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

By Andrew J. Rotherham
Sunday, September 5, 2010; B02

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has an overall approval rating of 44 percent, according to a recent Washington Post poll.

What's most surprising about that number? That it's so high.

Since she arrived in 2007, Rhee has shaken up the school system, doing a lot that might garner disapproval. Politicians and parents are upset about school closures. Hundreds of teachers have lost their jobs since Rhee ushered in layoffs and performance-based firings. The local and national teachers unions are smarting from Rhee's almost complete victory in the last round of contract talks. Charter-school leaders are upset with what they see as indifference from Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty. The city's Board of Education feels ignored; the D.C. Council gets its education news as often as not from this newspaper, not the chancellor herself.

In other words, Rhee is doing exactly what she was hired to do. And that may prove to be a problem for the man who hired her. Fenty is down in the polls and facing a serious challenge from D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray in the Democratic mayoral primary on Sept. 14.

It is easy to forget how much Rhee was up against when she arrived in Washington. Mismanagement was rampant, teachers wanted for textbooks and basic supplies, there was no instruction at all in many classrooms, and an abysmal 9 percent of the city's ninth-graders could expect to earn a college degree within nine years.

Meanwhile, the schools were bleeding students to other education options. In particular, traditional public schools had lost almost a third of their students to public charter schools. It was chaos. Rhee was the seventh superintendent in a decade.

A few years have not changed all that, though test scores and other measures are moving in the right direction. Schools are now accomplishing basic managerial tasks such as ensuring that teachers are actually on the payroll when school starts, as well as implementing meaningful performance evaluations and performance-based pay, among other changes.

Yet all this is coming at a price: disruption, controversy and tension.

"Uprooting entrenched systems and cultures requires taking on vested interests. Michelle [Rhee] had to do this," says Rick Hess, a national expert on urban education. "Michelle could have been less divisive, but that would have required dialing back her efforts and her timetable." According to Hess, "Too many superintendents move so slowly that, at the end of a six- or eight-year tenure, they accomplished only a fraction of what Michelle has thus far done."

Rhee is able to move so quickly because she's accountable only to Fenty, rather than the school board or the city council. This is what's known as mayoral control -- when authority over education is in the hands of a mayor rather than an elected school board. Historically, school boards were established in an effort to take the politics out of education governance; the growth of mayoral control over the past two decades has ironically been born of the same frustration, as well as a desire to streamline accountability and improve the way decisions are made. It is still relatively rare, but more and more mayors in large and midsize cities are seeking power over their schools.

The problem, as we're seeing now in Washington, is that the greatest strength of this system is also its greatest weakness. It decreases the political demands on the leader of the schools -- no board to please or council members to contend with -- but it does not decrease the political challenges of running a school system. It just shifts them elsewhere. The mayor is not absolved of dealing with educational politics. Instead, the mayor must attend to them more than he or she might otherwise have to.

In other cities, this works itself out in various ways. In Chicago, former schools chief and current U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was largely insulated from politics because of Mayor Richard Daley's sway over pretty much all aspects of the city. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg steps in at times to strike deals with the teachers union. In Boston, the leadership chose to move more slowly, with steady and admirable progress and less breaking of china.

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.

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.

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

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