D.C.'s Chancellor Makes Her Case

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 25, 2008 11 min read
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One of Michelle A. Rhee’s favorite tales of incompetence inside the District of Columbia public schools was her discovery, last fall, that mishandled paperwork and a missed meeting by an employee was costing the system nearly a half million dollars a year. The worker’s mistakes, Ms. Rhee said, had prompted the placement of two special education students in out-of-state schools that each cost more than $200,000.

Another story Ms. Rhee often tells is about two teachers she encountered at the same school. One, she observed, “bounded” around the room teaching a lesson on Greek mythology as students held up their arms, straining to be called on. The other teacher, whose classroom was across the hall, tried in vain to quiet unruly students by turning the light switch off and on when Ms. Rhee stopped by for a visit.

And she recounts an anecdote about high school students in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods who told her the first thing she needed to do to improve their school was to “just get the teachers to show up.”

For Ms. Rhee, 38, the chancellor of the public schools in Washington since June 2007, exposing mismanagement, incompetence, and wide disparities in teaching quality has been a deliberate tactic as she builds her case to overhaul one of the nation’s most beleaguered school districts. Purging ineffective teachers, principals, and central-office employees and recruiting talented replacements, she argues, is the only way to turn around a system that’s been failing for decades.

“It’s a matter of making everybody in this system accountable for what they do every day,” Ms. Rhee said in an interview in late July.

At the heart of that effort is the chancellor’s quest to radically reshape the city’s teachers’ contract with a proposal that could make Washington teachers some of the highest-paid in the nation, provided they give up tenure protections and link their pay to student performance.

For months, Ms. Rhee, a Teach For America alumna who led the New Teacher Project for a decade, has been embroiled in negotiations with the teachers’ union. She has pledged that her plan, if adopted, would “revolutionize” collective bargaining agreements in districts beyond the District of Columbia.

People Before Pedagogy

So far, Ms. Rhee has not rolled out a detailed academic strategy or made any sweeping pronouncements about overhauling curriculum and instruction, which one education expert said distinguishes her from other high-profile, nontraditional urban superintendents who tackled those issues right away.

Eventful First Year

June 2007
—Mayor Adrian M. Fenty takes control of the District of Columbia public schools and appoints Michelle A. Rhee as chancellor.
—The new chancellor halts any hiring of permanent principals to conduct a national search for better candidates.

July 2007
—Ms. Rhee announces that dozens of schools and classrooms will not be ready for the August opening of schools.

August 2007
—Ms. Rhee and Mr. Fenty tour a school district warehouse—large media contingent in tow—to highlight large stashes of textbooks and supplies that have not been delivered to schools.

October 2007
—Ms. Rhee and Mr. Fenty introduce legislation in the Council of the District of Columbia to give the chancellor firing authority over hundreds of central-office employees.

December 2007
—Ms. Rhee unveils plans to close and consolidate schools and launches community forums with parents, many of them angry over the closures.
—The city council grants Ms. Rhee authority to fire central-office employees without cause.

February 2008
—Ms. Rhee finalizes plans to shutter 23 schools at the end of the school year.

March 2008
—The chancellor uses her new authority to fire more than 100 central-office employees.

May 2008
—Ms. Rhee begins firing principals and details her plans to restructure more than two dozen schools that failed to make adequate early progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for five straight years.

July 2008
—Ms. Rhee fires 250 teachers and 500 teachers’ aides who had not met a deadline for certification as required by the NCLB law.
—The chancellor and the mayor announce spring 2008 test results, which show strong growth in both reading and mathematics at the elementary and secondary levels.

July-September 2008
—Ms. Rhee pushes for a two-tiered pay plan as she negotiates with a fractured Washington Teachers’ Union on a new contract.

— Lesli A. Maxwell

“She has said, ‘We are dealing with a dysfunctional system that is incapable of providing talented people and supporting them, and before we turn the focus to pedagogy and instruction, we’ve got to fix that,’” said Frederick M. Hess, a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “Sure, if you focus immediately on 3rd grade reading and math, you can get short-term bumps, but it’s inherently a short-term strategy.”

Ms. Rhee’s candor is on display no matter whether her audience is members of Congress, think tank policy wonks, or a crowd of angry parents. It’s been off-putting to some local leaders, educators, and parents, but in the universe of education reformers, that blunt style, combined with her aggressive stance on finding the right people to lead schools and teach students, has propelled her into the national limelight.

