A friend and colleague raises a very interesting, cogent, and all-around dead-on point regarding DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post (written about previously today). How can a commentary piece like this be successful if there isn’t an “ask” involved? There was no sale, there was no request for one’s vote, so wasn’t it a wasted opportunity?
In the general sense, I would agree with her every day of the week and twice on Sunday. So it really has me thinking that I’ve let Rhee off easy this morning (in part because I think I see the larger end-game than is reflected in her 700 words). Successful communications — whether it be a meeting, a speech, a commentary, or a conversation — requires maximizing opportunity. When you are given access to the opinion pages of one of the top daily newspapers in the country, you need to take advantage of that. Given the forum, if you fail to ask for something, it is a missed opportunity, no? Isn’t that Sales 101?
Not necessarily. That’s why I raise the question of intended audience. We can only truly gage the effectiveness of a commentary like Rhee’s if we understand who she is trying to reach, first and foremost. From the tone, the content, and the context, it is fair to say Rhee was not speaking to DCPS teachers, the parents of DCPS students, or even the regular reader of The Washington Post. She wasn’t looking for votes for her alternative pay structure, nor was she looking for PTAs to rally behind her efforts in the name of DC’s students. No, I would argue that her intent was much more primal than we would think.
Rhee had two goals here. One, she remind key decisionmakers of her relevance and of the innovation behind her proposed teacher pay plan. Thus, her only intent was to inform. She wasn’t looking to sell or get buy-in. She already has that buy-in from federal lawmakers, DC officials, and leaders at key education organizations. She just needed to goose them a little to remind them of what she was doing and demonstrate that it fits with the new world order that took over federal education January 20. She needed to show that in a golden federal education age that will spotlight Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, KIPP, ProComp, and others, she was still at the top of the reform class.
Second, she needed to reassure her potential funders. It is no secret that Rhee has lined up significant corporate and philanthropic support for her plans at DCPS. These donors are ready, willing, and able to support the sort of innovation she is advocating for and has been talking about since her arrival in DC almost two years ago. This audience would be her soft spot today. She needs to keep these donors on the line, even though this transformation is taking far longer than originally intended. Today’s piece — and its intended crosswalk with upcoming federal education policy — was likely intended to remind those funders that this plan will work, DC will be at the forefront, and this is a model that others will follow (and one that will ultimately be embodied in national priorities coming out of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, along with a realignment of Title II).
If you look at it that way, the only ask or the only sale that Rhee is seeking is one of patience. She needs her supporters to continue to trust her while she goes to the mattresses with Randi Weingarten and the AFT. Today’s piece tried to position DC’s reforms on the side of angels, fighting the union to do what is best for teachers. But if we were expecting Rhee to ask for help or support from rank-and-file teachers, principals, parents, CBOs, or the community at large, we were looking in the wrong place.
This was a strategically placed commentary designed to serve a specific purpose. That purpose was not to amplify the drumbeat for public support nor was it drive new stakeholders to specific actions to help reform DC’s ailing public schools. And that’s the cryin’ shame here.
We all know Rhee isn’t in the business to make friends or to build consensus. I appreciate (and applaud that). But she needs a broader tent and a larger group of allies if she is going to succeed, particularly when it comes to implementing what is a complex and controversial idea (assuming she gets it passed the AFT). While her piece in today’s WaPo serves a very specific purpose, it uses a water cannon to deliver what required a delicate pin prick. And unless the Post is going to give her a weekly column, that does constitute a wasted opportunity of sorts. Too many people will read today’s commentary not knowing its intended audience or purpose, triggering far more questions and concerns from those audiences on the periphery.