Sunday’s Washington Post ran a front page feature article reviewing the first two years of Michelle Rhee’s tenure as the chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public school system. Thanks in part to extensive national coverage like the Time magazine cover to the right, Rhee has become the face of education reform in the United States. As the article notes, what’s playing well nationally isn’t playing so well at home. In fact, it begins by recounting the story of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray asking Rhee when the Time cover came out, "Michelle, why would you agree to be photographed with a broom on the cover of Time magazine?" He had a couple of follow up questions for her including "What does it get you, to constantly bash those you're trying to get to help you?" and "Why did you let the picture be taken in the first place?”
Those are some pretty good questions the Chairman asked. Rhee herself acknowledges that she has made some missteps in her first two years in the job and that the grade for the DC public school system thus far is an incomplete at best. Reporter Bill Turque does a nice job of summarizing Rhee’s lessons learned thus far as:
Lesson 1: Fame Can Backfire – Rhee’s national celebrity has alienated some of her key constituencies like DC teachers and parents.
Lesson 2: Money Doesn't Always Talk – A potential 61% increase in base pay for teachers won’t get you very far if they don’t trust you.
Lesson 3: Politics Matters – As Willy Loman’s wife, Linda, said in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.” If you’re working in a political environment as Rhee is, you have to pay attention to the politicians.
Lesson 4: Beware Unintended Consequences – It’s called a school system for a reason. As is the case with any system, when you change one variable (e.g. closing schools, reducing central staff, adjusting pay plans), the entire system changes, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Being a smart and talented person, Rhee has adjusted her approach in some ways perhaps most notably in paying more attention to the City Council and teachers’ unions. Still, in reading between the lines of Turque’s article, I think I see some indicators of potential future trouble for Rhee. These add up to caveats for any leader charged with securing radically different results. Not that she’s asked, but here’s my advice for Rhee and leaders in comparable situations: