|Photo courtesy of TIME Magazine|
Last week, Michelle Rhee, the controversial figure at the helm of the Washington, D.C. public school system since 2007 resigned. Effective as the end of this month, Rhee's resignation comes in step with the primary loss of Mayor Adrian Fenty, her political patron, to Vincent Gray.While frequently lauded by the media and prominent figures in the education reform debate, Rhee's methods in Washington frequently drew the ire of parents and teachers alike. Owing to excess capacity, she closed schools, promoted merit pay, and popularized a model of dismissing low performing teachers.
For those in the education reform community, including many in the Obama Administration, Rhee's style appeared a model of decisive action in addressing the root causes of all that ails our public school. She, as Arne Duncan has often noted, delivered the kind of results that the education reform movement would like to see accomplished across the country.
Results aside (and there are big questions over whether Rhee accomplished half of what has been claimed in terms of student achievement and infrastructural improvements), let's focus on her methods and the question of leadership. The sort of leadership that is needed in our public schools is the kind that makes tough decisions and holds educators accountable without alienating an entire profession in the process. Many praised Rhee's tenure as D.C. schools chancellor as groundbreaking and exemplary, but the fact that so many teachers and administrators stridently resisted her efforts seems to imply that the combative approach to reform has very clear limitations.
Rather than celebrating ruthlessness on magazine covers and on daytime talk shows, a premium should be placed on collaboration and cooperation. After all, convincing a wide variety of individuals and interests to work together toward positive results is truly difficult work. Dramatizing confrontational tactics such as mass firings promotes the easy way out of our biggest educational challenges.A figure can make a name for herself as a maverick taking tough stands and going it alone, then simply resign as a martyr of reform when the going gets tough and the public demands real compromise and real results.Surely it's not that simple.
It seems instead that real, lasting improvements to public education – the kind that most benefit and empower low income students and communities of color – are the kind that cannot be made by one-liners and enough media exposure. They are the kind that are accomplished through on-going conversation, collaborative problem solving, and seriously rethinking some of the basic assumptions that steer the existing public education system. Real leadership in this important national discussion must be humble, democratic, and rooted in the very communities that are most affected by these decisions.