus on teacher professional development, mentoring and induction of any of the 36 Phase Two proposals submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

Rhee has been unwilling to admit, at least publicly, that her style contributed to Fenty’s downfall — and potentially her early departure from the District. And that’s not surprising given her past comments basically shitting on collaboration and consensus building. Rather, Rhee has chalked up the defeat to a failure to communicate “why we were making the decisions that we did.” That’s certainly a piece of it, as Matthew Yglesias recently argued, saying: “Michelle Rhee unquestionably ended up doing this city a disservice with her habit of spending more time courting a nationwide constituency than on painful block-by-block selling of her message in skeptical communities.”

But there were some, like Robert Pondisico (‘Michelle Rhee Is Scaring Me’, 12/1/2008), who can rightly say that they saw this coming:

Here’s what worries me: accurate or inaccurate, fair or unfair, the increasingly confrontational, impatient, blunt, even rude public persona that’s affixing itself to the Washington, DC schools chancellor runs the risk of getting in the way of what Michelle Rhee wants to accomplish. I’ll put it bluntly: piss off enough people whose help is essential to your success, and your failure becomes inevitable, a consummation devoutly to be wished. Then for years to come, the answer to the reforms anyone proposes becomes, “Oh yes, we tried that in Washington under Michelle Rhee and you remember how that worked out.” If she fails, Michelle Rhee’s failure will not be hers alone. At worst, she runs the risk of damaging the ed reform “brand” for a generation.

Change never was going to come easy to DC Public Schools given its historic dysfunction. Rhee, as Schools Chancellor, has made major strides in three years on the job and set the system on a course for future improvement. But one has to wonder if she had included even an occasional spoonful of sugar to doses of her brand of medicine — or at least thought about asking folks which flavor they might prefer — whether things might have turned out just a bit differently.

10/7/2010 UPDATE: Check out Robert McCartney’s highly relevant piece in the 10/7/2010 Washington Post — and this recent Baltimore Sun story — about the new teachers contract achieved by a collaborative approach between Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso and AFT head Randi Weingarten.

10/8/2010 UPDATE: “Fenty says education reform cost him re-election” (Mike DeBonis/Washington Post)

2 Comments

  1. Reply

    Sam Chaltain

    October 7, 2010

    Thanks for this great post -- and for the personal plug. I especially appreciate the prescience of Pondisco's comment at the end, and of your clear interest in making sense of this social event, as opposed to merely throwing stones. We have enough stone throwers in education, on both sides.

  2. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    October 7, 2010

    Thanks for your comment, Sam. I am an admirer of your work -- and this was a good reminder to buy a copy of your book!


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