The Challenge of Leading Change in DC Public Schools

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Two years ago, Washington, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s popularity was 59 percent among District residents while 29 percent disapproved of her performance. Today, her approval rating is 43 percent (44 percent disapprove.) Parents of children in DC schools gave her 54 percent approval rating in 2008 and today 54 percent disapprove of her performance.  (The Washington Post. 2/1/10. Most facts included in this post come from that article.)

She was hired to bring about change in a troubled school system.  Leading change can be tough in most organizations, but in DC schools, it can be an especially tough assignment. Many years ago, as part of a university consortium team, I did some consulting in DC schools. I found entrenched bureaucracy and systems that made it hard for teachers and administrators to do their jobs. I also found many talented and dedicated professionals – teachers and administrators – trying hard to make life better for the children they served. I worked with lots of people who were eager to find ways to make things better.

Even though many agree that some significant problems have lessened (e.g. less violence and crime in schools, greater availability of books and other educational materials, improvement in test scores), the Chancellor’s approval ratings plummet.

And you could almost predict that her approval ratings might waver. She has had the courage to take on strong opponents. For example, she proposed raising teacher salaries but at the cost of less job-security. In other words, if you didn’t cut it as a teacher, you’d be gone. As you might imagine, the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) was against this, but she received praise nationally from educational reform advocates. (According  to the Washington Post, contract talks with the teachers’ union “have sputtered since late 2007.”)

In some instances, a good leader will polarize. It can go with the territory. But, I think her problem is bigger than that. She seems to seek out controversy. Either that, or she may be oblivious to the impact her words and actions can have. For example, last month she casually mentioned that some of the 266 laid-off teachers “had had sex with children.” After a furor broke over this remark, she said that one of those teachers had been accused of sexual misconduct.

I have a few modest suggestions:

Chancellor Rhee, stay strong. The DC school system is one of the worst in the nation. It needs reform. That’s why you were hired.

You appear arrogant. You may not be arrogant, but you come across that way. Through media reports, you appear to be one of those leaders who thinks he or she is one of the “smartest guys in the room.” And you may be, but broadcasting that is not a particularly good way to build support. Find someone you trust who has the courage to say the emperor has no clothes on. This person could be invaluable to your success. He or she may pull at your sleeve the instant before you say something that you would regret the moment it came out of your mouth.

Go out of your way to build alliances. Most of us want the schools to succeed. Parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, and just-plain-citizens want DC Schools to be a great school system. Lots of people want to be in your corner. Here’s one thing you could do. The DC Council complains that you don’t comply with requests for information. If the DC Council wants information, give it to them, and ask if that’s what they were looking for. If they say no, then get them what they need. There seem to be many places where you should diligently pursue common interests. I know this will be hard, but I believe it will be worth it. For extra credit, you might try to find that common ground with the teachers’ union.

Be careful when you speak. As a nationally known public figure, you cannot afford off-the-cuff remarks. You just can’t. That’s why you might benefit from that kid in the Emperor’s New Clothes.

I want you to succeed. I truly do. I wish you well.