Ms. Rhee has unabashedly taken political stands, calling on Democratic lawmakers to challenge the teachers’ unions on issues like performance pay, and joining forces with the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein in a coalition called the Education Equality Project to influence the education policies of the next president. A Democrat herself, she has said that if Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is elected, she worries that the No Child Left Behind Act will be watered down or scrapped.

On Aug. 24, the day before schools opened in Washington, Ms. Rhee spoke on an education reform panel called “Faces of Change” at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

She’s been sought out—along with Mr. Klein, with whom she frequently appears—to help lead a national task force on overhauling the way large school districts handle the recruitment, grooming, and retention of talent.

“We absolutely wanted her to be a central voice in our effort to reform human capital,” said Allan R. Odden, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is the co-director of the Strategic Management of Human Capital, a national organization formed a few months ago. “She has made recruitment and retention of talent the foundation for improving the school system in Washington, and that’s exactly the approach that we think is the right one.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who first met Ms. Rhee in 2005, judges the chancellor’s approach differently.

“It may be a good tactic, and it gets a lot of attention, but at the end of the day, you don’t move an education system unless you work with your teachers,” Ms. Weingarten said. “I think she has a terrific public-relations operation.”

When asked whether she might be risking important allies by airing so much dirty laundry in her quest to remake the D.C. schools, Ms. Rhee’s answer is, as usual, blunt.

“You know what? Maybe. I really don’t care, though,” she said. “I also talk about how we have lots of people who work hard, but it doesn’t mean that I am not going to talk about the dangers of having people working here who are not for the kids. If you’re going to get your panties in a bunch about that, that’s on you.”

Mixed Local Reception

Ms. Rhee brought her unapologetic attitude and thick skin to Washington almost 15 months ago, when the then-newly-elected mayor, Adrian M. Fenty, took over the schools and hired her to run them at a salary of $275,000. Mr. Fenty’s central campaign pledge was to fix the long-suffering school system, where 57 percent of the 49,400 students are eligible for free- and reduced-priced meals and 85 percent are African-American.

Choosing a Korean-American woman—the first superintendent in 40 years who is not black—who had never run a school was an unconventional pick that surprised many people, including members of the Council of the District of Columbia.

Indeed, Ms. Rhee has had a more mixed reception locally than the acclaim she has experienced on the national scene. Margot Berkey, the director of the advocacy group Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, says that what has charmed many of Ms. Rhee’s admirers outside Washington has turned off some parents.

I also talk about how we have lots of people who work hard, but it doesn't mean that I am not going to talk about the dangers of having people working here who are not for the kids.

“Some of us have really objected to these blanket statements she makes that blame everyone who was already here for all the district’s problems,” said Ms. Berkey, who has a daughter in the 10th grade at a District of Columbia high school. “I think she’s shown a general lack of curiosity about the assets that we actually have in the schools already.”

Ms. Rhee scrapped the district’s decade-old use of weighted-student funding—which gave extra “weight” to schools with large numbers of low-income children and students with other special needs—in favor of a uniform staffing model for all schools. Activists like Ms. Berkey said the new funding plan eliminated the school community’s ability to make staffing decisions based on its own needs. But Ms. Rhee said it allows her to deliver on a key promise: art, music, and physical education teachers at every school.

When the majority of the city’s schools posted strong growth on test scores this spring, Ms. Rhee and Mr. Fenty heralded the progress at a news conference, to the dismay of Ms. Berkey and others who thought the chancellor and mayor might have been taking too much credit.

“For them to draw any link between their first efforts and a rise in scores was a distraction,” said Mr. Hess, who was one of two researchers tapped by Victor Reinoso, the deputy mayor for education, to do a first-year evaluation of Ms. Rhee until the city council postponed it because of questions around impartiality and how to pay for the review. “You can understand the temptation, but there’s an array of factors to explain this.”

Mr. Klein, the New York City schools chief, advised Mr. Fenty to hire Ms. Rhee when the new mayor sought his recommendation for a chancellor. Mr. Klein had worked closely with Ms. Rhee through the New York City-based New Teacher Project, the nonprofit organization she ran for a decade that works with urban districts to recruit and train midcareer professionals to become teachers.

“She was the first person I thought of, but to be honest, I didn’t think the mayor would probably consider her,” Mr. Klein said. “From my point of view, she had loads and loads of experience and would understand, better than anyone, that you would need to go straight to the human-resource issues.”

