Michelle Rhee's senior staff meeting has all the ceremony of lunchtime in the teachers' lounge. News is exchanged. Ideas tumble around. Rhee sits at the head of the table but doesn't run the meeting or even take the conversational lead. Staffers talk over her as often as she talks over them. If consensus is the goal, the ball is far upfield.
But then, Rhee wades in with, "Here's what I think," or "What I don't want," or "This is crap," or "I want someone to figure this out," or "I'm gonna tell you what we're gonna do; we can talk about how we're gonna do it." And that is that. Next order of business, please.
Rhee's style--as steely as the sound of her peekaboo high heels on a linoleum-tile hallway--has angered much of Washington, D.C., and baffled the rest since she arrived as schools chancellor in June 2007. But it is also helping her gain control of a school system that has defied management for decades: that hasn't kept records, patched windows, met budgets, delivered books, returned phone calls, followed court orders, checked teachers' credentials, or, for years on end, opened school on schedule in the fall.
When I asked Rhee to name her most significant achievement in her two years in Washington, her answer suggested that any progress is, so far, only incremental. "We have begun--begun--begun--to establish a culture of accountability," she said, with a long pause between each "begun." A teacher had recently e-mailed her about a personnel matter, she went on, and was thrilled that Rhee had replied. "It's sorta sad because the expectations are so low. The fact that you just get a response is celebrated," she said.
Rhee tells parents and taxpayers that they should judge her on "student performance." Are test scores rising? Are students graduating? So far, there's some evidence that they are, although some teachers and parents say that even that evidence is suspect.
But not much learning gets done without institutional support, and for decades in Washington, not much has. When I asked Kenneth Wong, director of Brown University's urban-education policy program, on what measures Rhee should be judged, he answered with a long list. It included how well the schools work with other city agencies (to get sidewalks plowed in the winter, for example), how many and which colleges new teachers come from (the wider the net, the better), how quickly managers return phone calls, and whether teacher absenteeism is down. Only at the end of the list did he get to student performance. "The other stuff are the necessary conditions to get to student achievement," he said.
That's not particularly glamorous for a national media darling who has been celebrated on magazine covers, on Capitol Hill, and by the president, but it is a start.
It's not news that Washington's schools are among the most woeful in the country, but even a cynic has to gasp. The mismanagement is legendary: consider the 5 million personnel records Rhee says she found piled on a storeroom floor when she took office. Marc Borbely, a former teacher, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2004 to find out how many work orders were outstanding at the central maintenance office. The answer: 25,000.
Teachers complained of out-of-control students: The city's Ballou High School was closed for a 35-day cleanup after students stole chemistry-lab thermometers and scattered the mercury around hallways. In most school districts, mercury thermometers had been replaced years earlier.
The system churned through six superintendents in 10 years, usually after brutal head butting with the city council and community activists. That made Washington the La Brea Tar Pits of strategic plans: Each one sank into oblivion as its drafters moved on. The school funding formula changed four times under as many superintendents.
Academic measures were miserable. …