One, Two, Three All Eyes on Rhee

by Robert Pondiscio
June 15th, 2009

Fame can backfire.  Money doesn’t always talk.  Politics matter.  Beware of unintended consequences.  The Washington Post’s Bill Turque sums up the lessons learned by Washington, DC’s lightning rod Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.   “Two years into the job, Rhee has lost none of her zeal,” Turque reports.  “But those who know her well say she’s found that converting conviction into sustainable change requires more patience, indulgence and attentiveness to politics than may come naturally to her.”

Turque’s piece opens with Rhee being called on the carpet by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray over her decision to pose for the cover of TIME Magazine holding a broom.  “What does it get you, to constantly bash those you’re trying to get to help you? he asked her (a question also asked by this blog).  Turque’s piece describes how Rhee’s “rising celebrity alienated key constituencies at home” including teachers and parents.   He also reports that Rhee “expected to be hailed as a hero last summer by the Washington Teachers’ Union” for her proposal to raise pay into the stratosphere for those willing to forego tenure.  And although he notes Rhee has earned points for more tactful recent management of her relationship with the City Council and other constituencies, she still sounds unrepentant:

If I go down at the end of the day because I didn’t play the political game right, that’s okay with me,” she tells the Post. “At least when you’re making decisions that you believe are in the best interests of kids, you may not win in the end, but at least you can operate with a good conscience.”

“By major measures of progress, the jury on Rhee remains out,” Turque concludes.  “It will take at least three sets of annual standardized test scores to assess whether her changes are making a difference in classrooms, experts say. The second set is due this summer.”

At Teacher Beat, guest blogger Liana Heitin focuses on Rhee’s status as an outsider to DC and education politics, concluding “it’s possible she will continue to remain ‘outside’ as long as she stays pinned to a self-imposed agenda, resists collaborating with stakeholders, refuses to sugarcoat the dismal realities of the system, and aims recruitment efforts at a ‘new breed’ of idealists who are willing to sacrifice their personal lives to make a splash themselves.”  Finally, the Post’s Jay Mathews says Turque nails the list of Rhee’s “lessons learned” and invites readers to add on their own.  The comments predictably fall into two categories:  “You go, girl!”  or simply ”You, go.”

Update:  Eduflack, engaging in expectation management, predicts a downturn in DC test scores this summer.


  1. Are you saying there’s a very tiny target area that exists, which simultaneously allows you both push for massive change and use generally soothing rhetoric?

    Because I’m not sure what that looks like.

    Comment by GGW — June 15, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  2. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and offer advice, but it’s interesting in the Post piece that Rhee says she wasn’t successful at communicating. From my vantage point, the problem was too much communication, much of it of the “ready, fire, aim” variety. I’m a believer in the adage that one must choose one’s battles wisely, and wage them tirelessly. Rhee’s clearly got the tirelessly part down, and the wage battles part. Has she chosen those battles wisely? I’ll let others judge, but like it or not, public education is a political arena. You can’t play the game and eschew it at the same time.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 15, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

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