This morning, I participated in a virtual town hall with Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of Washington, DC Public Schools (DCPS). I was so wrapped up in what she was saying that I forgot to take notes, so I have to write this all now before I forget. The town hall’s official topic was the role of principals in transformation, something that sounds strongly in line with Teach For America’s ideals (Rhee was a Baltimore corps member), and indeed, Ms. Rhee seemed to be the embodiment of what Teach For America espouses. She was very upfront about her focus on doing what is best for student achievement, whether or not people like her. Being “warm and fuzzy” is not in the best interest of the students, so that’s not who she is. One example of an controversial move she made was when she shut down 23 schools and fired 36 principals in her first year. Not a popular action by any standards. However, she pointed out that by shuttering those schools, she was able to supply every single school with resources that not every school had had in the past. She was able to make sure all children got access to an art teacher, a PE teacher, a librarian – things many of us take for granted in our educations.
Rhee’s changes have not come without results. She mentioned that this past year, DC had the biggest growth on a national test of any state or city in the country. While they are not at the absolute top in terms of performance, they have made the biggest strides of any district. This is especially impressive given that this is only Rhee’s 3rd year as chancellor. But enough about Ms. Rhee herself. The real purpose of blogging this is to tell a little about what she said were important lessons to learn about the necessity of principals. Since this was a town hall, I’ll format this into questions that were asked of her and answers she gave. Again, these are not word for word, since I don’t have a transcript, so don’t quote it.
Q: Can school turnarounds happen without principals having complete control of hiring and firing?
A: Obviously, there are lots of factors that go into what makes a school strong. However, if a school is doing poorly enough to need a turnaround, it means they need to make big changes. Aside from whether or not the school is filled with “bad” teachers, a principal needs to be able to have control of their team. He or she needs to have the ability to make decisions and have people who will comply. In most cases, control of the staffing is one of the most essential functions a principal can have to make major changes.
Q: What is the first thing a new principal needs to do with their school?
A: That depends on the state of the school. If the school is already at least moderately performing, then the number one thing is to examine teacher practices and see what improvements can be made. If the school is performing poorly, teacher practices are obviously something that need to be changed, but first, there needs to be a culture change. There needs to be a positive environment before any of the smaller changes can happen.
Q: What about parents and the community? Can a successful turnaround happen without them?
A: While parental involvement is helpful, DCPS has shown in the last few years that we can make changes in schools and have positive results. We have the same families in our city that we did before. As a chancellor, it is my job to make sure the schools are doing their jobs right. We have created a district where principals and teachers want to be and that’s the difference.
Q: Why has DCPS been so successful?
A: We have a unique situation here in Washington, DC. We don’t have a school board. We don’t have a lot of channels that decisions have to go through. If I want to make a change, I ask Mayor Fenty, he gives me the thumbs up, and it’s in place. It’s that easy. We can make improvements right away without having to wait.
Q: Do you have success because of strong development for principals?
A: If you want to learn how to be a successful principal through professional development, DC is not the place for you to be. Right now, we don’t have much in the way of development for our principals. It’s not that I don’t want to have any; we just don’t have it in place yet. We’re still in startup mode. I want DC to eventually be a place where principals can leave and be ready to be superintendents. The reason our principals do well is that I have hired people who are all smarter than me. They know what they’re doing and if they do something wrong, they are smart enough to learn from it.