Friday, April 1, 2011

Beyond Erase to the Top: More on Rhee's Bureaucratic Legacy

It is widely reported by those both skeptical and credulous of Michelle Rhee's education reform accomplishments that she was a solid manager. Since Rhee has a degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and founded The New Teacher Project, I can see why this might be accepted as conventional wisdom. The problem is, it's mostly not true.

In a previous post I demonstrated that the DCPS bureaucracy grew during the Rhee years, that less was done with with more. Even in the wake of Eraser-gate, people maintain that Rhee presided over improvements in the delivery of textbooks, in record keeping, and in the upkeep of school buildings.

The administration can't really be given credit for school building upkeep since, as I wrote here last November:
"Rhee has been credited with improvements to the physical conditions of school facilities, but since June 2007 all capital planning, construction, renovation, and major repairs of DCPS school buildings have been the responsibility of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization (OPEFM), which is an agency that is completely separate from DCPS. Facilities maintenance was moved from DCPS to OPEFM in 2008. One of the reasons OPEFM has been able to make so many improvements to public school facilities is that Mayor Fenty and the Council have increased the schools' capital budget to amounts unheard of prior to the mayoral takeover."
As for record keeping, Mary Levy tells me it’s somewhat hard to tell its state because the system issues very little public data (see the problems the USA Today reporters had). The personnel record keeping has definitely improved, but, again, the independent Chief Financial Officer, and not Michelle Rhee, made the move to have DCPS join the PeopleSoft system used by the rest of the city. Otherwise, there was some cleanup. DCPS spent about $2 million when Rhee first arrived reorganizing and scanning the mess that was Human Resource’s paper files, and later some cleanup in preparation for going onto PeopleSoft. Finally, this report from the Council of the Great City Schools (Michael Casserly, the executive director, has been very sympathetic to Rhee) describes a rather parlous state of record keeping. The report found that as of spring 2009--two years into Rhee's tenure--there were no guidelines for systematic collection of student withdrawals (i.e., no reliable student dropout data). There was no standard way of recording attendance, tardiness, excused absences and early dismissals, so attendance data are unreliable. Finally, there was no central control over the assignment of student numbers and so no way to verify whether a student was shown as enrolled in more than one school. The report says the system needed standardized definitions and coding procures, as well as data validation rules and statistical checks, meaning there was little data quality control.

As for textbooks, maybe that's true. I did hear the administration cleaned the warehouse up, but there have been some complaints from parents and teachers at the high schools that there weren't enough textbooks, and there were complaints, for example, that textbooks arrived late to Wilson SHS (my alma mater).

All these seem like small details, I know. And again, some things improved bureaucratically speaking, especially when money was spent. I can certainly see why such matters would get much less scrutiny than, say, the mass firings, the ideology, and now the potential cheating scandal. Those items are controversial, interesting, and galvanizing. By contrast, bureaucratic computer software systems, data collection, textbook delivery runs, and facilities maintenance (don't fall asleep on me!) aren't exactly sexy. But I still don't understand where the general conventional wisdom comes from, given what I just cited and given the lack of concrete evidence to the contrary. Are there data or are there reports that journalists have that I don't? Do the true believers repeat this stuff to pad Rhee's record of accomplishments? Do those who are more critical of her accomplishments and ideology repeat it to "balance" their coverage? Or is this simply emblematic of the current state of journalism?

I still also have to think that in this case the conventional wisdom is based in part on perception rather than reality, on bias, the perception being that Ivy League Tiger Moms dressed in J.Crew run a tight, clean ship.


  1. Interesting. Management is something I always heard people say was great about Rhee. Back in 2007 (was it?) the WaPo did an extensive piece on the state of DCPS. As you mentioned, they found people on payroll who hadn't worked in years, boxes of brand new textbooks sitting in basements, and other crazily disgusting bureaucratic oversights. Rhee, I think, has largely been credit for fixing much of that.

    Thanks for the new perspective.

  2. Politics is myth-making. Thus far Rhee has fashioned a lovely myth about her effectiveness as an educator and as a manager. Busting myths is politics too. Facts aside, it is very difficult to bust a myth that has become "common knowledge" and once a myth has been Oprahfied it may be impossible to bust. I'd love to see Oprah set the record straight about her whole "Waiting for Superman" love-fest.


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