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Book review: The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District

The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District

By Richard Whitmire



My kids spend a lot of time in the principal’s office.

They’re not in trouble. My daughter drops in during recess and lunch to knit. My son swings by to play Monopoly.

Every student at this west-end elementary school is welcome to pay a visit at any time. The door is always open. This student-first attitude from the principal, combined with outstanding teachers and staff, is exactly what my wife and I hoped for when we went house-hunting a decade ago. Living in a safe neighbourhood within walking distance of a great public school topped our wish list.

We got it and our kids, who love going to school and already know more than their dad, are off to a fast start.

Many kids and families in Washington, D.C. weren’t so fortunate. Their city’s school district had the lowest academic scores in the United States. Too many of the city’s schools did a better job of turning kids into dropouts rather than graduates.

The problem wasn’t poverty. Poor kids in other cities were outperforming poor kids in Washington. The real problem was summed up in a sign posted low on a wall at a D.C. elementary school. “There is nothing a teacher can do to overcome what a parent and a student will not do.”

“For those children, the sign was a daily admonition that the teachers were not responsible for students’ failings,” says author and veteran education reporter Richard Whitmire. “We’re not the reason the test scores at this school are awful. We’re not why D.C. schools rank at the bottom all of the nation’s schools. Look to yourself, look to your parents. You are to blame. We’re doing the best we can with the flawed kids sent our way.”

Whitmire says that in the minds of teachers, administrators and the school district, family formation, race and poverty added up to destiny. It wasn’t their fault, or responsibility, if kids failed to learn.

Michelle Rhee didn’t agree. In 2007, Rhee was appointed by Washington’s mayor to serve as superintendent and turn around the city’s public schools. Rhee was a Teach for America rebel with no prior experience running a school district. She had previously led The New Teacher Project, which recruits high-quality, non-traditional teachers for school districts. From that experience came Rhee’s belief that great teachers and strong principals have the single greatest impact on student achievement.

Rhee wasted no time driving major reforms. She gutted the bureaucracy at the school district’s headquarters, reducing staff by half. Rhee fired incompetent staff and ended the long-standing practice of sending poor performers from central office into schools. “The worst central office disaster was the special education operation, which was so incompetently run in 2007 that it sucked up $203 million a year and comprised 20 per cent of the school budget,” says Whitmire. “Over the years, platoons of lawyers had found an easy mark in the special education system, whose paperwork deficiencies allowed the lawyers to win court orders that sent students to expensive private schools.”

Rhee closed 23 low-enrolment schools with lousy test scores. When she arrived, the district had 101 elementary schools but needed only 86 to meet current and future demand. “The dollars that should have been going to the children instead were spent on maintaining too many boilers and painting too many lightly used hallways,” said Whitmire.

Principals were put on notice and dozens were dismissed. They had a year to “lock down” and regain control of their schools. In years two and three, they had to drive measurable teaching and learning improvements.

Rhee and her team rolled out a teacher evaluation system. The teachers then ratified a contract that tied their pay and job security to their evaluation scores. Rhee issued $45 million in retroactive pay increases to 650 high performing educators who could now earn six-figure salaries, terminated 165 poor performers and another 737 teachers were put on notice and told they’d be fired within a year if they failed to measure up. Jobs for life and last in-first out rules no longer applied.

Rhee pulled off major reforms in her 3½ years on the job, drove up student performance on reading and math scores and increased enrolment. But in the fall of 2010, she stepped down as superintendent after the mayor who brought her to Washington lost his re-election bid.

The best chapter in Whitmire’s book should be mandatory reading for any reformer who’s quarterbacking large-scale transformational change. While she did a lot right, there were a few critical missteps. Rhee failed to create public buy-in for reforming the D.C. school system from adult-centred to student-centred. Parents rallied behind schools that had failed their children.

Rhee fought battles that didn’t need fighting. She took on councillors who’d agree in private there were too many schools yet publicly condemn closures. “The political brushbacks added up,” said Whitmire.

Rhee made some terrible media judgments, like appearing on the cover of Time magazine in a classroom with a broom in hand. Or telling Fast Company magazine that among the teachers she laid off were people who had hit or had sex with students. Or inviting a PBS camera crew to watch her fire an unsuspecting principal.

