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The (DC) Odyssey

(NOTE: This article also appeared in the Washington Post.)

A decade ago this month, I taught The Odyssey to a 9th grade classroom for the last time.  Today, I’m reminded of Homer’s central lessons – now nearly 3,000 years old – as I watch Adrian Fenty’s tenure as DC mayor speed towards a potentially spectacular, and tragic, end.

I mean ‘tragic’ the ways the Greeks did – as a form of art based on human suffering in which some people find pleasure, but all people find wisdom and insight. And although the election is still a week away, no doubt political scientists are already scrambling to understand why a young leader who, just four years ago, began a presumptively-lengthy reign of the nation’s capitol by winning every single precinct, may now soon be out of work.

“He would have evaded his doom if in his blind folly he had not talked so arrogantly.”

As befits a Greek tragedy, most of the mayor’s wounds are self-inflicted – chief among them his decision, in a multiracial city, to replace black leaders with non-black replacements in four of the city’s highest-profile jobs within the first six months of taking office. Of those replacements, only one is known both locally and nationally – DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. And of those replacements, only one has chosen to hitch her fate so directly to the mayor’s, and to next week’s primary election.

“Only a fool would challenge the friend who is entertaining him in a strange country.”

From the start, Fenty and Rhee have behaved as strangers in a strange land. In Fenty’s case, it was by turning a tin ear to many of the core supporters who had been most essential to his victory in 2006. With Rhee, it was by repeatedly making public comments that demonized the group most essential to her efforts – the city’s teachers.

“We came to grief through our own senseless stupidity.”

The lesson here – both today and in Homer’s day – is not that conciliation and collaboration are all that is needed to change a calcified system filled with entrenched interests, habits and resistance. Real change is complex and evasive, and part of the tragedy in DC stems from Fenty’s and Rhee’s potential to succeed where so many others have failed. There is still hope that they will, and that a dramatic victory coupled with deep reflection on past missteps will awaken in them a greater awareness of the long-term promise of collective capacity, as opposed to the short-term power of individual glory. But time is running out.

It may also be, as Andy Rotherham wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post, that the very system thought to be so essential to their success – mayoral control – helped assure their undoing. “It decreases the political demands on the leader of the schools,” Rotherham writes, “but it does not decrease the political challenges of running a school system . . . As we’re seeing now, with or without mayoral control, urban education reform is as much about politics as it is about technical expertise or results.”

“I have learnt to use my brains by now and to know right from wrong: my childhood is a thing of the past.”

The Odyssey survives in our collective memory because Odysseus’s long and difficult journey home mirrors the universal journey of life itself. Along each of our respective paths, there will be temptation, suffering, missteps and misfortune. Our only hope is to reflect on what happens and learn as we go.

Win or lose, the mayor and the schools chancellor have given us all an opportunity to learn from the journey that has led to this point. They have brought about massive changes to a system desperately in need of a new way of operating. And they have done so in a way that has likely, in typical Greek fashion, sealed their own fate. There is a third way, but to take it we would be wise to remember the advice the aging warrior Menelaus gives to the young and impressionable Telemachus: “There should be moderation in all things.”

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Should She Stay or Should She Go? Michelle Rhee and the Upcoming DC Election

(NOTE: This article also appeared in the Washington Post.)

It’s almost election season in DC, which means I need to decide once and for all if Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee – and, by extension, Mayor Adrian Fenty – deserve another four years at the helm.

Here are the arguments as I see them:

On one hand, it’s incontrovertible that Rhee has sparked both local and national conversations that were long overdue. Her decision to show up at a DCPS warehouse, with cameras, and shine a light on a system so dysfunctional and disorganized that it allowed seemingly scarce resources to remain unused was both brilliant and galvanizing. Her determination to confront the fecklessness of our current teacher evaluation system placed the issue front and center in discussions of systemic reform, where it belongs. And her millennial focus on eradicating the generational injustices of our school system has turned the issue into a mainstream conversation-starter. Those are major accomplishments for which she is largely responsible. Shame on the rest of us for not figuring out, much earlier, how to inject this work with a similar, undeniable sense of urgency. And woe is we if she leaves after just four years and the city returns to square one, denying us all the chance to make a more detailed judgment on the viability of her strategies for lasting change.

On the other hand, Rhee’s primary weapon – a fierce, uncompromising rhetoric – has also been her Achilles heel. She has recklessly alienated a majority of the very people she most needs for lasting reform to occur: DC’s public school teachers. Her unwavering reliance on “data” – and a limited definition of data at that – is leading us toward a system where schools and educators are incentivized to relentlessly, and with great discipline, move the needle on a single measure of basic-skills proficiency in math and reading. This is an extremely effective political strategy for it locates a nebulous and Sisyphean effort in a single, easily trackable number. It’s also, I believe, a largely illusory effort that hinders our ability to identify truly aspirational standards for children, and apply the same level of discipline and determination toward the establishment of a school system that is aligned around what young people really need in order to be successful in college, throughout their chosen careers, and as active and responsible citizens in our democracy.

In sum, my chief concern is that Rhee will be unable to generate what noted school reform expert Michael Fullan has described as the single most important resource for bringing about systemic change – collective capacity, or the ability to “generat[e] the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching.”

As I’ve written previously, this does NOT mean Ms. Rhee is merely required to give people more opportunities to collaborate. What is required, though, is disciplined, strategically employed collaboration that fosters a shared vision of how to create the optimal learning environment for children (as opposed to the optimal testing environment). As Fullan writes: “The gist of the strategy is to mobilize and engage large numbers of people who are individually and collectively committed and effective at getting results relative to core outcomes that society values. It works because it is focused, relentless (i.e., stays the course), operates as a partnership between and across layers, and above all uses the collective energy of the whole group. There is no way of achieving whole-system reform if the vast majority of the people are not working on it together.

There are many people I respect who believe this is exactly what Michelle Rhee is bringing about. I have just as many friends and colleagues who are equally convinced that Rhee will be unable to move the city any further on its overall reform efforts.

It may be clear which way I’m leaning, but what do you think? Does Rhee deserve four more years to make a true go of it and see if DC can achieve the impossible? Or is her relentless focus on test score data and an oppositional rhetoric a guarantee that any lasting change that comes about will not be the true change we seek?

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