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.