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Education Opinion

Michelle Rhee Walks the Walk

By Rick Hess — July 26, 2010 2 min read
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On Saturday, the Washington Post’s Bill Turque reported that D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee used the district’s IMPACT evaluation system to terminate 165 teachers based on performance and identified another 737 as “minimally effective,” giving them one year to improve. The usual carping is already evident and the Washington Teachers Union is grieving the firings.

But, once again, Rhee got it right. As jarring and painful as it may be for those used to the clubby routines of K-12, this is what transformational leadership looks like. And the WaPo editorial board once again got it right too, staunchly backing Rhee in an editorial on Sunday. The WaPo noted that all the lip service “given to not tolerating bad teachers” generally rings hollow. It endorsed Rhee’s “unprecedented” move, observed that she inherited a system where 8 percent of eighth-graders were on grade level in math but 95 percent of teachers were rated as excellent, and noted that each termination decision was made only after teachers were individually reviewed using the IMPACT evaluation system.

Rhee had pushed for more authority to remove ineffective classroom educators in the new contract, but some of us wondered whether the final contract language would limit her freedom to act.

After all, a slew of fellow superintendents have groused about the need for increased personnel authority over the years, only to choke when it came to decision time. These folks might talk the talk, but few walk the walk. And, having spent much of July teaching and working with principals, aspiring principals, and district officials at four elite universities, I’ve been once again reminded how deeply we’ve baked compliance and passivity into the rhythms of leadership and professional training.

When it comes to Michelle, though, I needn’t have worried. She stepped up, big time. Crucially, she once again clarified that she doesn’t see firing people as a cure-all or a crusade. Rather, she made clear two things: one, that she saw removing ineffective classroom instructors as one tool for improving instruction; and two, that she was sending a crucial expectation--that every child in her charge “has a right to a highly effective teacher.”

City council president Vincent Gray, who is challenging Rhee’s boss mayor Adrian Fenty in the approaching Democratic primary, waffled when asked for his take on Rhee’s move. Given the chance to back Rhee, he instead said he “wanted to look further at the basis for the dismissals” and added that there was “still controversy” about the district’s IMPACT evaluation instrument. Those who are asking what Gray’s election would mean for Rhee’s agenda may have all the answers they need right there.

Meanwhile, a hat tip to the WaPo’s Turque for a stellar piece of edu-journalism that eschewed a bunch of point-counterpoint quotes from the bleacher seats in favor of a clear, fair-minded take on what Rhee had done, what it means, and why it’s nationally significant. Turque explained in the third paragraph, “Dismissals for performance are exceedingly rare in D.C. schools--and in school systems nationwide.” This is the kind of plainspoken context that reporters too rarely provide. Nicely done.

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