By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; B01
The scenario is familiar in the District and big cities across the country: An ambitious leader is appointed to reform schools. Policies and practices are upended, five-year plans unveiled, a flurry of initiatives launched with high hopes. After two or three years, political pressure from interests and constituencies unhappy with the changes forces the newcomer out.
Enter a successor, with a new agenda.
That is what many supporters of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee fear will happen if Fenty loses to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in the Sept. 14 Democratic mayoral primary.
Gray has not committed to retaining the chancellor Fenty named in 2007, and he has criticized Rhee for her hard-edged management style and prickly relations with some community stakeholders. A Washington Post poll taken last month showed that support for Rhee among black residents has fallen sharply over two years, to 27 percent. More than three-fourths of D.C. public school children are African American.
Rhee has hinted broadly that she cannot work for Gray because she doubts his resolve to support the unpopular personnel and budget decisions that have marked her tenure. She has said that if Fenty is reelected, she's prepared to stay for his second term.
If she leaves, her successor would be the school system's fourth head in 10 years -- not counting interim leaders. Rhee's advocates say instability at the top would jeopardize gains in academic achievement, enrollment and teacher quality that have not had a chance to take root. Some urban school experts agree.
"It's really tough to make a dent in one to three years," said Harvard education professor Thomas Payzant, who had uncommon decade-long stints as superintendent in San Diego and Boston. The average tenure for a big-city schools leader is about 3 1/2 years. It's a measure of the District's revolving-door history that if Rhee leaves early next year, she would still be the longest-serving schools leader in the past 20 years.
By contrast, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast plans to step down next year after 12 years at the helm of Montgomery County schools. Loudoun County Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III has led that school system since 1991.
Yet there is reason to believe that if Rhee leaves, the old patterns of churn and change may not play out again in the same way. Major shifts in education policy, wrought by measures such as the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and President Obama's Race to the Top grant competition, have created expectations and commitments that will be difficult for any new administration to compromise or reverse.
Rhee, who is beginning a school year that might finish without her, said she is not focused on what would happen if she leaves. "Honestly, I don't think about it," she said. "That's not the way my brain works. I don't spend a ton of time thinking about the what-ifs. I'm a much better thinker when it's, 'Here's the situation, now what?' "
One vision of life after Rhee in D.C. schools holds that a switch in leadership would imperil progress. Gray has said he wants a chancellor who will continue to improve schools while closing rifts between the District and its teachers. But Rhee supporters question how much tension or pushback he would tolerate to continue the reform movement.
These supporters also say her departure would undermine a nascent but discernible growth in parent confidence in the school system, especially among young families. Enrollment has stabilized after decades of decline. Any new chancellor would need at least two full school years to assemble a team and produce real evidence of effectiveness. That would bring the city to the cusp of another mayoral election cycle.
"Many parents who just enrolled their children in school weeks ago are wondering if they made a mistake," said D.C. State Board of Education member Sekou Biddle (Ward 4). "Children and families in the District get handed more uncertainty, at least in the short term."
Some of Rhee's most significant revisions were embedded in a collective bargaining agreement this year with the Washington Teachers' Union. Provisions include the use of job performance, rather than seniority, to govern teacher job assignments. But the contract will be up for renegotiation in 2012, and there is concern that the union, which has endorsed Gray, will be emboldened to press for a rollback of some measures.
Teachers could also pressure Gray and his chancellor to modify the new IMPACT evaluation system, which has drawn national attention for its reliance on test scores and elaborate classroom guidelines to assess instructors. It is wildly unpopular with many educators, who say it is rigid and geared toward forcing them out rather than fostering growth. Teachers who rate poorly under IMPACT face possible dismissal.
Private foundation support, which is underwriting performance pay for teachers and other new programs, could also dry up if donors lose confidence in the leadership's willingness to tie compensation to effectiveness.
"If [Gray's choice] is a high-profile outsider with marching orders to reconcile the teachers with the administration, then you will get a virtual dismantling of the high-profile policies, including IMPACT," said Larry Cuban, former Arlington County superintendent and emeritus education professor at Stanford University.
George Parker, president of the teachers union, rejected the idea that a Gray mayoralty would mean a dilution of reforms in the contract. "I don't see a wholesale turning back," he said. "Vince Gray is committed to reform, and so is the union." As for IMPACT, which was not a part of the contract, Parker said Rhee has made some changes, based on teacher concerns.
In the other vision of a post-Rhee school system, a new regime would not necessarily mean reinventing the wheel.
Rhee built on key elements put in place by her predecessor, Clifford Janey, including new standards, curricula and the citywide test known as the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System. (Janey learned last week that his contract as superintendent in Newark will not be renewed when it expires in 2011.)
In essence, what some Gray supporters long for is school reform with an olive branch and a smile, rather than the broom and scowl that defined Rhee on the cover of Time magazine. They want a chancellor who can build a broader base of support, yet follow through on what Rhee has begun. Any candidate for chancellor, said D.C. State Board of Education member Lisa Raymond (Ward 6), should show "a willingness to really for the most part commit to the momentum and the major initiatives already in place."
A new mayor and chancellor could have much to lose in a retreat from the Fenty-Rhee program. The four-year, $75 million federal Race to the Top grant the District won last month is contingent on following through with core Rhee initiatives: aggressive turnaround strategies, with continued use of outside operators for persistently failing schools; expansion of IMPACT into the public charter schools; broader use of student test score data to inform personnel and instructional decisions; and improved professional development for teachers.
Jane Hannaway, director of the Urban Institute's Education Policy Center, said the steady accumulation of education data, including readouts on how students fare with specific teachers from year to year, is likely to bring more coherence to decision-making.
"Before, you'd see these wild swings in policy, a lot of them on the basis of people's hunches, and not informed by real hard information," Hannaway said. "These data systems are not going to go away, and they're going to become more refined and inform the basis for a lot of managerial decisions in school districts."
The District also has joined dozens of states in adopting national academic standards for what students will learn in English and math from kindergarten through high school. That will set in motion changes in curricula, testing and teacher training, regardless of who is chancellor.
Other changes under Fenty and Rhee are cast in brick and mortar. A $1 billion construction campaign has reshaped the public school landscape, with a new Eastern High School on Capitol Hill and a new home for H.D. Woodson High School, due to open in Northeast next fall with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math. The Healthy Schools Act, sponsored by D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), also is being implemented under Rhee. It is expected to bring more local produce and higher nutritional standards to school meals.
A Rhee departure would not mark the end of attempts to overhaul D.C. schools. But it would wind down the most closely watched experiment in public education in memory -- without real closure. Sam Chaltain, former national director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, an education advocacy organization, has issues with Rhee's faith in test score data and her failure to mobilize a more collective commitment to reform. Still, he said, her departure at this point would be a loss.
"None of us will ever have an opportunity to really evaluate whether her ideas about reform were effective," he said, "because they are just a snapshot."