Mr. Fenty did want her, and after he convinced Ms. Rhee that he was willing to stake his mayoralty on turning the schools around, she took the job. So far, Ms. Rhee said, the mayor has given her no reason to doubt his pledge to take the political heat. She meets with Mr. Fenty face-to-face at least three times a week and says the mayor has never balked at her initiatives or requests.

“There’s actually a joke in the mayor’s [office] that if you want to get anything out of him, you should ask [me] to do it because he never says no to [me],” Ms. Rhee said.

In her first year, Ms. Rhee has worked on what she calls “creating the conditions for long-term success.” She won authority from the Council of the District of Columbia to make central-office employees at-will workers—and went on to fire 117 of them.

Cleaning House, Closing Schools

She went after school leaders too, firing and replacing 61 principals and assistant principals, and, amid citywide controversy, she shut down 23 underenrolled schools. By the end of the 2007-08 school year, Ms. Rhee dismissed 250 teachers who had not met certification deadlines to bring the district in compliance with requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

I told them that this is going to have ramifications far outside of Washington, D.C., and that what happens here is going to crack things open across the country.

And now, she’s turned her sights to the rest of the teaching corps as she pushes hard for a new contract that would give teachers the option of giving up tenure for one year in exchange for salaries that could exceed $100,000 if their students perform well.

Under Ms. Rhee’s two-tiered system, teachers who opt for the “red” plan would receive 28 percent salary increases over five years in the more traditional way—by experience and education. Teachers who select the “green” plan, which requires them to give up tenure for one year and be subjected to the discretion of their principal to regain permanent status, would receive regular salary increases. But they would also be eligible for annual bonuses as high as $20,000, pegged to students’ academic growth.

The proposal has been roiling the District of Columbia teacher community for weeks, and has exposed sharp divisions within the 4,000-member Washington Teachers’ Union, an affiliate of the AFT.

While the proposal has exposed some generational differences, with a corps of younger teachers the most ardent supporters of the plan, Ms. Rhee insists that opinions are more nuanced. She offers up an example of a 37-year teaching veteran who initially “hated” her, but became a convert on the contract proposal.

“He told me that teachers aren’t used to having choices, that they are not used to being empowered,” Ms. Rhee said. “It’s been heartening to see that there are people who’ve been in this system for so long and who’ve said this is the right thing. And everyone, deep down, knows it, even if a lot of them are fighting against it.”

Ms. Weingarten, the AFT president, says the proposal undermines teaching as a long-term career.

“What this plan presupposes is that you want a teaching force of rookies who will work their hearts and souls out for a few years and then burn out,” said Ms. Weingarten, whose AFT paid for a poll of 400 local teachers that showed a nearly 3-to-1 opposition to Ms. Rhee’s plan. “Her view of teaching is that it’s really a temporary occupation for newbies who you pay a lot of money initially and presume they will be gone within three to four years. Then you start all over with a new crop.”

‘Crack Things Open’

Ms. Rhee said she has convinced national philanthropies—she’s coy about naming them, but the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is believed to be among them—to fund the increased teacher salaries in the first five years.

“I told them that this is going to have ramifications far outside of Washington, D.C., and that what happens here is going to crack things open across the country,” she said. After five years, the district would assume responsibility for the costs, using monies saved through cutting waste and better management of resources, Ms. Rhee said.

“I am skeptical of those claims, because they tend not to materialize in the ways that are suggested,” Mr. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute said. “And if they don’t materialize, it would mean the D.C. government is on the hook for a substantially increased expenditure in a system that is already spending more per child than most any other school district.”

While Ms. Rhee stakes much of her reform strategy on the teachers’ contract, she said her team is working diligently on instructional initiatives for this school year that will center largely around the use of data. The district is already using interim assessments, but Ms. Rhee said there’s “a long way to go” in training teachers on how to use and analyze data from those exams to help them adjust instruction. One pilot initiative this year will be “anchor assignments,” in which students in a single grade across all schools will complete the same assignment on the same day.

“This will be powerful,” Ms. Rhee said. “Because we will be able to look at how everyone compares, and it will make it very hard for a teacher to say ‘My 9th graders can’t,’ when we see that 9th graders down the street or in the very same school building are.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as D.C.'s Chancellor Makers Her Case


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