Education Opinion

Verdict on School Reform in D.C.

By Walt Gardner — September 17, 2010 3 min read
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Although the primary election on Sept. 14 in Washington D.C. was billed as a contest between Mayor Adrian Fenty and Council Chairman Vincent Gray, in actuality it was a referendum on Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. That’s because the differences between the two candidates on the ballot ultimately came down to their views on her leadership of the troubled school district. Rhee made this clear when she unabashedly campaigned for Fenty, who had appointed her soon after he was successful in getting legislation passed that eliminated D.C.'s elected school board and gave him full control on June 1, 2007.

To understand the reasons for Gray’s decisive victory in the primary, which is tantamount to election in D.C., it’s necessary to take a step backward. It was only in 1973 that the District became self governing, even though Congress still reviews all legislation passed by the council and oversees the budget. At one time, the District had a vibrant black middle class and decent neighborhood schools. But when middle class blacks moved to the suburbs, the District and the schools began to change. Today, most of the District’s public schools are segregated, with all of the pathologies associated with this status.

Enter Adrian Fenty. Upon taking office in January 2007, he moved quickly and decisively to make school reform a top priority. By appointing Rhee, he knew exactly what he was getting. Despite her limited teaching experience and zero experience running a school, Rhee possessed what Fenty wanted. At a press conference shortly after her appointment, Rhee said: “I know what the obstacles are in these systems that are not conducive to effecting change.” Little did teachers know that they were the “obstacles.”

The rest of the Rhee story has been so well chronicled by the media that it’s redundant to recite details. But what emerged unambiguously from the outset was Rhee’s tough confrontational style. Her supporters maintain that this characteristic was precisely what was called for in a school district that was sorely in need of improvement. But there is a difference between frankness and bullying. Even the Washington Post, which has been in her corner from the start, wrote in an editorial on Sept. 10 that perhaps her style has been counterproductive (“Kinder, gentler reform at D.C. schools?”).

After all, other large districts have made substantial improvement under leaders who saw teachers in a far different light and treated them accordingly. For example, Thomas Payzant ran the Boston schools from 1996 to 2006, and Carl Cohn led Long Beach, Calif. schools from 1992 to 2002. These two recognized the importance of getting teachers to buy into their vision for reform, rather than shove reform down teachers’ throats. They were not softies by any means, but they realized that killing morale is counterproductive. Their treatment of teachers was the antithesis of Rhee’s.

When voters went to the polls in the District, they were well aware of the implications of their vote. Fenty made it abundantly clear that he would retain Rhee if he won. Gray refused to be pinned down, but it was assumed that Rhee would either leave or be replaced if he won.

There are several interpretations for the primary results. One is that voters saw the putative education miracle as a mirage. They correctly attributed gains in test scores to changes in demographics, rather than to Rhee’s policies. Since 2000, the District’s population has increased by 16,000. Whites have grown from 30 to 40 percent of the total, while blacks have decreased from 60 to 54 percent. Changes in the socioeconomic backgrounds of students translate into test scores.

Another interpretation is that blacks felt betrayed by Fenty’s arrogance. His accomplishments in reducing crime, improving transportation and opening new recreation facilities were not enough to overcome their sense of exclusion from the decision-making process in the schools. They recognized that a vote for Fenty was a vote for Rhee. They were not about to do that.

What happens now? It’s still not clear whether Rhee will stay or go. The odds seem to be on her leaving because many voters who supported Gray did so in the belief that his victory would mean her departure. What is not in question is that the District’s schools are badly in need of improvement. How to do so in a less divisive way is the task at hand. The first step for Gray will be the choice of a new chancellor who has profited from Rhee’s mistakes in dealing with teachers and parents. Brass knuckles need to be replaced by a helping hand. Teachers are not the enemy. That’s a lesson Rhee never learned.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.