Baltimore school reform shows Rhee's way isn't the only path to success

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 7:16 PM

Michelle Rhee vs. Randi Weingarten. Heroic schools reformer vs. obstructionist union boss. In much of the media and the public mind, the national debate over education has been oversimplified into a grudge match between those two strong-willed women.

It's not the whole story, and it's self-defeating to think it is. That black-and-white caricature about the choices in education - recently highlighted in the celebrated documentary "Waiting for 'Superman' " and on Oprah Winfrey's television show - confuses and undermines the discussion of how to fix urban schools.

To get a clearer picture, you need look no farther than an hour's drive north in Baltimore. There, schools chief Andres Alonso has achieved substantial educational progress through ambitious reform efforts similar to Rhee's - but without alienating teachers and parents in the process.

Moreover, Weingarten, who as head of the American Federation of Teachers oversaw more than two years of contentious negotiations with Rhee over the new D.C. teachers contract, has just agreed with Alonso on a groundbreaking, proposed contract in Baltimore that in some ways goes further than the historic pact approved earlier this year in Washington. That adds fresh evidence that Weingarten, despite being cast as the Wicked Witch neglecting students on behalf of greedy teachers, is in fact open to moving reform forward.

The success in Baltimore is important partly because it forces us to think differently about what's special about Rhee, just as she's probably on her way out of office after the landslide election loss of her patron, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Rhee's many supporters have defended her confrontational approach to school reform by saying it was the only way to break through decades of resistance from entrenched interests, particularly in the teachers unions.

She fired teachers abruptly and on vague grounds? Rhee's backers say it was necessary to get rid of bad instructors. Closed schools with only limited discussion in the community? No time to wait. Posed with a broom in a classroom for a Time magazine cover? Got to show we're serious about this.

There's some truth in that argument. In my view, Rhee's most valuable and durable accomplishment has been as a public agitator who blew up complacency. She raised awareness of the urgent need to improve poor city schools and focused attention on the unions' role in creating obstacles to change.

However, Baltimore's experience demonstrates that Rhee's tactics aren't the only ones that yield results. In fact, some experts say a more collaborative, low-profile strategy is more successful in the long run because it preserves trust and confidence with teachers and the community.

"What Baltimore shows is that you can bring real change to urban schools without a lot of acrimony," said Jack Jennings, president of the independent Center on Education Policy. "The national foundations and some reform groups have made [Rhee] into a poster girl because they just want change, and she's a highly vocal advocate for change. But others have brought about just as much change as she has, and I would guess that their reforms would last longer."

Alonso, like Rhee, has fired teachers for unsatisfactory performance. But he's been clear about the grounds, having principals take time to do it through the existing evaluations process. Alonso has also closed many schools with low enrollments, but added other options including new grade 6-12 schools run by external operators. He's improved communications with the city by expanding the office of community engagement.

Since Alonso took over as chief executive of Baltimore City Public Schools three years ago, test scores and enrollment are up, and dropout rates are down.

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