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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 10/24/2011

The impact of Michelle Rhee’s ‘culture of urgency’

It is an almost universal tribute offered about Michelle Rhee’s 3 1/2 -year tenure of the Washington D.C. school district — that if she accomplished one thing, it was to instill a sense of urgency in the city about the need to fix broken schools that had failed children for decades.

Actually, it was Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who hired Rhee and gave her carte blanche, who made school reform the city’s top priority. Rhee got all the attention because Fenty wanted it that way.

And because he did, she rushed to move the needle by implementing half-finished and poorly thought-out initiatives. Her speed helped fuel the sense that she was more committed to change than everybody else — which wasn’t true then and isn’t now. It has created problems for her successor, Kaya Henderson, who is working with no less urgency but without the rancor that Rhee willfully created. Henderson’s smart but also deliberate.

My colleague Bill Turque wrote a story about Rhee’s legacy — a year after she resigned when Fenty lost the Democratic primary — that shows the cost of rushing. Henderson has had to walk back some decisions that Rhee made at breakneck speed, and is taking on fundamental tasks that Rhee couldn’t find time for. That includes something as basic as constructing curriculum for D.C. schools, which Henderson has led in a thoughtful way that puts the city in the vanguard of school districts moving to meet the demands of the new Common Core standards.

Rhee’s IMPACT teacher evaluation system has had impact, but perhaps not the kind she had hoped. Rhee liked to say that she held focus groups with teachers before implementing the program. But she also took advantage of a provision in the law that allowed her to launch the system without negotiating with the teachers union. Given that the D.C. union has long been dysfunctional, one can be sympathetic, though other districts successfully collaborated with their unions in implementing evaluation systems.

The biggest problem, though, was that IMPACT was an overcomplicated mess when it started in 2009. While somewhat improved, it still has significant problems. (For example, researchers have found that the value-added scores of teachers based on student standardized test results are often unreliable.) Yet other states — with Rhee urging them on — are rushing to use IMPACT as a model.

Rhee could have implemented a proven evaluation system such as Montgomery County’s, where teachers are evaluated by their peers — without questionable value-added scores scores — and bad teachers get removed after due process.

In her rush to shake up the teaching force, she fired hundreds of teachers but did little to ensure those with the highest IMPACT ratings worked in schools with high needs populations. And, as Turque noted, data exists indicating that the proportion of novice teachers has increased in high-poverty areas has increased significantly in recent years.

Rhee believes in recruiting young, inexperienced teachers, such as those from Teach for America, which gives college graduates five weeks of training before thrusting them into high-poverty classrooms. But are poor kids really better off with enthusiastic beginners rather than excellent veteran teachers?

This all speaks to the urgency that many modern school reformers value so highly. They say that educators in the past haven’t moved fast enough (and in some cases that is true), and that too many want to maintain the status quo because it works for adults. (I don’t know anybody who likes the status quo but there could be some who do.)

This line of thinking, of course, ignores the reality that some kinds of change are possible only over time, with thought and collaboration. But beyond that, it has given some reformers a self-declared license to experiment in the name of urgency (and, in some cases, a need to save money).

That is a big reason, for example, we are seeing a swift expansion of virtual education — even though nobody knows if it is a good idea for most students.

Some states, such as Florida, are moving to require that students take at least one course on-line — even though provisions are not always in place for every student to have access to a computer. Some courses are not well-conceived.

Public charter schools, hailed by reformers as the answer to failing urban systems, have been expanding rapidly with help from the Obama administation. But accountability has lagged behind the pace of growth. The result has been some excellent charters, a large number of strictly average schools and some awful ones.

Even in Fairfax County Public Schools, which generally knows better, there’s a rush that doesn’t quite make sense: Nearly all middle and high school students began using online books in social studies this fall, my colleague Emma Brown reported. It is the Washington area’s most extensive foray into digital textbooks. Here again, the system didn’t ensure equality of access to computers. Here’s what Karin Williams, director of operations for the system’s instructional services division, told Brown:

“That little unknown piece about the access is the only thing that still kind of makes me a little anxious.”

Little? When did access issues become little?

Reformers like Rhee, believed they could substitute urgency for thought and care. They ignoreed models elsewhere that worked, but didn’t fit into their unproven standardized-test driven framework.

Of course, in the end, the only ones who get hurt by the rush to change are poor kids. As usual.

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By  |  06:00 AM ET, 10/24/2011

Categories:  Michelle Rhee

 
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