A Kid-Centric System

In my last blog about D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, I said she was tough. But Rhee’s character is too complex to fit a one-word label. Tough, yes, but without being abrasive, and while displaying confidence without hubris. That’s a pretty amazing combination. Tough without being abrasive: confident without hubris. Remember it, sports fans.

When she spoke at my Institute for Education (IFE) INFO Public Policy Roundtable group last week, Rhee enlightened us about how she’s reinventing D.C. schools, starting from square one.

What’s Rhee doing that past superintendents have not? EVERYTHING. Thank goodness. Maybe now, our Capital City kids have a chance. Herself a parent of two kids, Rhee is engaging D.C. schoolchildren — every day, she says — talking with and learning from them. Discussing their ideas and views and getting to know them. It’s hard to imagine any of Rhee’s predecessors in the gyms, classrooms and playgrounds to such a degree.

She has sat down with every one of D.C. public schools’ 152 principals, one on one, for over an hour each, since she took office. Some of them were outstanding, she said. Others? Not so. Rhee asked one principal what she would do to improve performance and the principal responded: “Pray.” Nothing wrong with that, Rhee replied, but the kids need more.”

Among Rhee’s biggest challenges? Students from all schools spoke of teacher absenteeism. Can you imagine running a business with rampant absenteeism? Jeez, our kids deserve so much more. It breaks my heart. Our IFE Fellows (high school kids from public and private local schools who are chosen to participate in an 18-month program that teaches the skills of social entrepreneurship) speak frequently of the dysfunction of the governance of D.C. public schools. Kids speaking of the dysfunction of governance? I kid you not.

Rhee told us that principals’ performance will be tracked and held to higher standards than in the past. Firing under-performing teachers — not a bad thought. Throw them out. Our Capital kids deserve more. Also in Rhee’s plans is a massive push to educate parents and get them involved in their kids’ education, with programs to assist the head of the household to coach kids into good study habits. And interestingly, Rhee said these kids want to learn. They do not want to be dead-beat kids. They need consistency and leadership. The students want to move forward. They see the American dream. Our Capital City kids are crying out for help, to learn. Something so basic, to learn. It is the adults over the years that have let the children down. Rhee said the culture of the no-can-do attitude comes from the adults in. And D.C. public schools have no history of being kid-centric.

And what is the magic bullet for her efforts? Full support from D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee’s boss. Rhee told us that when she signed up for the job of chancellor, her colleague, mentor, and my great friend and tennis student, Chancellor Joel Klein of New York City public schools, told her she must first have the mayor behind her 110 percent. She got it.

Finally, Rhee talked about her own parents. Her mother, she said, recently remarked about how when Rhee was a child, she rarely cared what other people said about her. It’s this trait, this fearless confidence, in fact, that will deliver what D.C. students have needed for so long — a kid-centric school system.