Two giants in the education reform movement have called it quits in the last month – Michelle Rhee, DC Schools Chancellor (and Kennedy School Alum), and Joel Klein, NYC Schools Chancellor.

Both of these people were/are tireless leaders, and I am proud to say that I worked at the NYC Department of Education from 2005-2008.

However, as they both prepare to leave their respective positions, its appropriate to think about how their replacements can carry on the great work that they’ve done in reforming their schools, and what opportunities new leadership may bring. While many in the reform community laud the work of both of these leaders, they left many feeling disenfranchised from the process.

In DC, Mayor Fenty took major heat for Rhee’s lack of collaboration, and many pundits credit her approach with Fenty’s loss.

In fact, Mayor Gray has indicated that he is interested in increasing participation in the reforms. His Education Plan includes promises to increase “Transparency, Accountability, and Sound Management” as well as support “Collaborative, Innovative, and Involved Leadership” which includes continuing the reforms while giving more power to the community.

This is a good thing for education reforms in DC, as increasing participation has the potential to lead to more sustainable change. However, any public participation process should be rooted in the theory and research around participation in order to ensure that the work is meaningful and impactful.

As Mayor Gray thinks about how to structure an increase in civic engagement, I wanted to offer some advice to help ensure that any participatory processes he selects are responding to actual concerns in the education reform movement and are also grounded in participation theory and best practice.


Critics often talk about how dogmatic and bullish Michelle Rhee was during her tenure as chancellor of DC public schools. Although her reputation wasn’t severe, people definitely criticized her (her approval ratings were often in the 20s) about excluding families and teachers from the reform process.

So what are people upset about? Contemporary Education Reformers of the Rhee-Klein-Duncan brand are typically singularly focused closing the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap in our schools as measured by student performance on standards-based assessments in English and math. They tend to prefer market based approaches to reform that focus on teacher quality, including promoting merit based pay usually through a value-add model,, doing away with automatic tenure,  supporting charter schools as a way to give students and parents alternatives to the public school system (and also to create competition w/public schools under the assumption that this will increase their quality), supporting rigorous accountability based on standardized tests scores, and closing or restructuring schools that repeatedly fail. These favored reforms have been ushered through across the country with the support of federal initiatives and legislation such as No Child Left Behind (initiated during President GW Bush’s tenure) and Race to the Top (initiated during President Obama’s first year in office).

There is not doubt that reform needed to happen in both cases. The systems were both in disarray, and were failing kids. The Education Equality Project lists states that “The huge difference in academic performance between students from different economic circumstances and racial/ethnic backgrounds is what we call the achievement gap.”

“by 4th grade, African-American and Latino students are, on average, nearly three academic years behind their white peers

Only 10% of students at Tier 1 colleges (146 most selective) come from the bottom half of the income distribution

Barely half of African-American, Latino, and Native American students graduate from high school, with African American students graduating at 54%, Latinos at 56%, Native Americans at 51% and their white counterparts at 77%

The average student eligible for free/reduced lunch is approximately two years of learning behind the average ineligible student”

However, the way that they approached reform was alienating. Michelle Rhee said at the 2008 Aspen Institute’s Education Summit at the Mayflower Hotel that “if there is one thing I have learned over the last 15 months, it’s that cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated.”

I understand Michelle’s frustration here – the system was failing for years, and she needed to cut through a lot of dysfunction in order to make radical and much needed change in a short time frame. She had an economic and social justice imperative to fix the schools quickly, and collaboration isn’t always the best strategy for creating change. She had a clear vision for what needed to happen, and they pushed it through and sometimes large scale participatory action is not the most effective strategy.

However, for all the improvements she may have made, there were many community members who felt extremely marginalized by her approach. And although you cannot create change without offending some people, its important to hear their concerns from a procedural perspective. When the success of your change requires the cooperation of the very people you are cutting out of the process + your boss’s reelection you will have a serious implementation and sustainability problem if you do not have proper participation mechanisms in place.

If the new DC Public Schools Chancellor (whether Kaya Henderson – the current Interim Chancellor – or someone else) is going to continue the reforms she started, he/she is going to have to do a much better job of engaging teachers, parents, and students in the process, and support them throughout periods of massive change.


