In Second Year, Rhee Is Facing Major Tests

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee:
Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee: "We are nowhere near where we want to be." (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Classroom by classroom, hallway by hallway, school by school, Michelle A. Rhee is attempting to remake a D.C. public education system that for decades has seemed impervious to change.

In her first year as D.C. schools chancellor, she generated numbers that got everybody's attention: 23 schools closed, more than 40 principals and assistant principals replaced, 98 central office staff members dismissed. The first standardized tests on her watch, the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, showed surprising gains in proficiency. Elementary students raised their math scores by 11 points and reading by eight points. Secondary students saw math and reading rise by nine points. Ninety-nine of the system's 144 public schools raised their scores.

And yet, all of that is, as Rhee acknowledges, just the low-hanging fruit.

"We are nowhere near where we want to be," she said at a public forum last month.

In the past school year, Rhee has established herself as a national figure in school reform. Appearing on PBS and national news shows, she has spread her message that children from low-income backgrounds can become accomplished students if teachers and administrators are held to a higher level of accountability.

"I think that, at the end of the day, it all comes down to accountability," she told Charlie Rose on his PBS show July 14. "We have to be able to hold everyone accountable for the results they're producing for kids. That's the bottom line. If you operate within that mind-set or that construct, then all of your problems are solved."

As she enters her second year, Rhee faces the task of sustaining the momentum she has developed. For parents, teachers, students and others who have a stake in the schools, many of whom have seen no fewer than six school leaders come and go in the past 10 years, this will be Rhee's moment to show she's not just passing through town on her way to a high-end corporate or federal job.

"I think we'll find out whether we're on the right track or the wrong track," said Cherita Whiting, a public schools activist who has clashed with Rhee but has also forged a friendship.

The challenges are immense. The achievement gap between black and white students remains canyon-size. On last year's National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national benchmark test, D.C. public school students were still behind those in other urban school districts. The special education system is a shambles, functioning under a consent decree that has sent more than 2,000 students to private schools because the city can't meet their physical or emotional needs. Crime and truancy continue to be serious issues.

"I expect it's going to be an important and challenging year," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which studies and advocates for urban school systems. "Schools will have been closed, people redeployed, schools restructured. The harder work of sustaining and accelerating student achievement will be at play. I think the plate is extremely full. But a good foundation was built last year."

By the end of the 2008-09 school year, those interested in the future of D.C. schools should have at least partial answers to several significant questions about Rhee's chancellorship. Among them:

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