No School Left Behind – The Controversial Tenure of Michelle Rhee
In December 2007, D.C. school Chancellor Michelle Rhee had just completed her first five months in office and was already beginning to generate a buzz. Soon after arriving inside the beltway, she had declared her plans to close a record 23 failing public schools and to restructure an additional 26, immediately earning a reputation as a fast track reformist. Alongside the closings, Rhee went on a firing spree, dismissing hundreds of underperforming teachers in a campaign to eliminate what she referred to as the “dead weight” in the DC school system. As a new transplant to DCPS, many took these moves as an affront – as recently as last month one Washington Post op-ed wondered whether her administrative skills match her talent for publicity – while others thought Rhee represented just the kind of shot in the arm that the schools desperately needed. But then, this sort of controversy was exactly why mayor Adrian Fenty had hired her. With a glittering resume and a take-no-prisoners attitude, Rhee had been the darling of Teach for America ten years earlier, eventually landing in New York as head of its New Teacher Project. When Fenty had courted her for the chancellor position in June 2007, Rhee initially refused, claiming that the job was “impossible” before later accepting it with the bold pronouncement that she was going to transform the city’s flagging public school system into one of the country’s best. While D.C. is no stranger to grand declarations, in light of the system’s long history of failure and its continued dissolution at the hands of charter schools, making this statement in the summer of ’07 seemed almost laughable. At best, Rhee’s promise was optimistic, and at worst, ridiculous.
When you type the name “Michelle Rhee” into Google, you’ll be rewarded with approximately 207,000 results — 14,000 more than Adrian Fenty, the District’s popular young mayor. Of these results, the top hits have swooning headlines like “Can Michelle Rhee Save DC Schools?”, and “’100 mph’ school chief seeks ‘radical changes’”; abbreviated reflections of Rhee’s golden status in the national media. But the media are not the only ones who have fallen under the spell of Michelle Rhee, and it’s not without good reason that she’s been cast as the great hope for public education. In less than two years on the job she’s had an almost magnetic effect on philanthropists – business leaders from Bill Gates to Atlantic Media’s David Bradley have donated employees and millions of dollars to the DCPS – and through an independent nonprofit designed to attract private funders, the D.C. Public Education Fund, Rhee has pledged to raise an additional $75 million a year for public education. With the extra capital, Rhee plans to dramatically raise teachers’ pay rates, bringing starting salaries from $42,00 to $55,00 (almost $20,000 more than the national average) and introducing massive bonuses for improved performance. Outside of finances, Rhee’s recently released five-year plan includes an aggressive emphasis on safety and college preparation and even proposed opening a ‘parents academy’ that would train parents to be better attuned to their children’s educational needs. As a result of these measures, DC public schools reported unprecedented gains in standardized test scores in 2008, with elementary school students climbing 11 points in reading and 8 in math, and high school students showing 9-point gains in both areas.
While Rhee attracted attention through her work with the New Teacher Project, though implementing initiatives like these, it’s no exaggeration to say that her star has now risen to the national stage. This December, she became the first D.C. public official to make the cover of Time, and she’s been profiled in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly and Newsweek. Before that, she received a shout-out in the third presidential debate and was rumored to be under consideration by both candidates for Secretary of Education. Among education junkies, Rhee is known for spearheading the movement to eliminate the tenure system, a radical idea that’s been gaining support from parents and policy wonks all over the country. Instead of paying on the basis of seniority, Rhee’s plan would entail adjusting pay scales to evaluations and student test results, meaning that older teachers would no longer enjoy impenetrable job security and tiered wage inflation. If ending tenure has won the admiration of those eager for a new approach to reform, it has also met with strong resistance from teachers, and in some circles its even earned her the nicknames ‘union buster’ and ‘dragonlady.’
For those paying attention since early 2007, Rhee’s tenacity hasn’t come as a surprise. From the beginning, Rhee antagonized everyone from parents to teachers’ unions by setting and following her own agenda. After the initial skepticism surrounding her appointment gave way to debate, critics began to accuse her of eroding union rights while supporters championed her for bringing a fresh vision to public education. But even her advocates can’t argue that this new vision is a controversial one. Since becoming chancellor, Rhee has fired scores of people working in the education sector, including 250 teachers, 24 principals and 22 assistant principals. Over her first summer in office she bought out even more teachers, and when she acquired the ability to fire central office employees, 98 of them received pink slips in the mail. Among her early casualties was Marta Guzman, the popular principal of her daughters’ own Oyster-Adams school. In the city of handshake deals, Rhee has become notorious for refusing to act on politics other than her own. By late 2007, regardless of whether or not somebody had school-aged children, if they lived in Washington, they definitely had opinions about Michelle Rhee.