Luckily, literature regarding the best practices and values that motivate a participatory approach to public decision-making now spans almost forty years worth of critique of liberal democratic tradition, and can be used to support an increase in participation. Authors ranging from Jurgen Habermas to Carole Pateman and Benjamin Barber have criticized what they see as a technocratic approach to policy-making that legitimates decisions by experts that may not have otherwise enjoyed the consent of the larger population.

These theorists suppose that without avenues for citizens to participate in policy decisions, the benefits of local knowledge may be lost in sacrifice to the interests of a central authority. Indeed, Peter Bachrach and Aryeh Botwinick are among those that argue inclusive decision-making leads to a fairer outcome for those otherwise excluded from these processes.

Others argue in favor of participation as a means to increase the social awareness that can lead individuals to learn how to act in the collective good. Robert Putnam’s work on social capital provides an argument for civic engagement as an educative process whereby the social networks and associations central to quality public life can be formed and developed.

A third main line of support for civic participation comes from those such as Frank Fischer who argue that a deliberative process of engagement can offer a means of breaking through intractable policy problems. By this argument, the involvement of citizens in a dialogue that entails learning, processing and creating new information and analyses increases the likelihood that creative and well-supported solutions to problems can be found.

The education reforms taking place across the country as well as in DCPS could definitely use some of these benefits.

Benefits of Public Participation

  • Allows decisions to benefit from local knowledge
  • May lead to fairer outcomes for those otherwise excluded from the process
  • Increases social awareness that can lead individuals to learn how to act in the collective good
  • Offers a means for breaking through intractable public policy problems

The extensive literature on civic participation and engagement also acknowledges several potential barriers to achieving effective engagement, which include:

  • Prohibitive costs (both in terms of establishing and running a participatory process and regarding the opportunity costs forgone by participants who chose to engage)
  • Assumptions regarding a highly motivated and capable citizenry
  • The potential for participatory process to increase conflict or exacerbate divisive positions


In the case of Education Policy reform, there is a clear and already engaged citizenry, but they are not being involved in the decision making processes. By involving them in the process you can reap some of the benefits of participation while minimizing some of the problems with divisiveness and conflict that exists in the field. Furthermore, the emergence of sophisticated online tools and platforms that support large-scale, multi-party dialogue, collaboration, and data amalgamation and ranking offer a new technical capacity for increased civic engagement via the web, which also lowers the barrier to participation for citizens.

In order for participation to work best, however, it has to be structured in a way that will maximize success. You cannot just have an online portal that asks people to submit ideas. My research shows that meaningful participation includes the following elements:

  • Executive Level Support Creates the Context for Engagement, but is not enough
  • Engagement As a Practice Must be Integrated into the Agency’s Organizational Structure and Culture
  • Online Strategy Should be Driven by Engagement Goals
  • Engagement Efforts Should be Designed with an Eye Towards What Interests, Delights, and Excites your Audience

There are additional indicators that are important to consider within each of these realms, which I discuss in my thesis.

I also turned this research into an assessment tool to help government agencies plan engagement projects that may be helpful in the education reform context in DC:

It is important to think about change on each of these levels in order to be successful. Furthermore, DCPS officials should look outside of their system for leadership as well. Given the breadth of interest in DCPS, the engagement team should not only include high level administrators at DCPS as suggested by Gray’s plan, but also include partners from other stakeholders such as the teachers unions, charter school leaders, students, parents, and social services administrators (to represent children whose legal guardians are state appointed). Accordingly, the technology platform selected should allow a wide range of people to participate at varying levels and styles of engagement. Furthermore, the offline participation should be connected to the online participation – both should support each other, rather than being completely distinct projects. The processes and platforms should also be beautiful and innovative in terms of how they manage and organize participation and information.

There is a lot of good work to continue in education reform, but unless people are included in the process, they will likely fail. I am excited to be a resident and business owner in the DC metro area, and look forward to seeing how Gray and his new Schools Chancellor take on this extremely important challenge. I hope to see more participatory process that are grounded in the theory of engagement, and provide rigorous, beautiful, fun, and meaningful opportunities for community members and stakeholders to become more involved in education reform efforts in Washington DC.

[1] This section is from my master’s thesis which I co-wrote with @annayork