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In D.C. schools, Rhee and Fenty learn that tough reforms bring tougher politics

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In D.C., the situation poses different challenges. Despite a convincing electoral victory in 2006, Fenty was not Daley, and the chancellor was not an outsize national figure such as New York schools chief Joel Klein. Moreover, Fenty wanted radical change. But no one should have thought that Rhee, whom I've known for more than a decade, would handle the politics.

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She said as much herself. Rhee told Reason magazine this year that she initially demurred on the D.C. job, explaining that she told Fenty how difficult it would be: "If I were to take over the school district, the kinds of things that I would have to do to transform the district" -- closing schools, firing teachers -- "would just cause you headaches, political headaches. And that's not what politicians want. Politicians don't want the dirt to get kicked up. They want everyone to be happy."

In fact, Rhee had made her way to Fenty's radar because she did not bend to the politically convenient. Before coming to D.C., she had launched the New Teacher Project, an organization aggressively committed to dramatic changes in teacher policies and considered by many in the education reform community to be the most effective nonprofit policy group today. During teacher contract arbitration hearings in New York City, for instance, Rhee stunned observers by dismantling the union's arguments for seniority rules with data that had never before been collected. Impressed, Klein strongly recommended her to Fenty.

So Fenty hired Rhee knowing she was long on tenacity and short on political niceties, and to his credit, he has not played politics with school policy. To his detriment, however, he hasn't paid sufficient attention to the politics of the schools. As we're seeing now, with or without mayoral control, urban education reform is as much about politics as it is about technical expertise or results.

The failure to manage the political fallout from the changes to the D.C. school system has helped create the opening that Gray is now exploiting. The recent Post poll found that 54 percent of black Democrats said Rhee was more of a reason to vote against Fenty than for him. Only one in four said she was a reason to vote for the mayor.

The turmoil that goes along with transforming a school system as broken as Washington's is a daunting challenge of leadership. Someone needed to clearly and consistently explain to residents that although the reforms were going to cause short-term pain through closed schools and lost jobs, the longer-term prize was going to be better outcomes for students and a more vibrant city. Someone had to clearly say, "Here's what's going to happen, here's what's happening, and here's why." Rhee could do the small meetings with parents and activists, she could visit the schools, but it wasn't her role to prepare the political ground for these changes and lead the city through them. Nor was she a good fit for that work.

Rhee made some mistakes. Posing on the cover of Time magazine with a broom, symbolizing "sweeping out the old," bewildered even her staunchest allies, and firing a principal during a TV profile was ill-considered. But while her style provides fodder for critics, it's not the core issue, Hess argues. "The substance of her efforts has been so discomfiting that critics were going to accuse her of being heavy-handed no matter how she proceeded," he says.

Rhee's approach has forced people to confront choices and made those choices clear. In the education world, hard decisions are too often sidestepped with platitudes about consensus and common goals.

During the most recent contract negotiations, for instance, the teachers union sought to preserve tenure and seniority rules that were clearly not in the best interest of students. Rhee forced the issue, and in the end the rules were changed rather than papered over with half-measures. The result was a landmark contract.

The record on urban education reform makes plain that there is a fundamental choice between harmony among the various adult interests and rapid progress on school improvement. While Fenty certainly could have handled the political side of the reforms more deftly, no one should think that the disruption and tension were avoidable. Rhee would not have accomplished what she has without making the choices so clear and being so, well, polarizing in the process.

D.C. voters may have plenty of reasons for wanting a new mayor. But hoping that someone can dramatically improve the city's schools without causing a lot of acrimony shouldn't be one of them.

andy@bellwethereducation.org

Andrew J. Rotherham is a partner at Bellwether Education, a national nonprofit organization. He writes the blog Eduwonk.com and for Time.com.


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