While Rhee’s approach may seem draconian, it stems out of her belief that bad teachers lead to disaffected students and slumping schools. Her administration maintains a zero-tolerance stance in this respect—if student scores and achievement markers indicate that teachers can’t hack it, they’re replaced by those who can. Under the current program for monitoring quality – “Plan B” – underperforming teachers have 90 days to shape up or ship out, with decisions based on the results of standardized tests. Like Fenty, Rhee thrives on tangible, statistical results, and for better or worse, describes herself as a technocrat. This hasn’t escaped the attention of critics, with one former teacher writing in The Washington Post, “Rhee seems focused on buildings and bureaucracy, not on strategies for improving teaching and learning.” As most teachers will tell you, while making ‘data-driven decisions’ may allow Rhee to realize her goal of elevating DCPS to one of the country’s top school systems, this method also runs the risk of prioritizing numbers over people. This is one of the many reasons why, as Clay Risen observed in The Atlantic Monthly, although Rhee’s popularity may be on the rise, controversy is never far behind.
In spite of her many successes, nobody can dispute that Rhee has provided ample fodder for her critics. Last October, she instituted the Capital Gains program to pay middle-school students for good attendance and academic performance, and only two weeks later saw it incite violence at an inner-city school when misbehaving students were wrongly awarded checks. That same month, she asked teachers to forego tenure in exchange for pay raises, and met with such strong opposition that the issue eventually escalated into a high-profile standoff between education and union officials. Finally, although the national media has warmly embraced her, it’s an open secret that Rhee’s not quite as friendly with local Washington Post education reporters, severely limiting access to those who don’t play by her rules. More often than not, Rhee tends to be her own worst enemy. But these issues aside, there’s no easy way to fix a broken system, and overall her results have been positive. While opponents like to accuse Rhee of being test-obsessed and trigger-happy, her style has broken dramatically from those of previous D.C. chancellors – there have been seven in ten years – and as a result, she’s become a long-overdue symbol of hope in a system rapidly losing ground to stagnant bureaucracy and expanding charter schools.
FILLING EMPTY SEATS
OBAMA: I’ll just make a quick comment about vouchers in D.C. Senator McCain’s absolutely right: The D.C. school system is in terrible shape, and it has been for a very long time. And we’ve got a wonderful new superintendent there who’s working very hard with the young mayor there to try…
MCCAIN: Who supports vouchers.
OBAMA: … who initiated — actually, supports charters.
MCCAIN: She supports vouchers, also.
In 1995, things were looking grim for the D.C. public school system. Its dropout levels were among the country’s highest and its literacy rates were among the lowest. Unlike other cities, D.C. was unable to collect revenue from its wealthy suburbs, and test scores reflected it. Four years earlier, in his groundbreaking work Savage Inequalities, sociologist Jonathan Kozol had described the educational landscape as such: “If you’re rich in Washington, you try to send your kids to private school. Middle-class people sometimes put their kids in certain public schools… There are boundaries for school districts, but some parents know the way to cross the borders. The poorer and less educated parents can’t. They don’t know how.” In spite of all this, the system was one of the nation’s richest, hemorrhaging money with no discernible signs of progress or success. It was within this context that congress did something radical. It passed a law sanctioning charter schools.
In many ways, charter schools were a happy byproduct of an unfortunate set of circumstances. In 1995, after serious managerial problems left Washington in a state of near bankruptcy, President Clinton took control of the city from mayor-for-life Marion Barry and placed it under the authority of the Fiscal Control Board, effectively denying D.C. access to its own finances. That spring, armed with a newly acquired legislative majority, House Republicans decided to take advantage of the situation by proposing a total revamping of D.C.’s government and public services, focusing in particular on education reform. Leading the movement was Gingrich ally and former Rep. Steve Gunderson (R – Wis.), who introduced an initiative to provide students in failing public schools with “scholarships,” or vouchers enabling them to transfer into more successful private ones. This initiative, which eventually led to the country’s first federal voucher program and to D.C.’s charter schools, was passed in April 1996 when Clinton signed it into law as the District of Columbia School Reform Act.
