Michelle Rhee took over responsibility for the 144 schools in Washington D.C. in June 2007, when Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed her Chancellor,DistrictofColumbia  Public Schools. Her appointment stunned people connected with the D.C. school system. Age 37 at the time, Rhee had no experience running a school. The challenge seemed overwhelming with 45,000 students who collectively ranked last in math among 11 urban school systems. Within two years of becoming chancellor, Rhee was hated by teachers and feared by principals. When invited to interview for the position, Rhee was running a non-profit organization called the New Teacher Project, which helps schools recruit good teachers. Rhee, who is Korean-American, was from Ohio, rather than Washington D.C., and she was interviewing for a position in a majority African-American city. She now says, “I was the worst pick on the face of the earth.” However, Rhee was once an elementary teacher in Baltimore;that experience taught her that good teachers could alter the lives of children.

Two years after Rhee’s appointment, test scores released by the U.S. Department of Edu- cation showed that Washington’s fourth- graders made the largest gains in math amongbig city school systems during a two-year period. Rhee has replaced ineffective principals, laid off teachers based on “quality, not byseniority,” and shuttered failing schools.

Some of Rhee’s thinking about her role as chancellor is revealed in her comments in relation toseveral aspects of her work, as described next.

How to Lead: I often get in trouble for saying this, but I actually think it’s true—that collab- oration and consensus building and all those things are quite frankly overrated. No CEOsrun their company by committees. Why should we run a school district by committee? The bottom line is that in order to run an effective organization, you need one leader who has clear vision for what needs to happen and the authority to make that happen.

Firing Employees: We had to conduct a reduction in force of about 500 employees in the district. And that included about 250 or so teachers. We made the decision that we were going to conduct the layoffs by quality, not by seniority. It caused this firestorm. From a managerial standpoint, it would make no sense to do a layoff by seniority only. In a school district that is struggling as hard as ours is, we have to be able to look at the quality and value that different employees are adding.

Rhee recognizes that she has been often criticized, but she suggests that some ruth- lessness is required. “Have I rubbed people the wrong way? Definitely. If I changed my style, I might make people a little more comfortable” she says. “But I think there’s real danger in acting in a way that makes adults feel better. Because where does that stop?”

Money for Nothing: We spend more moneyper child in this city than almost any other urban jurisdiction in the country, and our results are at the absolute bottom. So it goes against the idea that you have to put more money into education, and that’s how you are going to fix it.

It comes down to two basic things about whywe spend so much money and the results aren’t as good. First is a complete and utter lack ofaccountability in this system. And the second is a lack of political courage on the part of most of the people who are running cities and school districts.

We have a system in which you could have been teaching for 25, 30 years. Every year, you could actually take your children backward— not just not improve their learning as much as you should, but your kids can move backward in your classroom every year—and you will continue to have a job. You will continue to get your step raise. You will continue to get your negotiated union increases. Where else can that happen, except in public education? So that lack of public accountability is a significant problem.

And then on the courage part, I think that when you’re talking about making the difficult decisions that are necessary in this climate— closing schools, firing teachers, removing principals, et cetera—those are the things that make most politicians run for the hills because itmakes your phone ring off the hook and people are saying oh, don’t close this school, don’t fire this person.

Discussion Questions

  1. Identify three leadership traits in which Michelle Rhee scores high or low and cite your evidence.
  2. What recommendations can you offer Rhee to help her become an even more effective leader?
  3. How would you classify Rhee’s leadership style, using one or more of the styles presented in this chapter?
  4. Assume that Rhee held a leadership position in your field of interest. Explain whether you would enjoy working for her.

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