As well, Rhee drove out some good teachers. While she made a point of praising high performers, the media opted to only focus on quotes and soundbites where Rhee singled out lousy teachers. And Rhee came up short on school supports. High-performing school districts offer teachers and principals online tool boxes to help with anything and everything. “When Rhee arrived in D.C., the district had solid learning standards but not much else in the way of academic supports. Although Rhee took steps in that direction, her efforts bordered on the frantic.”

Whitmire says it takes a crazy person to produce results under the conditions Rhee faced in Washington. “Ultimately, The Bee Eater is the story of a crazy woman taking on a crazy school system. It’s also about what it actually takes to achieve what just about everyone agrees is not only the right goal but also the necessary goal for the future of our country.”

Every child, whether in Washington or the west end of Hamilton, deserves a quality education from teachers, principals, staff and a union fully committed to putting students first.

Book review: The Improvisation Edge

This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator.

The Improvisation Edge: Secrets to Building Trust and Radical Collaboration at Work

By Karen Hough

Repeat after me.

Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!

Let’s try again. Only this time, with a straight face.

Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!

Sometime during the next month, we’re going to say it for real and out loud to someone who works up the courage to pitch an idea at work.

Now, seldom are heard such encouraging words. This goes a long way to explaining not only why the skies are so cloudy all day around the office, but why you’ve been seconded to yet another staff engagement and morale-boosting committee and why you’re booked for an offsite trust and team-building retreat.

We instinctively react to new ideas with the same enthusiasm as finding the in-laws unannounced on the front porch with their overnight bags.

Instead of a wow, we say not now. That’s an interesting idea but we don’t have the time. The budget. The people. We have other priorities. There’s too much on our plates. We tried or thought about that idea before and it didn’t fly. The idea will never work here. That idea solves a problem that’s not ours to worry about. Why don’t you go away and think about it some more?

But if you want to boost morale, engage the troops, build up the trust and forgiveness account and shore up communications, try saying wow, great idea and yes.

“By voicing the word yes, you are saying yes to possibility,” says author Karen Hough, founder and CEO of ImprovEdge. “Yes is not a literal commitment, as in ‘yes, we will’. It is a commitment to considering a possibility, as in ‘yes, we could.’ This means that every idea or contribution is considered valid.”

Having been a professional actor and done improv in Chicago for eight years, Hough now makes a career out of teaching improvisational skills offstage and in the corporate world. Nothing, says Hough, works better than improv at creating, earning and keeping trust. “Anyone can improvise, and anyone can learn to collaborate on an extreme level. Improvisers collaborate radically — their level of trust and the intensity of their work are far above and beyond normal teamwork. That sort of behaviour is the key to building, managing, showing and engendering trust.”

Hough says there are four transferable keys to success from the world of improv.

1. Create what Hough calls Yes! Space. You do this by saying “yes,” putting your inner critic on hold and making your support public. “By saying yes to ideas and contributions, just long enough to enable them to breathe and live for a while, you take a break from the critic ruling your interactions, and your positive example creates safety, trust and collaboration among your team.”

2. Break out the building blocks. Say “yes, and …” to new ideas. “This is where the skin in the game really happens,” says Hough. “Your creative juice, your connected idea and your responsibility for success all rely on the block that you bring.” Think of an idea as a brick. If you toss out a bunch of unrelated ideas, you end up with a pile of bricks. If you build off each other’s ideas, your bricks build a castle.

3. Build team equity. Don’t confuse equity and equality. Team equity is about having the right people in the right places and doing the right things. It’s not about giving everyone equal time and say and pretending that everyone has equal skills. Effective teams have a diversity of backgrounds, skills and strengths. Or, as Knute Rockne once said, “the secret is to work less as individuals and more as a team. As a coach, I play not my 11 best but my best 11.”

4. Get comfortable with the concept of “Oops to Eureka!,” what Hough calls the scariest concept of improv. Know that you’re OK if you screw up. “In improv, the best moments onstage often come right after a train wreck. That’s because people are impressed if you can do something brilliant with a mess.” Mistakes happen. It’s how you recover that matters.

While some of the exercises Hough puts her clients through may strike fear in your heart (one game has teams of three coworkers hopping around a room pretending to be a giant rabbit and shouting “bunny, bunny, bunny” non-stop), Hough offers practical advice if trust is lacking and there’s a failure to communicate on the work or home front.

“Improvisation, along with the skills and behaviours that are the breath and blood of improvisers, is the surest way to start working at a higher level, creating high-performance teams, exhibiting greater leadership behaviours and building and engendering trust at work.”

And it all starts with saying “Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!”