Monday, September 20, 2010

Chancellor Rhee's Rock and Hard Place

When it comes right down to it, a lot of education stakeholders have an interest in preserving the status quo. Witness turf wars like the acrimonious debate about charter schools where one camp accuses the other of willfully intending to destroy public schools. All kinds of band-aid approaches have been tried and abandoned. Fads have come and gone. The window of opportunity for educating young children is quite small, and routinely squandered by partisan reformers. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that 58% of Americans do not like Democrats and 68% do not like Republicans. Obviously partisanship is a lose-lose proposition. So is framing every issue as an either-or dichotomy.

The public constantly seeks to attach a label even to nonpartisan educators. Those whose views are clearly not partisan, usually because they regularly and alternately offend one side or the other, get painted as wishy-washy wimps. I know because critical emails I receive fall into one of three categories: You Closet Liberal, You Closet Conservative, You Fence-Sitter. Rarely are my positions critiqued on their merits, pro or con.

Education issues are systemic, and systemic overhaul requires someone with knowledge of the interrelationships between system components. Chancellor Michelle Rhee may not have many years experience as a teacher, but she has as much as some principals and administrators. In the partisanship climate of education today, whoever is serious about education will make bitter enemies in one camp or another. Guaranteed. They, like Rhee, will be damned if they do and damned if they don't. They will likely make many mistakes along the way. It is difficult to be your best self in the adversarial climate of education reform. Entrenched interests fight tooth and nail.

I have my own Rhee-like experience. More than ten years ago, in a county where there were serious problems with special education, the county superintendent of education approached me. He wanted to appoint me the county administrator of special education. I described my plan for reforming the county's special education programs. He loved it. Then I warned him to expect a political firestorm because what I was proposing would upset a lot of complacent and comfortable apple carts. I might not only rock a few boats, but capsize them. Unlike Rhee's boss when she similarly warned him, my prospective boss backed down. With an election coming up the next year, he decided he did not want to imperil the chances of his hand-picked successor. His designated successor won the election and decided he did not want to upset apple carts either.

Effective education reform requires a comprehensive overhaul of the system on a foundation of relational trust. Rhee pretty much admits she did not develop sufficient levels of relational trust. Ten years ago, if that superintendent had appointed me, I might have made the same mistake in my good-intentioned zeal to get things done yesterday with a minimum of schmoozing. On one point I do agree with most commentators. Reform should not be something done to teachers. Teachers should be leading reform, but their efforts, and even their access, is blocked every day by administrators and researchers with minimal to zero substantial, in-the-trenches responsibility for the academic achievement of students.

Reform is dangerous stuff. Teachers who drive small-scale reform in individual schools often become targets of not only the students and administrators, but even other teachers. Most schools have one or more teachers who are too busy being under-appreciated great teachers to be politically active. Some of them do not even have the time to write the multiple essays, arrange video-taping of their classes, and take time off to attend interviews in order to compete to be named Teacher of the Year. Teachers of the Year cannot simply be excellent teachers day in and day out and be recognized. I admire Chancellor Rhee for stepping into fray. In the current political climate, it is not possible to be both serious about reform and harmonious with all stakeholders.

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