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Shake-Up, Shakedown in D.C., a la Rhee

The new chancellor of D.C. schools supports charters, hates five-year plans, and recently fired the principal at her own children's school. Will she make it through a second year unscathed?

By V. Dion Haynes | August 2008
Michelle Rhee at school<br />
Michelle Rhee at school

In the northwest section of Washington, D.C., one evening last winter, irate parents and teachers from four local public schools packed into the cafeteria at Barnard Elementary School. Seated at round kiddie tables and standing along the walls and in the aisles, they were there to find out why new Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was planning to close their schools.

The nearly all-black crowd was greeted by Rhee’s nearly all-white deputies, who attempted to break the audience into smaller groups for purposes of discussion. They distributed a handout with a series of questions about the proposed closing of their schools and asked each group to choose a secretary to record their answers and “a spokesperson to present them.”

The parents weren’t having it. They shouted over the deputies and mocked them as they tried to restore order. Attendees called the process bogus, saying their ideas were meaningless because they believed Rhee had already made up her mind. They asked why all 23 schools on Rhee’s list were from the black sections of town—and none from the largely white Ward 3.

“It sounds like this is signed, sealed, and delivered,” said Chanelle Perry, a parent from Rudolph Elementary, one of the schools slated for closure. “Why are you asking these questions? It sounds like you’re going to do this anyway.”

Then Rhee, a petite Korean-American dressed in a chic black outfit, entered the room. She strolled up the aisle alone, took the microphone, looked out into the audience, and then, in a measured tone, said, “Let me try to bring everyone down.”

Many in the audience rolled their eyes. But Rhee got to work, and did just what she said­—she brought the room down. She walked around the crowd, handing the mike to audience members who proceeded to go off on her. “You have every right to be frustrated,” said Rhee. “Your concerns are valid. They are one hundred percent valid.” Then she carefully explained that the closure would save millions of dollars in utility costs that could be invested into classrooms.

Rhee remained firm that the closures were needed. The schools were academically weak and only half filled. She stayed after the meeting to answer more questions and let people vent further, inviting them to e-mail her with their concerns.

Rhee is one of about a dozen big-city school chiefs who have just completed their first year in office. (Her peers? The chiefs in Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, Detroit, and New Orleans.)

But she has set herself apart. Closing two dozen schools in one fell swoop is not the way most new school chiefs go about making a first impression. Most ease in, focusing on developing long-term master education plans, establishing partnerships with parents and the community, and balancing their budgets.

But D.C. is not a typical school system. For a generation it has chewed up and spat out a host of reform-minded superintendents who only managed to hasten the decline.

And Rhee is not your typical school chief. She is young. She is a woman. A Korean-American, she represents a minority that is not a large part of the district she oversees. She has never served as a superintendent or even a principal before. And she has been granted more sweeping powers than almost any other superintendent in the country.

Adrian M. Fenty, Washington’s young, tech-savvy, triathlete mayor, has staked his political future on fixing the city’s beleaguered school system and on his left-field choice for chancellor. He made D.C. the latest city to bring schools under mayoral control, and he gave Rhee authority that might make other superintendents envious (or nervous).

Rhee had the final say on the closing of 23 schools and the “restructuring” of another 26—without needing authorization from what had been a divided and dysfunctional school board. The city council granted her request to reclassify hundreds of central office staffers to at-will employees, allowing her to fire 100 of them in March without proving cause.

She was able to fire 24 principals including the principal at the school her own children attend and 22 assistant principals in May and June without cause because years ago the city had put them on year-to-year contracts.

For his part, Mayor Fenty established a new agency to oversee maintenance and reconstruction of the system’s woefully aging and crumbling inventory of 140 (soon to be 120) schools, allowing Rhee to focus on academics. And he has given her extraordinary political cover, warning city agency heads they risk losing their jobs if they refuse her demands.

As a result, Rhee is virtually in a category by herself, a hyper-powered, supercharged school chief with unprecedented autonomy to make sweeping changes.

“I can’t think of another superintendent with a higher profile,” says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization that advocates for big-city districts. “She certainly has more authority than many of her peers.”

This is in stark contrast to Rhee’s predecessor, Clifford B. Janey, recently named school chief in Newark, New Jersey. He moved cautiously, proposing to close more than 20 schools over a 15-year period. His honeymoon lasted for more than 12 months, but ended in his second year when he closed six schools.

