Assessing Michelle Rhee's two years as D.C. schools chancellor

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Friday, June 12, 2009

YOU CAN list Michelle A. Rhee's accomplishments since becoming D.C. schools chancellor two years ago today, and they run more than 10 pages: boosting math and reading test scores; putting art, music and physical education classes in every school; streamlining the central office; closing 23 schools; recruiting new principals. Ask her, though, to grade her tenure, and she volunteers an F. She judges her performance solely on whether the children in her charge are getting the education they deserve. Better than anyone, she knows they aren't.

"We are so far from the work being done, it's not even funny," Ms. Rhee says with characteristic bluntness. Her refusal to spin or sugarcoat testifies to why she is the best, perhaps last, hope to improve a system in which, even now, only 8 percent of eighth-graders can do eighth-grade math.

Yes, there are promising signs: the early improvement in test scores but also enhanced professional development for teachers, rigorous after-school and enrichment programs, and a new emphasis on competence and accountability. Ms. Rhee is bringing in experts to help turn around the city's worst high schools and has managed to make some headway even in the nightmare that is the special education system. Most significant, she has raised expectations for what D.C. public school students can achieve and has brought a sense of urgency to making the District the highest-performing urban school district in the country. She refuses to accept that poverty, troubled homes or any other external factor mean that a child cannot learn.

And, yes, there have been missteps, too. The school closings could have been handled more deftly. She miscalculated her ability to convince teachers union officials that it was in their interests -- as well as those of students -- to get ineffective teachers out of the classroom. At times maybe she's too brusque. But the brusqueness stems from an impatience with forces more concerned with protecting the status quo than with helping students.

Those forces already are regrouping, seeking to nibble away at the mayoral control that has allowed Mayor Adrian M. Fenty -- much to his credit -- to give the chancellor the support and resources she needs. Sadly, union officials and the old guard political establishment leading the revanche have found a receptive audience in the D.C. Council, which recently voted to expand the role of the elected school board at the expense of the mayor. Ms. Rhee has a five-year action plan; she is borrowing the best practices of other school districts, and she envisions 2013 as the year when students in D.C. schools will have a markedly different -- and better -- experience. She should not have to spend time fighting the efforts of those who would hold her back, and the District's children along with her.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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