Just months into her 2007 appointment as the chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, Michelle A. Rhee had already become perhaps the best-known—and most polarizing—school district leader in America for her push to close poorly achieving, dilapidated schools, overhaul a teacher contract to include performance pay, and fire underperforming central-office workers.
Now, in the wake of last week’s Democratic primary election that saw the defeat of her boss, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Ms. Rhee’s 3½-year tenure leading one of the nation’s most-watched district improvement efforts could soon come to a close.
In an interview in her office here the day after the primary, the chancellor wouldn’t say if she would work for Mr. Fenty’s likely successor, a man she campaigned against. But, looking back on her tenure so far, she said some of the most significant changes in Washington’s public schools lie in the kinds of measures that don’t make conflict-driven headlines.
“I don’t think it was really thought of as a possibility even four years ago that you’d be able to walk into a lot of our elementary schools and your child would be able to learn Chinese or French or Spanish, or be in an [International Baccalaureate] program, and now those things are proliferating throughout the district,” she said.
Mr. Fenty made improving Washington’s low-performing schools his administration’s top priority, taking control of the 45,000-student district less than six months after he assumed office, and tapped Ms. Rhee—then the head of the New Teacher Project—as his surprise choice for chancellor.
Under Ms. Rhee, who had no previous experience running a school system, test scores have improved, an enrollment decline has slowed, and a long-dysfunctional bureaucracy has instituted modern, data-driven processes. The changes are key to her bid to refashion the system as a portfolio of schools that can compete with, or surpass, the dozens of charter and private schools across the city.
But public polling over the past year began to tell a different story. Voters liked the many improvements to the schools, but not the leaders who brought about the changes, viewing Mayor Fenty and Ms. Rhee as arrogant and unwilling to compromise.
The hard-charging pace of change won widespread praise among education reformers and commentators nationally, but earned the mayor and his schools chief the enmity of many city residents and teachers’ union members, who felt left out of the loop and harbored bitterness about the dismissal of veteran teachers and other staff members.
“I think it’s been a very divisive administration in terms of alienating and disenfranchising stakeholders, ” said Candi Peterson, a longtime educator and a trustee of the Washington Teachers’ Union, which has often clashed with Ms. Rhee and Mr. Fenty.
By contrast, District of Columbia Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, Mr. Fenty’s successful challenger, vowed to bring a more collaborative style to education reform. He continues to be noncommittal, though, about whether he will retain Ms. Rhee.
The chancellor acknowledged that the primary results in some part reflected the appetite—or lack thereof—for her brand of reform, but said she and Mayor Fenty have no regrets about the pace at which they pursued improvement.
“What a lot of people were thinking was it was too much, or too fast,” Ms. Rhee said of voters, whose selection of Mr. Gray as the party nominee makes him the presumptive next mayor of the nation’s heavily Democratic capital city. “But I think we can rest soundly at night knowing that we really believed that that sense of urgency was necessary.”
“We didn’t want to wait another day knowing that another D.C. child was not getting the education they deserve,” she said, “so it was only the best intentions we had in terms of the pace of reform.”
Examining the Record
Under Ms. Rhee’s leadership, the public schools have seen some measurable growth in test scores, with the school district posting double-digit growth in the percentage of students scoring proficient or better since 2007. The scores, however, remain in the 40th percentile across the board, and significant achievement gaps persist.
The graduation rate in the 2008-09 school year, the most recent for which that information is available, climbed to 72 percent, compared with 67.9 percent in the 2006-07 school year. The district has also recorded increases in the number of black students graduating. Recent data on the SAT college-entrance exam show an increase in the number of students taking the test and in their performance on it.
“For what they accomplished in a short period of time, it’s a pretty good record,” Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit group in Washington, said of Mr. Fenty and Ms. Rhee.
“This whole debate is characterized by ridiculous hyperbole on both sides,” he said. “A reasonable observer would say they are moving in the right direction and the foundation is in place for sustained gains.”
Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, said one problem the mayor and Ms. Rhee faced was of their own doing. They expended much effort fixing how the school system operates internally—improving payroll, conducting research, reducing special education caseloads—but those improvements were invisible to the public, he said, as the duo spent much time and energy talking externally about test scores and ineffective teachers.
“If you don’t fix these invisible but essential functions, you can’t run a high-quality school system in the long term,” Mr. Hess said. “Michelle devoted enormous time and energy to fixing these things, but nobody talked about them, and nobody explained why they were necessary or useful, or even told taxpayers how much money it was saving them.”
The chancellor said one of her mistakes early on was in how she communicated with the public.
“I sort of thought, ‘Well, OK, if we put our heads down and do the work, after two years we’ll have great results, and everybody would be happy.’ That was very naive of me,” Ms. Rhee said. “We weren’t proactive and strategic enough about communication and thinking about how do we get out there and talk about the great things that are happening.”
In that void, Ms. Rhee said, the news media took over the messaging and focused on the conflict. She was at times a willing participant in such coverage, most famously when she posed for the cover of Time magazine with a hardened look on her face and a broom in hand, burnishing her image as a take-no-prisoners reformer.
Michelle Rhee in Washington
Attempting to improve education under a glaring national spotlight, however, has brought more financial resources into the district.
Perhaps most notable—and controversial—on the resources front is the nearly $65 million in philanthropic aid paying for merit raises in the new contract Ms. Rhee and the Washington Teachers’ Union agreed to last spring after protracted negotiations that drew in the union’s national parent, the American Federation of Teachers. A centerpiece of that pact was a voluntary individual performance-pay program. (“Foundations Would Help Fund D.C. Teachers’ Contract ,” April 21, 2010.)
Ms. Rhee also points to other accomplishments, including a facilities campaign, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrading and rebuilding rundown schools.
Despite what she sees as the big gains of the past three school years, and even as many observers are writing her obituary as schools chief, Ms. Rhee said she’s still motivated by the immense challenges the school district faces.
“Most days I wake up and think, gosh, we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of issues that plague this school system,” she said.
The question is whether Ms. Rhee will stay and finish that work. The chancellor said she will confer with Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray before making a decision, a meeting expected to happen this week.
But last week, at the Washington premiere of the new education documentary “Waiting For ‘Superman,’” Ms. Rhee suggested she’s heading for the door.
“Yesterday’s election results were devastating, devastating,” she told the crowd during a panel discussion after the film was shown, according to The Washington Post. “Not for me, because I’ll be fine, and not even for [Mr.] Fenty, because he’ll be fine, but devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.”
Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Rhee Reflective In Aftershock of D.C. Primary