But Rhee doesn’t shrink from controversy. And she is at ease with making others feel uneasy.

“My focus is on making sure students get the services they need, not that the adults are feeling comfortable,” Rhee told “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry, a council member who during a hearing in April complained about the central office employees hurt in her firings.

“Part of the problem in how the district was run in the past is that decisions were made for political reasons,” she added bluntly, “instead of for the best interest of children.” There are other ways in which Rhee differs from many of her counterparts. She lays out her education vision not in mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations, but with funny anecdotes, such as one in which she mimics an inept fourth-grade teacher. She answers her own e-mail—promptly—and is often seen multitasking with her BlackBerry, cell phone, and laptop in the back of her chauffeur-driven SUV, her oldest daughter’s teddy bear beside her. And she is extremely open with the national press.

“She’s essentially doing exactly what the mayor wanted her to do—that is, going after the hardest, most politically difficult problems,” says D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who previously served on the school board.

“Dr. Janey was old-school in how he managed the central office. You work your way up and rely heavily on school veterans,” Wells says. “Michelle Rhee’s style of management seems almost identical to the mayor’s—she’s far more willing to rely on younger, untested leaders and has absolutely no tolerance for process. That old-style bureaucracy, I believe, is not the model for the future.”

To be sure, D.C. is not the first school to adopt mayoral control or to bring in an education outsider. Nor is Rhee the first mayoral appointee to jump in and make lots of dramatic changes at the start. Paul Vallas, now head of the New Orleans schools, created that playbook 13 years ago in Chicago.

But even Vallas didn’t start out closing schools, and Rhee represents a newer and more extreme version of this approach. She is among the first education entrepreneurs from a large community of nonprofit teacher recruiting firms and charter-school organizations to lead a school system.

Put simply, the education entrepreneurs’ philosophy is that education is a civil right; children’s interests should be placed above adults’ interests; good teachers and good schools—not a child’s family background—are the biggest factors in a child’s achievement; and, until now, the best way to improve districts is from the outside in. A willingness to challenge the status quo is part of this. So is supporting new and different approaches. Like others in the movement, Rhee supports charter schools, which in D.C. enroll more than 20,000 students.

The seeds for Rhee’s focus on disadvantaged students were planted when she was a child growing up sandwiched between two brothers in an affluent family in suburban Toledo. Her parents—her dad was a doctor and her mom owned a high-end dress shop—stressed that she was lucky but not more special than children with lesser means.

She lived for a year in Seoul, an experience that opened her eyes to her heritage and marked her first time in the majority. After she returned to the U.S., she saw poverty up close when her middle school sent her to an Indian reservation for a community service project and to an inner-city school as a volunteer.

“I wasn’t more talented than any of those kids. It was by virtue of the fact that I was born into the family I was born into,” she says. “I just thought it was an incredible injustice that kids in this country can have such different experiences and that those experiences could significantly impact your life chances and your life outcome.”

In the fall, in an attempt to begin closing the wide achievement gap between poor black kids and wealthy white ones in Washington, Rhee is introducing more gifted programs and art and music classes. She is converting some schools into science, math, and technology campuses.

About 15 years ago, Rhee was recruited to teach second grade at a tough Baltimore elementary school through Teach for America. Like many TFA-ers, Rhee floundered her first year, but then she soared. Rhee gave the students extra work, tutored them after school and on weekends, and took them on trips out of town—efforts, she said, that moved them from the 13th to the 90th percentile on the California Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. Critics admonished Rhee for failing to document these claims, but the school backed her up. Three teachers, a student, and the principal from the school where Rhee taught verified to The Washington Post that the scores, indeed, rose significantly.

In 1997, TFA founder Wendy Kopp was so impressed with Rhee that she asked her to establish the New Teacher Project (TNTP) to help school systems reform their human resources departments to speed the hiring of good teachers. Rhee helped build TNTP into a powerhouse organization that serves 200 districts, including D.C., Chicago, and Atlanta.

Among the organization’s most high-profile work was a 2003 report that identified archaic teacher union rules—including seniority provisions that allow subpar veteran teachers to “bump” outstanding but less experienced ones when positions are cut—as the major factor blocking districts from improving instruction. In 2005, Rhee testified before an arbitration panel, which ruled against the New York City teachers’ union and granted principals more authority to select staff.

The New Teacher Project “gave people reason to think that recruiting high-quality teachers into urban school districts was not a lost cause,” says Kevin Carey, research and policy director at Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.

