f you have been on the sidelines watching the discussions about Michelle Rhee and Superwoman status and the problems in DC Schools,
, here is a column that is food for thought.
Dr. Larry Cuban is the superindent who started my teaching career. He had an open door for teachers to come to talk to him.I used that door, and we were friends. He understood that teachers needed to be heard even way back them when he was the superintendent of Arlington, Virginia Schools. How refreshing to read this article.
Rhee’s biggest, and most costly, failing
My guest is Stanford University Professor Larry Cuban. He is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, 7 at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District) and district superintendent (7 years in Arlington, Virginia). He spent 20 years at Stanford and has been an emeritus professor since 2001.
By Larry Cuban
I do not know if Michelle Rhee will continue as D.C. schools chancellor even if Mayor Adrian Fenty, the man who brought her to the District, beats back his mayoral challengers in November. If he loses, Rhee will exit the parking lot of District offices on North Capitol Street for the last time.
Rhee has brought enormous energy, determination and rock-star glitz to a position usually inhabited by low-profile, dark-suited men who whisper in the ear of the mayor and confer quietly with key City Council members. Since August 2007, she has jolted the District’s Richter Scale with 7.0 temblors and repeated after shocks. That’s what the D.C. schools needed.
But in one crucial area, she has not succeeded. If Rhee leaves by the end of 2010, it won’t be because test scores have either dipped or slowly risen or a combination of both. If she leaves or stays for only a short time, it will be because she failed to crack the hardest nut that “change-agent” D.C. school chiefs face: connecting to teachers.
Ask big-city superintendents Alan Bersin (San Diego 1998-2005) and David Hornbeck (Philadelphia 1994-2000) about their nasty struggles with teacher unions and how that doomed their change-agentry even after they negotiated new contracts with teachers.
The proposed new contract between the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) and Chancellor Rhee is a series of practical compromises that trimmed back Rhee’s “no excuses” agenda and gave union members important concessions.
The proposed settlement removes from the upcoming mayoral race the testy public exchanges between the union and Rhee.
The proposed contract includes things the WTU wanted (e.g., salary increases for five years, no major overhaul of compensation policies or loss of seniority, professional development) and what Rhee wanted (a voluntary program of teacher pay-for-performance similar to Denver’s ProComp and more flexibility in getting rid of excess teachers).
Both sides can come out and say they “won.” But Rhee had already lost in the most important game in town: Working closely with 3,800 teachers to improve how and what they teach their students each day.
New tenure rules, new evaluation structures and the rhetoric of “no excuses” are important pieces of Rhee’s agenda for changing the D.C. schools. But the core of any sustained improvement in urban districts is the bond of trust between veteran teachers and their leader.
In nearly three years at the helm, Rhee has lost that trust, and that won’t change, even after the contract is approved by union teachers and the City Council, and even after many efforts to soothe teachers as a whole. How did this happen?
1. Trash talking about incompetent teachers. Of course, like bad doctors and lawyers, a small percentage — probably in the 5 percent range — do exist in the DC schools. But put-downs and thoughtless remarks amplified in the media have tarred the entire teacher corps. Rhee admitted as much in a Washington Post article (Feb. 9, 2009). “My thoughts about teachers have not always come through accurately. I do not blame teachers for the low achievement levels.”
2. A promising system of evaluating teachers (IMPACT) has gotten caught up in the conflict between the teachers’ union and Rhee. Chances of these new procedures recovering are slim. Chances of IMPACT being slowly sabotaged and disappearing when Rhee exits are high.
3. Rhee’s credibility as a former teacher (three years in Baltimore during the 1990s) and someone who has teachers’ ideals and interests at heart has been seriously damaged. Her attitudes and actions implicitly divide D.C. teachers into those who are younger, energetic, talented and share her “no excuses” beliefs and everyone else — mostly veteran teachers — who do not. Since newer teachers often exit after a few years, the veterans dominate school faculties and monopolize the organizational wisdom of the D.C. schools.
Why does a chancellor or any big-city superintendent have to connect to teachers? Take all the vision, symbols, energy and incentives at the top of the school organization, lay them out on the table, and then wrap them up into a tidy package — call it “leadership” — and mail it to 3,800 teachers. It won’t arrive.
While each of these traits is important, chancellors still face the political conundrum that with all the whirl, press releases, private meetings with the mayor and council members and public hearings, it is the teachers who teach lessons daily. Like most of us who work in organizations, they do need to be inspired, consoled, and prodded. They need to see that the interests of adults and student learning converge, not take separate paths.
Teachers need to believe that those at the top understand the situation they face each day and are supportive, even as they push and prod. But teachers are also jumpy, irascible, and feisty agents in their own right — a fact that too many superintendents come to understand too late.
Teachers can accept the prodding and shoving as long as they trust those at the top. Once the trust is lost, it is only a matter of settling the details of exiting that have to be worked out. And that is where the situation is now with Chancellor Rhee.
Larry Cuban is a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12 and college. You can read his school reform blog here. http://larrycuban.wordpress.com/