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

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009; A01

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."

For the moment, 90 of 123 schools are under some form of federal notice to improve under the No Child Left Behind law. One-fifth of special education students attend private schools at public expense because the District can't meet their needs. Although the public school system has lost 4,000 students since Rhee's arrival, the District's public charter movement continues to thrive, with a projected increase this fall of about 3,000 students (to a total of 28,000).

Rhee said in an interview last week with The Washington Post's Jay Mathews that she has "full faith and confidence" in about a third of her principals. About a dozen need to be removed, she said, and for the rest, including most of the 45 she hired a year ago to replace those who left through dismissal or retirement, "it's going to take a while to determine whether they have what it takes to be successful."

Despite recent high-profile gestures to praise and support the District's 4,000 teachers, her blueprint calls for firing or buying out over the next two years "a significant share" of educators, described in the plan as "not willing to commit" to the demands of the job.

The upheaval might ultimately improve the school system. But some parents wonder whether they should wait.

Alicia Rucker is considering pulling her son out of Ron Brown Middle in Northeast, a school with low test scores and discipline problems, and sending him to a charter or private school. "I have to ask myself, am I doing him a disservice by leaving him in DCPS?" she said.

Rhee's supporters say she has brought passion, urgency and a conviction that with the right teachers, children can thrive academically no matter how deep the swaths cut through their lives by poverty, violence or family dysfunction. There is wide agreement that her signal accomplishment so far has been to change the conversation about what is possible in public education.

"I think she's raised our whole game by raising expectations and not letting inertia stop her from trying to bring about change," said George Vradenburg, a former AOL Time Warner executive and chairman of the D.C. Education Compact, which supports public schools.

She has won a national following as standard-bearer for a new generation of tough-minded urban school reformers determined to close minority achievement gaps. Her signature proposal is to raise teacher salaries dramatically with private foundation money in exchange for union concessions that would give her more latitude to reassign or dismiss ineffective instructors. That has made the District the setting for a historic confrontation with the American Federation of Teachers.

Two years into the job, Rhee has lost none of her zeal. But those who know her well say she's found that converting conviction into sustainable change requires more patience, indulgence and attentiveness to politics than may come naturally to her.

"It's a test of her leadership," said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Education Sector, a think tank. "The test is being a certain kind of leader, even if it doesn't come naturally."

Lesson 1: Fame Can Backfire

The world of education policy is not a wellspring of rock stars. But Rhee's unconventional career path, blunt style and willingness to challenge the entrenched power of the teachers union made her one.

National news outlets, from the Atlantic Monthly to PBS's NewsHour, lined up to tell the compelling narrative: the slight young daughter of Korean immigrants poised to do battle with bad teachers and a fossilized bureaucracy. But her rising celebrity alienated key constituencies at home. Teachers seethed as she told anecdotes painting them as incompetent, lazy or hostile to change. Parents felt decisions were imposed after only minimal consultation with school communities.

And then the Time cover.

Rhee tells a somewhat different story from Gray's. Asked last week whether she had regrets about the cover, she said she did not.

Her message, she said, was not about sweeping out teachers. "The point of that was about cleaning house and sweeping change," she said, referring to such moves as firing central office staff employees and upgrading operations so that teachers were paid on time and had textbooks delivered.

But Rhee's tone has changed. She launched an outreach campaign to meet with hundreds of teachers and listen to their concerns in small, after-hours groups. In a contrite letter to educators March 13, she said she might have pushed too many changes on them at once.

Rhee said in the interview that her message hasn't changed, only that she's worked to communicate more directly so that her views aren't "warped and diluted" by the media or central bureaucracy.

"We weren't doing a good job of communicating," she said.

Lesson 2: Money Doesn't Always Talk

Rhee expected to be hailed as a hero last summer by the Washington Teachers' Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. She introduced an unprecedented financial package to raise the base pay for a teacher with five years' experience from $46,500 to as much as $75,000. Senior instructors could collect as much as $131,000 a year in salary and performance bonuses.

"I could not have been more wrong," she told an audience of local Cornell and Columbia university alumni last month. "This thing went down like a lead balloon."

Rhee had hoped to split teachers into two pay tiers. The biggest raises and bonuses would go to instructors willing to relinquish their tenure for a year, exposing them to dismissal without appeal. New teachers would be required to take this track. More risk-averse educators could keep tenure in exchange for smaller, but still significant, raises and bonuses.

Rhee has established other cash incentives as well: for middle school students who get good grades and behave, and for schools that make big gains on standardized tests.

