School & District Management

Future of D.C. Reforms Is Uncertain Following Rhee’s Plan to Resign

By Sean Cavanagh & Mary Ann Zehr — October 18, 2010 5 min read
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Michelle A. Rhee is stepping down from her post as the District of Columbia’s schools chancellor, having left a major imprint on the city’s—and arguably the nation’s—education system.

But will that imprint last, or will it fade over time?

That question drew very different responses from observers in Washington and around the country, in the wake of Ms. Rhee’s announcement last week that she would resign at the end of this month. The chancellor and top city officials, for their part, vowed that the aggressive policies pursued by Ms. Rhee would continue, even as her boss, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, departs after losing a Democratic primary contest to Vincent C. Gray.

While Ms. Rhee, at an Oct. 13 press conference, described her imminent departure as “heartbreaking,” she also said Mr. Gray, who now serves as chairman of the District of Columbia Council, had a right to choose his own schools leader. Both she and the presumptive next mayor described her resignation as a mutual decision.

It is “absolutely essential to allow Chairman Gray to pursue our shared goal of unifying the city behind the school reform efforts that are making such a large difference in the lives of the children,” the chancellor said. “We have agreed together that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside.”

The chancellor also praised the decision by Mayor Fenty, with the support of Mr. Gray, to name one of her close allies, Kaya Henderson, to serve as interim chancellor, which Ms. Rhee said she saw as a sign that “reforms will continue.”

Ms. Henderson, who currently serves as deputy chancellor, will be able to retain the chancellor’s current leadership team, Mr. Gray said. He has not decided when he will name a permanent chancellor, a spokeswoman for him said.

“We cannot, and will not revert to the days of incrementalism in our schools,” Mr. Gray told reporters. District schools, he said, need “the leadership of a strong, empowered chancellor who will move school reform forward.”

Contrasting Images

The district is a moderate-size system, serving 45,000 students, but it has received a crush of nationwide media attention under the stewardship of Ms. Rhee, who was appointed by Mr. Fenty in 2007. The chancellor pushed for several innovative and controversial changes, including a new contract with the school system’s teachers that includes pay-for-performance measures. The chancellor also closed low-performing schools, and secured the authority to fire underperforming central-office workers.

Test scores have improved under Ms. Rhee’s tenure, and student enrollment has stabilized after years of decline. But many of her most high-profile decisions focused on personnel. Earlier this year, she moved to fire 241 teachers for failing to meet various performance standards. Some of those teachers had earned low scores on the district’s teacher-evaluation system, known as IMPACT, created by Ms. Rhee. That system rates teachers on several factors, including their ability to produce gains in student achievement, as well as observations by administrators.

Those actions made Ms. Rhee a national star, and the subject of often-glowing media and public attention. But her agenda angered some of the district’s parents and teachers, who saw the chancellor’s approach as brusque and arrogant. Mr. Gray had raised concerns about Ms. Rhee’s management style and policies as a member of the Council.

That message seemed to resonate with District of Columbia voters, who ousted Mr. Fenty in the Sept. 14 mayoral primary. (“Rhee Reflects on Her Stormy Tenure in D.C.,” Sept. 22, 2010.) Mr. Gray is widely expected to become the mayor of the city, a Democratic party bastion, after the November general election.

“The national image of her is clearly positive,” said D.C. City Councilman Michael A. Brown in an interview. “But the local image of her is very, very different.”

Some people will give Ms. Rhee an “A-plus-plus-plus” grade for her work, while others will call it incomplete, said Mr. Brown, who endorsed Mr. Gray’s campaign. But Mr. Brown saw the cooperation between Ms. Rhee and Mr. Gray as encouraging. “Education reform can’t start and restart every time there’s an election,” he said.

Raised the Debate

Ms. Rhee did not detail her future plans, but said she wanted a role in which she could “serve the children of this nation.” Many observers said the chancellor had created an example for other districts to follow.

“She made more changes in a couple of years than most large school districts do in decades,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington nonprofit focused on improving education for disadvantaged students. “Her legacy is rapid change that transformed the district. The open question is: Is there follow-through, and does that reform slow down? Now, it’s too soon to tell.”

Adam B. Schaeffer, a policy analyst for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, praised Ms. Rhee’s work but worried that her politically unpopular policies would go through “gradual decay” in the city over time.

Her resignation “highlights the problem of relying on individual people, mayors or superintendents or chancellors, for reform,” Mr. Schaeffer said. “Things like tenure reform, pay for performance, these are things that people point to as vital for reforming the public education system.” But many people, he said, are determined to block those reforms.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington organization that advocates for improved urban education, said Ms. Rhee had left a strong legacy.

“Probably the most important thing she’s done is to shake up a system that had become way too hidebound and spurred it to reform,” Mr. Casserly said. “She’s accomplished a great deal. I know she probably feels like she has considerably more that she might have liked to do, but she’s had, on balance, a very positive effect on the school system.”

Even some critics of Ms. Rhee credited her with having brought new public attention to questions such as how to judge and pay teachers. George Parker, the president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, which feuded with the chancellor over teacher evaluation and other issues, said Ms. Rhee “raised the entire debate” about compensation and was not “afraid to pay teachers” more money, if they were held accountable for their work, though he disagreed with some of her views on how to judge educators’ performance.

“She put the reform agenda right in your face,” Mr. Parker said, “for better or worse.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Future of D.C. Reforms Is Uncertain Following Rhee’s Plan to Resign

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