D.C. officials ought to agree that Michelle Rhee should stay

Sunday, May 2, 2010

IN THE RECENT tumult over a proposed contract for District schoolteachers, the key question has been ignored: Why is everyone in the city not working together to make sure that Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee sticks around?

There's been wrangling over how to pay for raises and bonuses that teachers could earn if union members vote to approve the contract. Private foundations might reconsider their support if Ms. Rhee left. City budget officers worry that they might then get stuck with an unexpected bill. As we've written, both concerns are understandable; as we've also said, the obstacles seem small enough to be overcome with some ingenuity and goodwill. But there's a larger point that needs addressing.

In three years of Ms. Rhee's leadership, schools have improved in everything from teaching and learning to facilities and operations. The bloated central office was streamlined; gone are the days when teachers didn't get paid, schools didn't receive supplies and principals' requests were routinely ignored. Teachers and principals can focus on academic achievement. Ms. Rhee has spelled out expectations, emphasized quality teaching and held people accountable. New principals have been recruited, professional training has been improved and more instruction and tutoring has been built into class schedules.

The results are measurable. Enrollment has stabilized, and many schools are reporting renewed interest from parents. Local tests show virtually every category of student under the No Child Left Behind regime increasing proficiency rates. Dramatic gains -- in both math and reading -- were seen in the National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP), the gold standard of testing. The 2009 math results showed D.C. students increasing their scores at a higher rate than any other tested urban district, and 2009 reading gains by D.C. fourth-graders led the nation. Last year, 10 out of 16 high schools reported increasing their graduation rates by at least 3 percentage points.

Ms. Rhee's tenure certainly has not been faultless. She has made mistakes and alienated people who might have been allies. District schools still have a long, long way to go, and test scores may not rise every year. But the trajectory is positive, and school systems do not maintain momentum when leadership changes every few years. Montgomery County schools have benefited from the vision and stability of Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's long tenure; New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein has been able to make headway because he was given ample time. Many of the troubles of the District's schools can be traced to the churn of superintendents and the change in direction that accompanied each new leader.

The District could fall back into that pattern, or it could accomplish decisive reforms that end the most shameful scandal of the nation's capital: the absence of educational opportunity for too many poor African American children. Ms. Rhee and leaders of the teachers union have agreed on a contract that could accelerate the improvement, jump-start professional development and attract even more high-quality teachers; the past three years could be a preamble to lasting progress. But if the schools again fall victim to politics, and particularly to the battle for mayor between incumbent Adrian M. Fenty (D) and his challenger, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), all of this could be in jeopardy.

Mr. Fenty, if reelected, would retain the chancellor. Mr. Gray is less clear, saying that Ms. Rhee and school reform efforts are not "inextricably tied." He has made no secret of his unhappiness with some of her actions but says he is open to her staying. Trying to have it both ways may work politically, but it doesn't serve the city's interests. If Mr. Gray disapproves of the direction the schools are taking, he should let D.C. voters know, and explain why. If he believes progress is being made, he ought to work with Mr. Fenty to keep Ms. Rhee in place. There will be plenty of issues on which Mr. Gray can challenge the mayor; school achievement ought to be a common goal.

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