Is Rhee Producing?

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 3, 2009

During the end-of-year show last week, ABC 7 "Inside Washington" host Gordon Peterson asked panelists to cite their favorite story of the year.

The most surprising and intriguing selection was offered by Newsweek senior editor Evan Thomas.

"Most educators have given up on inner-city schools," Thomas said. "But right here in Washington, D.C., there's a lady named Michelle Rhee who is trying to actually win this battle, but she's trying to break the union to do it." Thomas called it "an epic struggle."

"Rarely have the lines been so clearly drawn," he said.

Breaking the teachers union may or may not be Rhee's ultimate goal. But Thomas is on to something.

Rhee was laboring in relative obscurity as a teacher trainer and headhunter for urban public schools only two years ago. Today, she's chancellor of the District's troubled school system and a proxy for the national education reform movement. She has risen, in the eyes of reformers, to near mythic heights, thanks to profiles in Time magazine (where she graced the front cover holding a broom), Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and PBS's "NewsHour."

Clearly, Michelle Rhee is someone to watch in 2009.

But this column is about more than her celebrity status.

Rhee's "epic struggle" with the teachers union bears watching. Remember the old African proverb: "When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled." If a Rhee-union war paralyzes the school system, children may be the ones who suffer.

The struggle has already reduced the children to pawns, since what's really at stake are political interests.

Having muscled through his schools takeover, Mayor Adrian Fenty has his political future hanging on Rhee's ability to fulfill his promise to transform low-performing schools into a world-class system.

Education reformers across the nation have something on the line, too. Deep-pocketed reformers have placed large sums at Rhee's disposal to help her to loosen the union's grip on teachers. A Rhee victory would send a message to public schools nationwide.

The Washington Teachers' Union, scarred by scandal and with a warring leadership, also has much at stake. If Rhee succeeds in quashing tenure and seniority rights and if she scores with merit pay for teachers, the union loses its reason for being. National union leaders know that, too.

From a media viewpoint, the story of a firebrand educator taking the torch to a hidebound union is good copy.

But the issue is not whether the chancellor is a polarizing figure with her take-no-prisoners approach or is a fearless crusader against defenders of the status quo.

At issue is whether public education in the District is being improved.

What's known thus far is that plenty of principals, teachers and staff members have been fired, nearly two dozen schools have been closed, and dozens more have been overhauled and restaffed. But to what end?

People paying for the city's $1 billion system need to know whether Rhee is making any progress in reversing the record of failures in the schools. They deserve to know how her policies and practices -- not those of her predecessor -- are affecting teacher performance and student achievement. So, of course, do parents of the more than 46,000 students in the system.

Some parents have already rendered their verdict. Thousands of kids have been transferred to charter schools.

Lost in the squabble is the one ingredient that could help residents decide whether months of turbulence have been worthwhile.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray seems to agree.

He told me that he has decided that the council must do more than just appropriate funds for schools, leaving Rhee free to run the system as she sees fit.

He said he will propose this month that the council select an independent evaluator to examine the impact of changes initiated by Rhee on teacher and student performance, school system operations, and the school governance structure itself.

"I want to get away from the emotionalism surrounding Rhee and take a dispassionate look at school performance," he said.

Gray has tapped the D.C. auditor to organize the project, which will draw upon independently produced research, not just school system data. He said the mayor's office was to have produced an evaluation of the new governance structure a year ago. Instead, the mayor proposed a privately funded study to be conducted by researchers known to be favorable toward a mayoral takeover of schools.

Gray said he wants impartiality, not advocacy. He hopes to have the council's evaluation project up and running by early spring.

Good. The city must know where Rhee is going. I say this as a supporter of Fenty's takeover and of Rhee's whacks at the Gordian knots entangling the school system. ["Rhee vs. the Central-Office Hydra," Aug. 18, 2007; "Coming Soon: The Real Schools Battle," Sept. 29, 2007]. Last August, I had lunch with Rhee near the anniversary of our first meeting to get an update on school system reforms.

What a difference a year makes.

The session wasn't what I expected.

An hour's conversation, and it was all about her.

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