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Why D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee Has to Play Tough

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee speaks at a summit on education reform.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee speaks at a summit on education reform. (Photo By Benjamin J. Myers)

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By Richard Whitmire
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The forces lined up against D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee -- angry teachers, grumpy D.C. Council members, the nation's top teachers' union leader quarterbacking the opposition -- are essentially asking one question: Why can't you behave more like that nice Arne Duncan?

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Indeed, with his aw-shucks humility and his anecdotes about playing b-ball with the president, Duncan has undeniable charm. That charm was honed in Chicago, where he never played in-your-face politics and never publicly suggested there was widespread incompetence among the teaching force, qualities that contributed to President Obama's tapping him to be U.S. secretary of education.

By contrast, Rhee appeared on the cover of Time wielding a broom to symbolically sweep incompetence out of her public schools. Yikes.

But there's a reason Rhee plays hardball: She has no choice.

Running a hurry-up education offense is the only way Rhee can maintain a viable-sized school district that has dwindled to a mere 44,000 students, while the city's charter school population is expected to grow to 28,000 this year. When Duncan was in Chicago, a restrictive state cap meant that less than 5 percent of students there could attend charter schools.

In the District, charters continue to attract more new students than Rhee's schools. If Rhee can't stanch or reverse that trend, her district slumps into irrelevancy, a fact of life that her union opponents seem incapable of grasping. If Rhee falters, the layoffs will continue.

The top-performing middle school in the District is the KIPP KEY Academy, which is staffed by highly motivated teachers, many of them Teach for America veterans. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) operates seven schools in the District, educating 1,500 students.

The advantages enjoyed by charters, which can pick and choose their staff, are considerable. Among the 1,500 schools in New York City, the top-ranked one on the city's 2007 progress report was Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School. There's just one secret to its success, says Evan Rudall of the Uncommon Schools network, which runs Williamsburg: high-quality teachers. "The best way to find such teachers is by using the latitude granted to charter schools: interviewing hundreds of candidates, both certified and uncertified, to find out if they know their material, are enthusiastic about their subject matter, and can maintain classroom control."

Can Rhee compete with that? Not if she moves at the pace Duncan did in Chicago, where scores on the highly regarded federal test, known as the nation's report card, remained flat. The real question is whether Rhee's hurry-up offense, in which acting less aggressively isn't even an option, will work. The odds are not in her favor.

Earlier this year, as "project journalist" for the Broad Foundation's Prize for Urban Education to honor outstanding school districts, I accompanied an evaluation team to all five finalist districts. Those that have long appeared at the top of the Broad finalist list, such as Long Beach, Calif., and Aldine, Tex., face challenges similar to what Rhee faces in the District and yet turn out a high percentage of college-ready students, something the D.C. schools have never achieved.

These high-performing districts marry frequent testing with tracking systems that follow students in near-real time. The data are passed on to teachers trained to use them through finely honed professional development. In the end, students who don't completely absorb the material the first time around get that skill retaught, sometimes in a different way by a different teacher. And that's just one part of their educational arsenal. In these districts, leaving no child behind is no mere slogan.

Sound like D.C. schools? Perhaps not, but Rhee appears to be moving in all the right directions to get there. (Full disclosure: Rhee wrote the foreword for my upcoming book, "Why Boys Fail.")

There's a sobering note to add. Long Beach, to take one example, started its reforms back in the mid-1990s. Given the delicate politics in the District, the possibility of Rhee's being given that much time is nil. That probably explains her latest strategy: jump-starting reforms by bringing in charter schools -- within DCPS -- to run District high schools.

Her strategy has promise. In Philadelphia, Mastery Charter Schools took over Shoemaker Middle School, which was beset by violence and academic failure. In just two years, a fresh cadre of hand-picked teachers, working with the same neighborhood children who attended that school in previous years, produced startling test-score gains.

That's the irony here. Rhee is a huge fan of high-performing charters. She attended the ribbon-cutting at a new KIPP school this year. "Michelle Rhee embraces anything quality," said Susan Schaeffler, who oversees KIPP operations in the District.

That said, not everyone in city hall sees the charter threat so benignly. Those doubters have a point. Charters do in fact present an existential threat to District schools, which is why Rhee has to match the best charters. And that explains why she can't go slow and easy, why she can't be nice like Arne.

Richard Whitmire is immediate past president of the National Education Writers Association.


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