Photo by angela n. on Flickr.

Several weeks ago, former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee topped off her media blitz by unveiling her new venture, StudentsFirst, on Oprah.  With this grand annoucement, local residents got a peek at her vision to take her agenda to the national level. 

At times, I’ve been a fan of Rhee’s passion and drive, but on some occasions, her methods have pushed me towards skepticism.  Unfortunately, this newest venture has only amplified my hesitation. 

In the Newsweek piece that complemented her televised pitch, Rhee says that she was “stunned” when Fenty lost the election.  Really? It’s remarks like these that cost her points when it comes to communicating political savvy, casting further doubts on her ability to effectively steer what seems like a lobbying organization.

During her tenure, Rhee did make efforts to listen to the community and hear from parents, teachers, and principals.  Although the media spin paints her as completely disconnected from the ground level, she and her staff did spend a hefty amount of time outside the central office.

I’m glad that she isn’t crawling away into the shadows.  Her ability to grab the spotlight helped her fundraise and drew well-deserved attention to the issues facing our schools. 

The problem is that her mantra of putting the needs of students before the needs of grown-ups is too polarizing. You’re either with her or against her.  And while her action-oriented leadership may have its benefits, it doesn’t leave much room for those who may have a different (but potentially valid) perspective towards what’s best for their children.

For the most part, I found myself agreeing with those who suggested that her vision might be well intentioned but overly simplified, failing to deeply examine what it is that she’s promoting and the nuances behind her claims.  The type of education that she’d like students to have can’t be boiled down to test scores, or a glut of bad teachers, or vague notions of equal access. 

The issues are more complicated than her mission allows us to explore.  How can I sign up to support her cause if I’m unable to understand exactly what she’s intending to do, other than raise money and generate additional rhetoric? 

If she can achieve her goal of gaining a million supporters and raising a billion dollars in just one year, she will certainly have solidified her image as a powerful force within education reform. A piece of me hopes that she will be successful. After all, I’m happy anytime the country starts to care more deeply about the type of experience students are having within our schools, or tries to energize others around these problems. 

Her famous quote that “collaboration and consensus-building are quite frankly over-rated”  recognizes that waiting around to get every last person on the same page can greatly impede progress, especially when trying to get past self-serving interests.  But is she the right person to transition into a grassroots advocacy role, after earning a reputation as a tough-as-nails executive?

Here’s what I’d like to see her do, improving on areas where she fell short within DC:

  • Generate conversation with like-minded organizations. I don’t see many solid partnerships prominently listed on her site, which screams “trail-blazer” much more loudly than anything else.
  • Channel funds towards boosting the infrastructure of school districts that are ill-equipped to maximize the value of the information they are collecting, fully implement promising initiatives, and operate more efficiently.
  • Encourage ongoing collaboration with research and evaluation experts that can help her understand the evidence for or against policy decisions, rather than taking data at face value.
  • Follow through on her emphasis on parental and community engagement, showing the world that she’s more willing to connect than they might think.

For right now, however, my mouse will continue to hover over the “join” button on her home page, waiting to see how her big announcement plays out.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it ends up benefiting kids everywhere.

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Laura Gutmann has over a decade of experience working with schools in DC, New York City, and North Carolina as a teacher, nonprofit executive, consultant, and researcher.  She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Education.