Two Years of Hard Lessons for D.C. Schools' Change Agent

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee discusses the progress of improving education and teaching in D.C. Public Schools and what she hopes for the future. Video by Akira Hakuta and Matthew Hashiguchi/The Washington Post Edited by Matthew Hashiguchi/The Washington Post
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

The image of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee on newsstands nationwide was causing an uproar among teachers, parents and other constituents. So D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray had to ask her, as she sat in his cavernous, wood-paneled office in December: "Michelle, why would you agree to be photographed with a broom on the cover of Time magazine?"

And he had a follow-up: "What does it get you, to constantly bash those you're trying to get to help you?"

Rhee explained that most of the shoot for the Dec. 8 issue involved images of her with children. The idea for the broom, which she gripped while standing stern-faced in front of a blackboard, came up near the end, she said, according to Gray's version of their meeting. She told Gray that it wasn't her first choice for the cover but that the decision wasn't hers. Gray wasn't satisfied.

"Why did you let the picture be taken in the first place?"

In her quest to upend and transform the District's long-broken school system, Rhee has acquired a sometimes-painful education of her own. The lessons, in many respects, tell the story of her tenure as her second school year draws to a close Monday: that money isn't everything; that political and corporate leaders need to be stroked, even if you don't work for them; that the best-intentioned reforms can trigger unintended consequences; and that national celebrity can create trouble at home.

Rhee arrived in 2007 as the surprise choice of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who introduced her hours after he took control of what was a 49,000-student system (now down to about 45,000). Compared with predecessors, she had scant experience. Then 37, the former Baltimore grade-school teacher had spent the past decade at a teacher recruiting and research firm she founded. She also had the effusive endorsement of her mentor, New York Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, who had retained Rhee as a personnel consultant.

Even by the high-turnover standards of D.C. public schools leadership, Rhee's watch has been brief -- well below the average of three years, three months for her seven predecessors, most recently Clifford Janey (two years, nine months).

But new pockets of promise -- some initiated by Janey and sustained by Rhee, others forged by her -- are visible. Three freshly restored schools -- Phelps High in Northeast, Hardy Middle in Northwest and Sousa Middle in Southeast -- are the leading edge of a $2 billion plan to modernize a crumbling campus inventory. An "academic power hour" of extra instruction is part of a revamped after-school program in 100 schools.

Last year's DC-CAS standardized tests showed increases in reading and math proficiency rates of 8 to 11 percentage points since 2007. A handful of schools are piloting efforts to reach the most neglected and vulnerable students: those in special education, those with emotional or family issues and those at risk of dropping out. High school students, plagued for years by shoddy recordkeeping and class schedules that often left them with insufficient credits to graduate, can take "credit recovery" courses on weekends, after school and in the summer. Although not as complete or as rigorous as regular offerings, they create a path to a diploma for students who were barred through no fault of their own.

Spending for professional development is up 400 percent since 2007 in an effort to establish a coherent set of expectations about what constitutes good teaching.

Rhee acknowledges that the successes pale in comparison to the task of reversing decades of failure.

"The reality in Washington, D.C., is that we continue to fail the majority of kids who are put in our care every day," she said at a panel discussion last month. In a draft five-year action plan, introduced in October, she targets 2013 as the year when the D.C. student experience will be "dramatically different."

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