Management Principles and the Washington, D.C., Public Schools: A Case Study revisited

Published: September 14, 2011

On Monday, August 29, incoming MIT Sloan students reflected on recent attempts to reform the troubled Washington, D.C., public school system (DCPS).

Using a case study series written by Leigh Hafrey, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Ethics, and Cate Reavis, Manager of MSTIR, the first year MBAs examined the difficult and often controversial management choices made by former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, former D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, MBA ’97, and former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, as they worked to improve what is often regarded as one of the worst public school systems in the country.

Hafrey and colleagues Chris Kelly and Neal Hartman (both Senior Lecturers in Managerial Communication) moderated cohort case discussions. In a subsequent plenary forum with Fenty and Reinoso on stage and Rhee on live video, students put questions directly to the case protagonists.

DCPS Plenary ForumPictured (l to r): former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, former D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, MBA ’97, and Senior Lecturer Leigh Hafrey

Management principles and leadership

Winner of the 2010 EFMD Case Writing Competition in the Public Sector Innovations category, the DCPS case series was first taught during orientation in August 2010. At the time, Fenty faced a tough re-election campaign. Just three weeks later, he lost the Democratic primary by a wide margin. Many believe the defeat stemmed from the controversial educational reforms his team had initiated, and despite the fact that Washington, D.C. had just won $75 million under Race to the Top. In light of that loss, students this year weighed the lasting changes the team put into place against the gnawing reality that they may well have cut short Fenty’s time as mayor.

Focused largely on what it means to utilize private sector management principles in the public sphere, students debated the overall effectiveness of school closings, teacher layoffs, and the reclassification of non-union DCPS staff as at-will employees.

Students also applied the MIT Sloan Four Capabilities Leadership Framework to the individual protagonists’ performances, and that of the whole team. Hafrey began his sessions by challenging the students to consider what it means to lead, and then guided them through a detailed examination of the choices each protagonist made. Was the trio perhaps too well aligned in their individual strengths to compensate for their respective weaknesses? Was Michelle Rhee the right choice for the role of chancellor? These and other questions aimed to help students think about how they might lead in similar circumstances.

Defining success

Following the cohort discussion, students attended a plenary session in the ballroom of the Cambridge Marriott. With questions ranging from whether the team might have accomplished more through compromise than confrontation, to much more personal issues of gender and race, students and speakers focused on the problem of how best to define success when trying to reform a public school system. Fenty, Reinoso, and Rhee all indicated they had made a number of mistakes along the way, but they also argued that, as a group, they effected important changes to the system.

Citing Fenty’s desire to be “not the longest-running mayor, but the strongest,” Reinoso said that, despite the sacrifices the team made, in many ways they accomplished their goals. “I think we succeeded in fundamentally changing the conversation around education,” he explained, “certainly in D.C.; and frankly, I think we also made it safe for folks to take aggressive reform efforts elsewhere in the country.”

Rhee felt the experience was a positive one for both her and D.C.: Following the group’s overarching mantra of always doing what was in the best interest of children gave them a “north star” to follow throughout all the difficult choices made. She encouraged MIT Sloan students to follow their own moral instincts throughout their careers. “We need aggressive leaders,” she said at one point, “We need people who are willing to say ‘you know what, my personal career or my political career is not as important as doing the right thing.’”

As the plenary session ended, ten students still waited by the microphones to ask questions of Fenty, Reinoso, and Rhee. The Class of 2013 met the guests’ summary comments with a standing ovation, a measure of the impact of the overall experience and a first step in the students’ leadership studies at MIT Sloan.