At a conference this spring, Rhee publicly defended her old organization when United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten criticized its work on “excessed” teachers removed from classrooms but not from the payroll.

“Sometimes, you have to make the hard choices and do things that some people think is the wrong decision. I’m comfortable with that,” Rhee said earlier this year at a meeting of parents and school activists, her BlackBerry in a black pouch on her waist. “Am I ultimately going to do some things to make some people unhappy? Absolutely, one hundred percent. I own that right now.”

As an example, Rhee is attempting to accomplish in D.C. what she did in New York: eliminate “bumping rights” so that she can have more authority to select the teachers she deems more qualified.

In the meantime, she has stepped up recruitment, particularly from Teach for America, and squeezed out veteran teachers at 50 schools slated for closure and restructuring. She opted to replace teachers and principals at several of the schools that failed for five consecutive years to make academic targets under the No Child Left Behind law. She also offered buyouts to 700 of the teachers at the 50 schools, allowing them to exit the system gracefully.

“We need a different kind of educator to work in DCPS,” Rhee said. “If you look at all the challenges—kids coming to school with no breakfast, no one putting them to bed, no books in the home—and if you believe those challenges are too difficult to overcome, you should probably go teach in Fairfax County. If you teach here, you have to believe that poor kids can achieve at high levels.”

Criticism of Rhee’s first year comes from supporters as well as detractors.

Rhee is criticized most often for her unilateral decision-making. Her predecessor had to vet his proposals through the school board, which would vigorously question him and hold exhaustive public hearings before voting. Rhee held public hearings on the school closings, but the mayor is the only person whose approval she needed. Her predecessor appointed working groups of parents, teachers, and community activists to help brainstorm ideas for such initiatives as his master education plan. Rhee largely formulates plans on her own and gets feedback from the community later, much of which she often ignores.

Another point of contention—and a key difference from her predecessors—is that Rhee eschews education blueprints, saying she’d rather spend her time taking action than writing a long-range plan.

Not everyone is comfortable with that. “I don’t think she’s done a very good job of presenting a clear plan for reform and communicating with stakeholder groups,” says Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who serves on the Senate committee that oversees D.C. and commissioned a Government Accountability Office report criticizing Fenty and Rhee for lacking a five-year plan and not consulting the community in their decisions. “I believe transparency is important for accountability.”

Rhee’s refusal to accommodate race issues has been another area of criticism. As a Korean-American in a predominately African-American school system, Rhee often is thrust into situations where race is an undercurrent. Some people have resented that Mayor Fenty, who has a black father and white mother, fired a black male superintendent and replaced him with an Asian woman. Others have asserted that Rhee was picking on black workers when she cut the central office staff and when she criticized some teachers as incompetent.

She took the heat for closing schools in all areas of the city except the largely white Ward 3. The decision, she said, was based on data that Ward 3 had the fewest schools with low enrollment.

Rhee says she will not be distracted by such charges, that she makes decisions in the best interest of children and is not concerned about whether others perceive her as racist.

“Someone said to me somewhere in this process that we have to close some school in Ward 3, as a symbolic gesture. I thought that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” she says. “We’re operating at about 145 square feet per kid in Ward 3, where in the rest of the district it’s over 300.”

By the same token, Rhee rejects the notion that she should give preferential treatment to young white families who are gentrifying such neighborhoods as Capitol Hill.

“People will pull me to the side and say, ‘You need to look at X school. If you look at the white babies in the stroller versus the black kids in the school, you need to build schools to attract the kids in the stroller,’ ” she says. “That angers me. It assumes that schools built for white kids will be different from schools for black kids. There is no differentiation in what white and black parents want for their kids.”

Going into her second year, there are lots of unanswered questions about the Rhee approach. Although the city’s experiment is years away from yielding a significant uptick in standardized test scores, Rhee is offering herself to a nationwide audience as an illustration of how to rescue children from the disaster known as urban education. Her belief: Nibbling-at-the-edges reforms don’t work; the entire structure must be dismantled and reinvented piece by piece. Giving school chiefs unilateral authority to dispense with school boards, archaic union rules, and incompetent staff that hinder student progress is the only solution for American schools.

Education Sector’s Carey says, “There’s no question that Rhee’s success or failure in D.C. will be seen as a referendum on the ability of the education entrepreneurs to transform school systems.” And it will likely play out this year.



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