A year later, Rhee’s legacy is in sharper focus


Outgoing D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, right, and her successor, Kaya Henderson, in October 2010. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)
October 15, 2011

A year ago this month, Michelle A. Rhee resigned as D.C. schools chancellor, ending a tenure as contentious and turbulent as that of any urban school leader in memory. “The best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside,” she declared.

What footprints remain from Rhee’s 31 / 2 years in Washington? An examination of her legacy, with a year’s perspective, reveals a mixed picture of hits, misses, long-term effects and continuing question marks for the 45,000-student system.

The first chancellor in a new era of mayoral control of D.C. schools, Rhee was granted total authority by the man who hired her, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), to turn the low-achieving system on its head. Today, teachers are better paid and evaluated more closely. A landmark labor contract gives school principals more control over who is in classrooms. Basic central functions including purchasing, textbook delivery and food service, although not perfect, are viewed as much improved. Private foundations, enthused by Rhee’s emphasis on teacher quality and willingness to take on a politically potent union, poured millions of dollars into the public schools.

Rhee’s hard-nosed change agency in these areas has allowed her successor and former top deputy, Kaya Henderson, to focus on such matters as curriculum and professional development for teachers.

Views of the schools improved on Rhee’s watch. Eighty-five percent of parents who responded to District surveys in 2011 agreed that the system was “on the right track for student achievement,” up from 73 percent in 2007. The findings are consistent with a Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation poll in May, in which a slight majority (53 percent) of D.C. public school parents gave the system positive ratings for the first time in more than a decade.

More intangible but equally significant, supporters said, was her elevation of education to a more prominent place in the civic conversation, where it remains today.

‘A wake-up call’

“Her major contribution was a wake-up call, an effort to really energize people around the sense of urgency to focus on and improve education in the city,” said Sekou Biddle, a Woodrow Wilson High graduate, one-time elementary school teacher, and former member of the D.C. State Board of Education and City Council. “For years, everyone said it was the most important issue, but somehow the activity or focus never rose to that degree.”

Rhee’s 100-mph approach has also exacted a continuing cost. Parents, especially those from east of the Anacostia River, said Rhee was indifferent to their concerns, closing schools and taking other major steps without adequate consultation. In community meetings, Henderson and her top deputies find themselves contending with mistrust and cynicism that Rhee left in her wake. The same Post poll showed that 40 percent of African American residents approved of Rhee’s performance, compared with 76 percent of whites.

The teacher evaluation system she introduced two years ago, known as IMPACT, led to the dismissal of nearly 300 instructors and placed hundreds more on one year’s notice. But Rhee’s decision to unilaterally impose IMPACT, rather than negotiate it with the union — as leaders of other school systems have done — produced resentment that persists today. Even educators who support IMPACT’s establishment of specific expectations for teachers say it was launched prematurely, without proper piloting to work out problems.

“It was rushed, and that makes really good headlines. But, in fact, the system wasn’t ready to be implemented,” said Aleta Margolis, executive director of the Center for Inspired Teaching, a teacher training program. She added that the evaluation system, although improved, is still not where it should be.

Rhee’s focus on test scores brought big gains — and more big headlines — on city exams in her first two years. Scores also rose on federal tests.

But the produce-or-else testing culture that she fostered — tying portions of some evaluations to growth in scores and securing commitments from principals to hit numerical targets — created a climate of fear, in the view of many school employees.

It also coincided with evidence of cheating on annual city tests. That matter is under investigation by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Education Department. In addition, the gap separating black and white student achievement, which narrowed in Rhee’s first two years, is widening again at the elementary level.

Here is a closer look at the Rhee era:

What stuck, what didn’t

Middle schools that adopted a “full service” model, which deployed counselors, behavioral and mental health clinicians, and instructional coaches to intervene with troubled students, show reduced rates of truancy and discipline issues, officials reported recently.

Other measures Rhee rolled out with fanfare were quietly folded. Some middle school students responded positively to Capital Gains, which paid as much as $100 a month for good grades, good behavior and attendance, but funding issues ended the two-year experiment. Saturday Scholars, a weekend test prep program, was scrapped this year because of spending pressures and what officials described as limited effectiveness.

Operational changes

Two big structural changes yielded disappointing results. One was Rhee’s 2008 selection of outside “partners” to run failing schools. Friends of Bedford, selected by Rhee to run Coolidge and Dunbar high schools, was ousted from Dunbar by Henderson in December amid reports that the school was in even deeper disorder than before. Bedford’s contract to operate Coolidge was not renewed last spring.

Two other organizations, Friendship Public Charter Schools (Anacostia High School) and Scholar Academies (Stanton Elementary) have struggled to change the culture and performance of their schools. Henderson has yet to bring in new turnaround partners, saying that she wants to assimilate lessons learned from the current group.

The creation of 17 schools serving preschool to eighth grade — merging elementary and middle schools in a 2008 round of campus closures — has helped retain families who might have left the system after fifth grade, according to District figures. But middle grades in many of the PS-8 schools remain lightly enrolled and unable to generate the per-pupil funding needed for a rich mix of academics and sports. Residents of Ward 5, where six of the campuses are located, are pressing the city to reopen a traditional middle school in the community, which would necessitate closing some of the PS-8s.

‘Churn and burn’

Rhee vowed to remove significant numbers of teachers. About a third of the 4,000 teachers on the payroll on Sept. 1, 2007, are gone, through firings, layoffs and normal attrition, according to D.C. officials.

It has left the teacher corps younger and less experienced. The proportion of first- and second-year teachers has increased in all wards of the city, according to an analysis by Mary Levy, a lawyer and education finance expert who has worked as a consultant to District officials.

The biggest increase in novice teachers, who often struggle in their early years, has been in low-income areas of the city. Nearly a quarter of the teachers in Ward 8 are beginners, triple the level in 2005. But other communities have also seen a spike. In Ward 5, the proportion has gone from 9 percent to 22 percent.

Principal turnover, always heavy, accelerated under Rhee. From 2001 to 2007, 22 percent of 144 positions turned over because of firing, resignations, retirement or reassignment.

Over Rhee’s three principal hiring cycles, 29 percent of 117 positions changed hands. Rhee lamented before she left that she did not have a better “batting average” in recruiting and hiring principals, but she also said it was better to cut ties quickly and move on. One veteran school leader, who asked not to be named, called the practice “churn and burn.” In Henderson’s first hiring period last year, 25 percent of 116 positions turned over.

Spending

Rhee’s outspoken style and aggressive approach to labor relations made her a magnet for money.

Galvanized by the transition to mayoral control, the D.C. Council pumped $70 million in new funding into public education. School funding from all sources grew 27 percent between 2007 and 2011, or $3,744 per student, according to Levy.

Funding challenges

Rhee’s reform efforts also drew unprecedented levels of philanthropic contributions. The D.C. Public Education Fund has raised $30 million and secured an additional $50 million in commitments for a series of initiatives, including initial work on IMPACT and teacher raises and bonuses.

But it remains to be seen whether the funding will continue to flow. A new commission studying charter school funding could recommend more support for the publicly financed and independently operated schools. The $64 million committed by the Broad, Arnold, Robertson and Walton foundations for D.C. teacher bonuses and raises runs out next fall. Unless private funders once again step up, the city will be expected to carry the expense on its own, at an estimated annual cost of $30 million.

It’s a price tag that will take more than Michelle Rhee’s formidable legacy to meet.

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Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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