When Washington proposed the D.C. School Reform Act in 1995, charter schools were still a fairly new idea. The first had opened in Minnesota only four years earlier, and when legislation passed in 1996, D.C. was only the 13th system to accredit them. In spite of this, and in spite of fierce opposition from local politicians, the D.C. laws are generally considered to be the strongest in the country, requiring the approval of two boards (the District of Columbia Board of Education and the District’s Public School Charter Board) to authorize each new school. Currently, there are 60 charter schools with over 26,000 students enrolled in the D.C. area, and under the law, up to 20 new schools can be chartered each year. While these schools are one of the newest features of DCPS, they are indisputably one of its most successful, counteracting the general decline of public schools. According to a 2008 Washington Post survey of test results for economically disadvantaged students, those enrolled in charter schools scored 20 points higher than the national average for math, and 19 points higher for reading. Among these schools, the District’s crown jewel is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a college preparatory program that prides itself on its rigorous academic culture and impressive statistics: in 2007, KIPP students scored 24 points above the national average in reading and 39 points above in math. As a result of increasing popularity and programs like KIPP, charter school enrollment has risen on average 13 percent since 2001, and if this trend continues, more students will be enrolled in charter schools than traditional public schools by 2014.
Even opponents of charter schools find it difficult to argue with their success. Since their introduction, they’ve provided a much needed alternative to students who would have otherwise had to rely on vouchers or been left to fend for themselves in underperforming schools. More importantly, they provide intensely focused environments for children most at risk of dropping out. But to oversell charter schools is to leave the entire system for dead, and this presents one of Michelle Rhee’s biggest challenges as Chancellor. For somebody intent on renovating the existing system, Rhee is working at a moment in which the national education debate is not as concerned with the best means of improving schools as it is with finding the best available alternative. When Obama and McCain invoked Rhee in the third presidential debate, the issue at hand wasn’t the measures she was taking to improve the system, but rather the measures she supported to get kids out of it.
In the wake of the presidential debate, Michelle Rhee has continuously refused to take a formal position on vouchers, but this hasn’t stopped pundits from speculating about her thoughts on the issue. The closest Rhee has gotten to weighing in on the subject was a statement she made in 2007 in The Wall Street Journal: “I would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent’s ability to make a choice for their child. Ever.” While this comment refrains from taking a real position, it does acknowledge the necessity of choice in a system known for its radical disparities. But regardless, while most of the controversy surrounding Rhee has been well deserved, the scrutiny over vouchers and charters seems weirdly off-topic. As a hot political issue, the decision to endorse either is liable to create ammunition for opponents and make it easier to categorize her politically, but I doubt this is why she’s remained silent on the topic. Michelle Rhee is not in the business of aiding those who wish to abandon her schools, and this is precisely the focus of the debate. During her time in office, Rhee has judiciously avoided the path of least resistance, attacking the most polarizing issues in education head on, and shifting conversation away from talk of alternate systems. Whether or not you agree with Michelle Rhee, her work has certainly expanded the vocabulary of education reform beyond the buzzwords of charters and vouchers.
With the decision to make Chicago public schools administrator Arne Duncan Secretary of Education, it appears that Michelle Rhee and her iconoclastic brand of reform will soon be tested against a new educational vision. Under Duncan, a man known for extending olive branches to both reformists and traditionalists, Rhee’s intransigent style will likely be met with an approach oriented towards consensus, and towards meeting the demands of both Rhee and her most inflexible critics. Much to Rhee’s consternation, the incoming administration has stated its intent to focus on public education—Rhee has said that she is “somewhat terrified of what the Democrats are going to do on education”— and as the traditional testing grounds for education reform, DC will certainly be one of its primary targets. This will be will certainly be a change for the Chancellor. When Adrian Fenty appointed Rhee to the position in 2007, he gave her carte blanche to enact whatever reforms she saw fit, and over the past two years, she’s has made good use of that freedom. With rising test scores and a clear vision for the future, Rhee’s successes over the past two years have been truly remarkable. She’s instilled hope in one of the most impoverished school systems in the country, and in spite of opposition, has done so with almost a 60% approval rating. But now, with a new administration and a new Secretary of Education, Michelle Rhee faces yet another challenge in her efforts to fix DC’s public schools: tempering her own vision with a modicum of diplomacy.