School & District Management

Rhee Resigns, Urging D.C.: ‘Keep the Reforms Going’

By Sean Cavanagh & Mary Ann Zehr — October 13, 2010 5 min read
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, right, announces her resignation on Oct. 13 while accompanied by City Council Chairman and Democratic mayoral candidate Vincent Gray and Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
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District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced Wednesday that she will resign after more than three years on the job, a time during which she won national praise for making aggressive policy changes but drew opposition from many parents and teachers who recoiled at her hard-nosed approach.

Ms. Rhee, who will step down at the end of this month, said that she and the city’s presumptive next mayor, Vincent C. Gray, reached a mutual decision that it would be best for her to leave the post.

While the chancellor described her departure as “heartbreaking,” she also said that she believed Mr. Gray, the City Council chairman who defeated Ms. Rhee’s boss, Adrian M. Fenty, in the Democratic mayoral primary last month, had a right to choose his own schools leader.

She also predicted that many of the policies she promoted as chancellor, including implementing a new teacher contract and teacher evaluation system, would continue under the next mayor’s administration.

“This was not a decision that we made lightly,” Ms. Rhee told reporters at a news conference. “But it is one that I believe 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. We have agreed together that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside.”

Ms. Rhee spoke to the media in a conference room at the swank Mayflower Renaissance Hotel, standing alongside the two former campaign opponents, Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray. Given the District of Columbia’s strongly Democratic-leaning political makeup, Mr. Gray is widely expected to win the November general election.

Also appearing at Ms. Rhee’s side was Kaya Henderson, the current deputy schools chancellor, who will serve as interim chancellor after Ms. Rhee’s departure. Mr. Gray said he had asked Mr. Fenty to appoint Ms. Henderson to the interim post. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gray said there was no set timetable for naming a permanent chancellor.

Ms. Rhee said her colleague’s interim appointment “should put any fears aside of what reforms will look like under a Gray administration. The answer to that question is that reforms will continue.”

Looking Upbeat

The chancellor struck an upbeat tone throughout the event, a contrast to the tense atmosphere that seemed to pervade an earlier appearance that she and Mr. Gray made before reporters last month, in the weeks following the primary election.

Mr. Gray told reporters that he planned to keep the chancellor’s senior leadership in place, which he said would bring “stability and continuity” to the school system. Mr. Gray praised the outgoing chancellor, saying that Ms. Rhee’s work has “placed school reform at the top of the public agenda, not just here in D.C., but as we all know, across the nation.”

“We cannot, and will not revert to the days of incrementalism in our schools,” Mr. Gray said. “Our schools must continue to operate under the leadership of a strong, empowered chancellor who will move school reform forward.”

The officials took a few questions from reporters afterward, one of which was why Ms. Rhee needed to resign at all, given that she and Mr. Gray said they shared the same agenda. Mr. Gray did not answer directly, saying only that her resignation was “a mutual decision.”

Ms. Rhee said she hadn’t determined her next step, but plans to take some time off. She said her goal was to “be able to serve the children of this nation.”

“There is a tremendous amount of work to be done across the nation,” she said, “lots of communities that want to push these reforms forward.”

The District of Columbia is a moderately sized school system, serving 45,000 students, but it has received steady nationwide media attention under the stewardship of Ms. Rhee, who was appointed by Mr. Fenty in 2007. The chancellor pushed a number of innovative and controversial changes, which included winning approval of a new contract with the school system’s teachers that includes provisions to pay them for performance. The chancellor also closed low-performing and dilapidated 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 Ms. Rhee’s most high-profile decisions focused on school personnel. Earlier this year, Ms. Rhee 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. Some teachers saw the system as confusing and unfair, but Ms. Rhee defended it as a more objective system than what existed previously.

Reform Backlash

The firings and school closures brought a backlash from many parents and teachers, some of whom regarded Ms. Rhee as arrogant and unwilling to compromise. Mr. Gray had raised concerns about Ms. Rhee’s management style as a member of the council. That message seemed to resonate with a majority of voters, who picked Mr. Gray over the incumbent, Mr. Fenty, in the Sept. 14 primary.

“She put the reform agenda right in your face, for better or worse,” George Parker, the president of the Washington Teachers Union, said of Ms. Rhee.

While his union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, opposed many of the chancellor’s policies, Mr. Parker credited Ms. Rhee with being willing to challenge many assumptions about education, including those about how teachers should be compensated.

“She raised the entire debate about teacher pay,” Mr. Parker said. He noted that Ms. Rhee 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.

Many observers predicted that Ms. Rhee would retain a prominent role in education policy, wherever she ended up.

“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 nonprofit group in Washington and a former education advisor in the Clinton administration. “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.”

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, based in Washington, said Ms. Rhee had left a strong legacy and given direction to other school leaders.

“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.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week

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