School & District Management

Mayor Takes Control, Picks Novice to Lead Troubled D.C. District

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 19, 2007 4 min read
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Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty assumed power over the troubled District of Columbia schools last week and immediately named as his schools chief an education entrepreneur known for recruiting teachers to work in needy urban schools.

Michelle A. Rhee, the 37-year-old founder of the nonprofit New Teacher Project, was a surprise choice for chancellor, as the new position will be called. Mr. Fenty made the announcement just hours after he took control of the 55,000-student system, which is among the lowest-performing urban districts in the nation. The mayor also hired Allen Y. Lew, a veteran manager of large-scale public projects, to lead the school system’s $200 million-a-year project to modernize its facilities.

Using his new authority to hire and fire the superintendent, Mr. Fenty chose Ms. Rhee to replace Clifford B. Janey, a career educator who had held the post since 2004 and had drawn plaudits for his districtwide plan to improve student achievement.

Ms. Rhee, who taught for three years in a poor elementary school in Baltimore as part of the Teach For America program, said the job offer came after conversations with Victor Reinoso, Mr. Fenty’s deputy mayor for education, who sought her advice on possible candidates for the position at a conference in New Orleans last month.

Though Ms. Rhee is highly regarded for her work in recruiting and training midcareer professionals to become teachers in high-poverty, low-performing schools, she is untested as a leader within a public school system.

‘Gutsy Pick’

Since her June 12 appointment, some local leaders have questioned the wisdom of choosing a chancellor without experience running a large, complex organization, while educators who know Ms. Rhee have praised the choice. Joel I. Klein, the schools chancellor in New York City, recommended Ms. Rhee to Mr. Fenty and joined them in Washington last week when her appointment was announced.

The District of Columbia Council must still confirm her appointment. Her base annual salary will be $250,000.

“It’s a gutsy pick,” said Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, where Ms. Rhee’s organization has helped recruit and train hundreds of new teachers. “Clearly, by choosing her, the mayor has shown that he has absolutely no interest in maintaining the status quo.”

Ms. Rhee said in an interview that she brings valuable experience to the new job, gained over a decade of collaborating with urban districts on teacher recruitment and alternative certification.

“I know what the obstacles are in these systems that are not conducive to effecting change,” she said.

With Mr. Fenty now in control of the schools and the elected school board recast as a state board of education to make decisions on policies such as instructional time and academic standards, Ms. Rhee said the environment is right to remove those obstacles.

“I just felt that the situation here was going to be a lot different, and that I would be able to effect some real change,” she said. “The mayor was willing to take on accountability for the system, and I was impressed by the role he had carved out for the chancellor.”

The New Teacher Project partners with districts to set up programs that recruit, select, and train new teachers—usually mid-career professionals who are willing to work in hard-to-staff schools. The organization has also developed certification programs for new teachers who are trained through alternative programs.

In some cities, Washington among them, the New Teacher Project has worked with local teachers’ unions to change provisions in their contracts that had made hiring teachers recruited and trained by her organization difficult.

Union Reaction

While she has worked closely with unions, Ms. Rhee has also been a critic of collective bargaining agreements that inhibit districts’ ability to attract and hire the most qualified teachers. Last year, she became a high-profile proponent of legislation in California that called for restricting the transfer of weak teachers to low-performing schools. The measure became state law at the beginning of this year.

George Parker, the president of the Washington Teachers Union, stood alongside Ms. Rhee after the mayor announced her appointment. The union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, has so far supported Mr. Fenty’s takeover of the school system. Both Mr. Parker and Ms. Rhee said they have had success working together on teacher recruitment and hiring in the city since the New Teacher Project began collaborating with the system in 2000.

Ms. Rhee said her first priority in the District of Columbia is to “change the culture here.”

“We are going to lay out very clear expectations for performances and outcomes and create a culture in which every single adult takes personal responsibility for the success of our students,” she said.

To that end, Ms. Rhee said she would reach out to as many principals, teachers, and parents as she can over the summer to deliver that message and to preach her philosophy that hiring good teachers will be the most critical factor in improving students’ academic performance.

“Student achievement,” Ms. Rhee said, “has absolutely everything to do with the quality of instruction in the classroom.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as Mayor Takes Control, Picks Novice to Lead Troubled D.C. District

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