Michelle Rhee: Debate Still Rages Over Her Tenure in D.C. Schools

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 02, 2013 2 min read
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Michelle Rhee’s record as chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools remains contentious, and her leadership style polarizing, more than two years after she resigned and left the nation’s capital.

That record—which gets rehashed often amid larger debates about what strategies hold the most promise for turning around a low-achieving public school system—is about to get a fresh examination next week. John Merrow, the veteran education reporter who closely chronicled Rhee’s three-plus turbulent years running the District’s long-troubled public schools in a series of broadcasts on PBS NewsHour, will be back on the air Jan. 8 with an hour-long Frontline piece on Rhee. It will “examine her legacy in Washington, D.C., including her battles with the teachers’ union and her handling of a cheating scandal in the District.”

Rhee has hardly disappeared from the education sphere. The StudentsFirst organization she founded soon after leaving the chancellor’s job quickly established itself as one of the most influential shapers of education policies that Rhee touts, such as reducing collective bargaining rights and overhauling teacher evaluation systems.

Under Rhee’s watch, District of Columbia schools saw their student test scores rise, while enrollment declined, and the teachers union agreed to a contract that gave her broad authority to fire low-performing teachers. In the two years since her departure, however, concerns about cheating that first arose in a USA Today investigation, have cast a pall over the rising scores during her tenure. In fact, a report from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of inspector general looking into the matter is still to come, Catherine Grant, a spokeswoman for the OIG, confirmed.

Other signs of progress that quickly emerged during her leadership have also faded: While enrollment in the city’s thriving charter school sector continued to increase, the number of families choosing a traditional District of Columbia public school has stagnated the last couple of years, according to news accounts.

I’m sure the piece will address all these topics and more. But will the former chancellor, known for posing with broom on the cover of Time magazine, firing a principal with the cameras rolling, and making brash statements like “I am going to start a revolution,” and “This isn’t a democracy,” staunchly stand by all the decisions she made? Or will the passage of time give her a more nuanced view of her tenure?

Set your DVRs to get the answer. I’ll be watching at 10 p.m. Eastern here in the Washington suburbs.

One footnote: The timing of this Frontline piece could be quite fortuitous for Rhee, whose memoir goes on sale in February.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.