Can Obama Help Rhee?

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, accompanied by Mayor Adrian Fenty, speaks to reporters on the first day of school in August.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, accompanied by Mayor Adrian Fenty, speaks to reporters on the first day of school in August. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Fred Hiatt
Monday, November 10, 2008

A principal recently was defending a teacher whom D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee had observed in the classroom and found wanting.

"Would you put your grandchild in that class?" Rhee asked the principal.

"If that's the standard, we don't have any effective teachers in my school," the principal replied.

Recalling that comment a few days later, Rhee is still steaming. "I said, 'That is the standard,' " Rhee says, and you think: Whew, glad I'm not that principal.

Rhee offers the ultimate in no-excuses leadership. She has taken on one of the worst public school systems in the nation and has pledged to turn it into one of the best within a decade. The usual excuses made for such schools -- that they cannot possibly do better because their students are poor, or come from broken families, or haven't been read to, or are surrounded by crime -- Rhee does not accept. She has seen such students learn, Rhee explains, in her own classroom in Baltimore in the early 1990s, and in many other schools since.

Nor, at least so far, does Rhee make excuses for herself. In her 17-month tenure, she already has improved test scores and fixed some of the more grotesque failings of the schools: They are ready for opening day; children have textbooks; teachers get paid. When small problems have arisen, Rhee has accepted responsibility, and one senses that if she fails, she won't be looking for scapegoats.

But that no-excuses promise comes with two giant asterisks. No big-city superintendent can succeed without a supportive mayor. So far, Adrian Fenty, the mayor who hired her, has had her back all the way.

And, in two ways, she may not be able to succeed without at least the tacit support of Barack Obama. The first reason is particular to Washington: Congress controls the budget, many Democrats are closely tied to the teachers union, and the union may be heading for a clash with Rhee. "It will depend on the fortitude of the administration," Rhee says. "Because we're in D.C., it will get to that level."

Rhee's comment came at a Halloween-day forum (for her costume, she had appropriately pinned on a sheriff's badge) organized by the Aspen Institute. She was responding to a question about how she will deal with teachers who perform poorly. She has offered a contract that would provide big raises to every teacher, and the possibility of even bigger raises to teachers who are willing to be judged based on how they perform -- which is to say, on how their students perform -- rather than simply on seniority.

No teacher now in the system would have to enter the world of merit pay unless he or she chose to. Yet, under pressure from national union leaders in New York, the union local won't even let teachers vote on the proposal. So Rhee is looking for alternative routes.

At some schools, she says, a "vast majority" of teachers want a chance to be judged on performance and are saying, "Just let us secede." That could set up an "incredibly interesting" experiment, Rhee notes. Would she also consider declaring a state of emergency? "We're researching all of our options," she says.

Rhee is hardly anti-teacher. One problem, she says, is that "our good teachers have not been told that they're good." And she is committed to helping teachers "who have the will but are underperforming -- that is essentially the biggest challenge for the District for the next couple of years."

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