A chance to learn from Rhee's mistakes
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Post editors and reporters appear to have latched on to every possible explanation for the public's rejection of Mayor Adrian Fenty. Racial politics this week. Fenty's personality. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's failure to communicate.
But Fenty's defeat isn't about race or personality. It's about bad decisions, particularly on school reform. His school reform strategies, as shoved through by Rhee, alienated the voters.
Rhee certainly rates as smart, charismatic and bold. But she made decisions early in her tenure that alienated every constituency she needed, and she rested her "reforms" on strategies that national education researchers have repeatedly warned against.
Over the course of her tenure, Rhee:
-- Over-emphasized standardized student testing and scores as the be-all and end-all of school and teacher quality. (See the Economic Policy Institute's Aug. 27 report "Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers.")
-- Failed to understand the importance of community and relationships, and marginalized dedicated and knowledgeable parent and community advocates.
-- Created churn in the workforce, with widespread teacher and principal firings, in the process instilling a culture of fear.
-- Rushed to install teacher evaluation rubrics, under her IMPACT program, that devalue teacher professionalism instead of emphasizing teacher and principal training and curriculum development.
These missteps reflected conscious decisions, not oversights. One example: Early on, Rhee rejected a staff recommendation to bring in the consultants used in Montgomery and Fairfax counties to train administrators and teachers in effective teaching practices. The reason given: Taking the route Montgomery and Fairfax followed would cost too much and take too long.
Schools are communities. Education is a complex, labor-intensive endeavor. Good teaching must be nurtured systematically. Parents understand these realities, which is one big reason they're instinctively wary of any test-and-punish approach. Under Rhee, the public senses that a profound disrespect of educators and the craft of teaching has permeated the D.C. system.
A responsible newspaper would have treated Rhee's reform strategies as controversial ideas worthy of debate. Instead, The Post seems to have taken the posture that anyone against Rhee's reforms must be for the DCPS status quo.
That simply is not the case. Rhee's critics have included veteran reformers who have studied the research and have good reason to warn that she was taking reform down the wrong path.
Vincent C. Gray, who after winning Tuesday's primary is the presumptive mayor-elect, needs to be resolute about improving teacher quality and holding schools and teachers accountable. But he also needs to take a hard look at the controversial strategies that Rhee has pursued. National experts shut out by the Rhee administration can help fine-tune more effective approaches.
And if Michelle Rhee is truly in it "for the kids," she'll muster up some humility, acknowledge her mistaken decisions and stick around long enough to transition to more experienced leadership.
The writer, a member of Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform, is a DCPS parent, an education policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute and a former president of the Montgomery County teachers union.