But her assumption that cash trumped other issues for teachers was mistaken. After serving under five superintendents in the past decade and enduring waves of abortive attempts at reform, they were wary of the latest Big Idea. And they were especially wary of Rhee after reading and hearing her comments about teachers.

The union concluded that the only way to sustain such an expensive salary structure after five years of private funding ran out would be to front-load the system with younger, less-expensive instructors. They simply didn't trust her.

"It's hard to get trust through fear," WTU President George Parker said.

Still, some D.C. officials and community leaders believe that Rhee might have been able to sell the plan had she tried to cultivate the WTU and AFT as allies early on.

Her signature proposal now faces an uncertain future at the bargaining table. She and AFT President Randi Weingarten agreed to bring in a mediator -- Howard Law School dean and former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke -- to try to conclude contract talks that she once predicted would be completed by March 2008.

"I thought she missed a real opportunity to build an esprit de corps in terms of the union," said Emily Washington, a professional developer at H.D. Woodson High and 30-year veteran of D.C. schools.

Lesson 3: Politics Matters

When Rhee arrived, she operated as if only one power center counted: the mayor's office. The 2007 law that gave Fenty control of the school system had stripped authority from the old D.C. Board of Education.

Council members chafed at the lack of regard she displayed, saying that her appearances were infrequent and that she often left questions half-answered. Gray said the chancellor and her young senior staff conveyed an "us against them" attitude about transparency and communication.

In last week's interview, Rhee reiterated her disdain for politics as usual.

"If I go down at the end of the day because I didn't play the political game right, that's okay with me," she said. "At least when you're making decisions that you believe are in the best interests of kids, you may not win in the end, but at least you can operate with a good conscience."

But Rhee also has discovered that although she serves at Fenty's pleasure, the council can make life miserable for her if it feels disrespected. Skeptical of her enrollment projections, which showed public schools gaining several hundred new students this fall after years of steady decline, the council voted to sequester $27 million until the trends were more clear.

Rhee angered council members this month with an aggressive campaign to restore the funds. But Gray also noted that she did something he had never before seen: visit members in their offices.

"She never thought there was a need to do it," he said. "But there has been a need, from day one."

On June 2, the council voted to restore most of the funds it had pulled.

Rhee now sits at hearings for hours at a time waiting to speak, per the council tradition that has members of the public appear first. She can be seen fiddling with her BlackBerry, conferring with aides and idly cracking her knuckles, one hand at a time.

Business leaders, supportive of Rhee but occasionally put off by her blunt manner and lack of detail about her long-term plans, are also in closer touch. Venture capitalist Jonathan A. Silver, who sits on the executive committee of the influential Federal City Council, now attends Rhee's weekly senior staff meetings to identify ways in which the private sector might be able to help.

Silver arranged for a case management firm to work pro bono to help close a backlog of hearing officer decisions involving families seeking special education services for their children, as required under a federal court order.

The private sector also helped her search for a chief operating officer, a position Rhee created to strengthen her senior management team. She hired retired Brig. Gen. Anthony J. Tata, the former deputy commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan, who started work June 1.

Lesson 4: Beware Unintended Consequences

By major measures of progress, the jury on Rhee remains out.

It will take at least three sets of annual standardized test scores to assess whether her changes are making a difference in classrooms, experts say. The second set is due this summer.

Whether enrollment will stabilize also remains uncertain.

Rhee has discovered that well-intentioned reforms can create new problems. Her decision to close 23 under-enrolled schools at the end of the 2007-08 academic year was widely viewed as a painful but necessary step for a system with far too many buildings and not enough students.

The closings, which moved thousands of children into consolidated "receiving" schools, also created ripple effects in the populations of some of those campuses. The school system traditionally "right-sizes" after the academic year begins, aligning money and staffing with actual enrollment. Schools that do not meet projected enrollment lose; those with more students than expected gain.

But the system did not completely right-size this school year. Although adjustments were made, some under-populated schools ended up with more money per pupil than those that were overenrolled. Rhee said that families from closed schools had already experienced enough disruption and that it was unfair to trigger more change by pulling teachers and funding just as they were adjusting to new surroundings.

But the attempt to protect uprooted families also created significant, and seemingly random, disparities in funding for some schools with similar concentrations of poor children. Moten-Wilkinson and Patterson are two elementary schools less than four miles apart in Ward 8. Yet Moten-Wilkinson received $8,826 per pupil, while Patterson received $6,567.

Rhee aims to avoid a reprise of what her staff called "anomalies." Officials said they'll try to balance money and students before schools reopen Aug. 24.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company