Democratic primary could determine fate of D.C. schools, for better or worse

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010

School opens today in the District. For the next three weeks, Americans who care about the future of urban schools will watch the city closely.

If Mayor Adrian M. Fenty loses the Democratic primary, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee -- the most divisive D.C. educator in my 39 years at The Washington Post -- will probably leave. If Fenty wins, she probably stays. Whether that is good or bad depends on your point of view.

While my wife and I were taking our toddler grandson to see his favorite fountains in California, early returns from what I call the Rhee primary were pouring in. Elementary students in regular public schools lost between four and five points in reading and math proficiency after two years of gains. Regular public secondary school students continued to improve.

Rhee briefly united her friends and foes by persuading the Washington Teachers' Union to accept a far-reaching contract. That burst of amity ended when she fired 76 teachers who received poor evaluations under her assessment system and 76 others for licensure problems or other issues. She also put another 89 teachers who had been judged "minimally effective" in jeopardy of termination.

Fifth-grade scores declined at two of the high-performing charter schools in the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a mild blow to Rhee since she is one of the few big-city superintendents who actively support charters, particularly KIPP. The number of District schools, regular or charter, meeting adequate yearly progress goals dropped from 47 to 15, but that is no longer a big issue. The No Child Left Behind law is rapidly deteriorating as nearly all U.S. schools head for its bad list, which Congress will tear up and toss away when it rewrites the law.

Those of us who support Rhee because of her emphasis on hiring strong principals and creating dynamic teacher teams applauded the results from some well-led schools. Dunbar and Coolidge high schools, run by the veteran New York innovators of the Friends of Bedford group, showed good gains.

But faculty tumult at Sousa Middle School, where a Rhee hire alienated teachers, and a midyear change of principal at chaotic Spingarn High School show that her leadership team is a work in progress. My colleague Bill Turque calculated that Rhee has made 91 leadership appointments in three years, but 39 are no longer in those jobs. She understands that principals who establish creative school cultures are key to raising student achievement. "I'd love to have a better batting average," she told Turque.

People I respect who want Rhee to go say she is too impulsive, too disrespectful of community leaders, too quick to dismiss experienced teachers, too wedded to test scores and always convinced that she is right. Reasonable arguments, yes, but they contradict what I have learned about improving schools from educators who have done so.

When first faced with schools as mired in apathy and inertia as D.C. schools, these ultimately successful school leaders were as divisive as Rhee has been. They moved quickly to change personnel and procedures. They sought community support but ignored leaders who opposed their methods. They fired or refused to hire teachers, many of them experienced, who warned against expecting much from poor children. They took standardized test scores seriously and changed methods when achievement did not rise.

Like Rhee, they acquired many critics and many supporters. How the chancellor does in that ultimate accounting, we will learn after the elections of Sept. 14.

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