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School Reform Ideas and Michelle Rhee: Bankrupt on Big Ideas?

Well, I’ve been following this Michelle Rhee dictatorship for some time with much interest. With all the buzz lately – the article in the Atlantic and Time Magazine for instance – I figured I might lay down some commentary IMHO.

Michelle Rhee doesn’t have any ideas. At least she hasn’t revealed any yet. Or, most likely, the press doesn’t care enough to cover them. From what I see, her bold first move seems to be stuck in the bold first move phase.

With a long-run perspective, I’m interested in destroying the political structure that stifles school reform and allowing myriad beneficent dictatorships to bloom and comparing their results. In the short term, I’m remarkably skeptical until I see real Ideas (Ideas with a capital I) come out of DC.

Rolling heads and scaring the pants off everyone, generating resentment from most people you have to work with ( even with the applause of spectators ) isn’t an idea; it’s poor leadership and a hackneyed way to quickly get the allegiance of subordinates.

Leadership must invest in talent, must have a commitment to bringing in good talent, pushing out bad talent, and creating incentive structures that bring out the best in everyone. And in this, Michelle Rhee does have an operating principle that has been missing in education. One that, unfortunately, isn’t as revolutionary as people want to laud. Managers in the private sector have been complete champions in investing in talent, and the fact that it is so difficult to use this “must have” operating principle in more public sector services and institutions is deplorable. The fact that this operating principle has not been in use in public education is not an indicator of its revolutinonariness but is rather an indicator of a political system designed for stability and inclusion rather than efficiency and innovation. In the sense that Michelle Rhee wants to create a structure where leadership can invest in talent, I cheer Michelle Rhee on. If she has to do something with dramatic flare and uncompromising intimidation in order to shake up the system to get to where this operating principle becomes, well, an operating principle within our school system, I will be her fan boy.

The part where her lioness tactics come up short is twofold. First, dismissing hordes of people whose talent has been confined by the structures in which they work assumes that those individuals don’t have latent talent. I’ve worked with alongside hundreds of teachers, and for the most part they universally are committed and can be innovative when given the freedom and the wherewithal to do so. Second, axing people only generates allegiance when the entire community is given a coherent vision to work towards and each community member can clearly see their own role in the renaissance. Otherwise, it either quickly disintegrates into a disorderly herding of cats or behind the uncanny order is chronic dishonesty that leads to nice statistics but Great Leap Forward style mistakes.

My humble recommendations to Michelle Rhee:

1) Work with people to release their talent.
2) Publish a coherent vision with Big Ideas.

And, in case Michelle Rhee reads this, or in case you want to introduce me to her or anyone else going head first into school reform, I will list my Ideas below:

1) Scaffold skills and behaviors with more attention than academics. Once kids learn how to engage, the academic payoffs are gargantuan.
2) Streamline aligned multimedia content delivery and assessment, creating time for teachers to address real teaching and learning. Every teacher building content and assessments, stuck in continual delivery, is a complete inefficiency and wholly distracting.
3) Mandate comprehensive remediation using adaptive learning environments until every child is blue in the face or has the fundamentals to participate. Start this as soon as a child gets even a month behind. Children that don’t have the fundamentals ultimately hold back entire classrooms.
4) Build a schedule from scratch and alter building design around moments in the real lesson cycles: preview, delivery, reflection, assessment, content evaluation / activity modeling, monitored activity, individual activity, assessment, process evaluation. Hour or Two hour blocks provide no structure and make no sense.
5) Dramatically increase the number of hours engaged in school. All the data shows we lose them when they’re not in school.
6) Facilitate students relationships with authentic role models. Otherwise everyone can only imagine careers they see on TV.
7) Focus on health and fitness, the arts and creativity, and social, creative, and constructivist projects. It’s these totally neglected elements that create an environment for engagement.

I can go into more detail for anyone with the mind to chat.