Michelle Rhee will leave plenty of unfinished business in D.C.

Controversial D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee will announce her resignation on Wednesday, nearly four years after she was brought in by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to improve the city's languishing public education system.
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 11:34 PM

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee often said that she viewed the overhaul of the D.C. public schools as a task that would stretch across two four-year mayoral terms and that she was prepared to see it through.

"I'm a serial monogamist, not a job hopper," she said over breakfast in June 2008, citing the 10 years she spent running the New Teacher Project, the nonprofit group she founded before coming to the District.

The defeat of Rhee's political benefactor, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), abruptly curtailed that scenario. But embedded in planning documents, speeches and D.C. Council testimony is the unfinished business of the Fenty-Rhee era. Some of it remains obvious and beyond dispute.

Like Fenty and Rhee, presumptive mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray and interim chancellor Kaya Henderson want rising test scores, a narrowing achievement gap, improved teacher quality, expanding enrollment and higher graduation rates.

But some of the key strategies for reaching those goals are now in limbo. Whether Gray will allow Henderson - a top Rhee deputy - to pursue the unfinished business with complete fidelity remains to be seen.

Here are some key issues to watch:

"Minimally effective" teachers. During the past school year, more than 700 D.C. teachers received scores that placed them in the minimally effective range on the new IMPACT teacher evaluation system, a signature initiative of the Rhee era. Under the rules as they stand, teachers who don't show sufficient improvement can be dismissed. IMPACT remains unpopular with many teachers, who regard it as rigid and confusing. Gray, who received support from the Washington Teachers' Union, has expressed ambivalence about the evaluation system. Come next summer, he'll face the prospect of a mass firings, which were politically calamitous for Fenty. Or he could press Henderson to slow the process down.

Expanded use of standardized tests. Only math and reading teachers in grades 4 through 8 (about 18 percent of the city's teaching corps) are subject to the "value added" method of evaluation. Fifty percent of their IMPACT evaluations are tied to the annual growth of their students on the annual DC-CAS exams. Rhee envisioned expanding the use of standardized tests so that every student from kindergarten through 12th grade generates "value added" data.

The additional tests, which were to be phased in gradually starting next spring, would cover English language arts and math in kindergarten through second grade, math "pre-testing" in third grade before the DC-CAS, social studies and science in grades 6 through 8 and core subjects in high school.

Such a move would almost certainly reignite the debate over whether modern education reform has grown overly focused on testing. It would also expand an approach that teachers unions vehemently oppose as a basis for important personnel decisions.

Chartering authority. Rhee and Fenty have long discussed the idea of giving the D.C. school system the authority to close failing public schools and reopen them as public charter schools - publicly funded but operated autonomously by independent boards. Chartering authority now rests solely with the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which inherited the power from the now- defunct D.C. Board of Education.

Rhee has brought charter operators into the city system to run troubled schools, such as Anacostia High School and Stanton Elementary. But they remain essentially D.C. public schools, operated under the same union and personnel rules as other schools in the system. One top Fenty official said many of the country's top charter operators are reluctant to enter into a "turnaround" project without complete control.

Rhee has long talked about a robust "portfolio" of schools that offer a range of specialties and educational styles. Chartering power would be a part of that vision. It might also set Gray at odds with the union, which would probably lose jobs and membership if public schools reopened as public charters.

Special education. The District made some progress under Fenty and Rhee in serving its most vulnerable and medically fragile students. While much of the District's special education apparatus remains under federal court supervision, Rhee and deputy chancellor Richard Nyankori significantly reduced the backlog of unimplemented hearing officer decisions to provide services to special needs students.

But the District still spends more than $250 million a year on tuition and transportation for students placed in private schools because the city cannot meet their needs. Rhee faced a huge challenge in building the capacity of the public school system to accommodate those students. That challenge now belongs to Gray, and for the time being, Henderson.

Secondary school "transformation." Rhee often said that what kept her up at night was the condition of the city's neighborhood high schools and many of its middle schools. Those schools have been the most lightly touched by the three years of reform, and before the primary election, Rhee was beginning to turn her attention to the secondary level. She had opened a special Office of Secondary School Transformation and had been working with elementary school parents in Ward 6 to expand their middle school options. Rhee also planned to open a middle school arts magnet, an idea that Gray has repeatedly criticized. Its fate is anyone's guess.

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