Gray must prove he can continue school reform without Rhee

The Washington Post's Robert McCartney talks about the resignation of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the legacy she leaves and her interim replacement, Kaya Henderson.
By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 12:03 AM

'Twere well it were done quickly," Macbeth said as he pondered assassinating the king.

If Michelle Rhee had to go, then we should be grateful that she's departing sooner rather than later.

The uncertainty over the job status of the schools chancellor risked being a drag on the whole city, especially as Vincent Gray, the District's presumptive next mayor, works to get his new administration off to a strong start.

Now that the distraction is over and it's decided that Rhee will leave by the end of the month, Gray and his team must turn their focus to finding ways to keep pushing school reform forward without her. He said repeatedly during the primary campaign that fixing the schools was too important to depend on just one person. Now he's got to prove it.

No task is more critical for the District's future. I've heard more than half a dozen District parents say they were thinking of moving to Montgomery County because of the prospect that the city's schools would worsen if Rhee left.

The task is vital as well for the national education reform movement, which Rhee has done so much to publicize. Rhee has made the District's schools perhaps the country's most visible example of the effort to improve urban schools, whether by replacing poor teachers, raising expectations for neglected kids or ensuring that classes opened on time at summer's end with enough books for everyone.

The nation, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Oprah Winfrey, will be watching and judging whether Gray can make good on his pledges to continue the progress but with kinder, gentler tactics that don't alienate so many teachers and parents.

Although we don't know much about how the decision was reached over Rhee's departure, some of the available details are encouraging. Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who takes over as interim head of the system at least until June, has three big things going for her: She has been working directly for Rhee and so can help ensure continuity. She is said to be more diplomatic than Rhee. And she gets along well with Gray.

Also, many other top staff people recruited by Rhee are apparently planning to remain, at least for a while.

I had hoped that Gray and Rhee might find a way to work together for the sake of stability in the schools and unity in the city. As Rhee knows as well as anybody, it takes a lot longer than the three years she's been in Washington to turn around a troubled school system.

In retrospect, that was unrealistic.

First, it's not at all clear that Rhee was willing to stay and work for a mayor who was unlikely to give her a completely free hand, as Adrian Fenty did. Rhee's strongest supporters say she's very impatient. She would have chafed at accepting oversight, even though Gray pledges not to micromanage education.

Doubtless Rhee was worried as well that she couldn't be effective given that Gray was elected with strong backing from Rhee's nemesis, the Washington Teachers' Union.

Moreover, Gray had his own interest in seeing Rhee go. Her departure is an enormous political relief for him, as most of his supporters were strongly against her. Although he consistently said in the campaign that he wouldn't promise to fire her, much of his political base would have felt betrayed if he kept her.

Rhee's legacy here, brief though it is, will probably be debated for years. Much of the national media, which made her a heroine, will portray her as a martyr to her principles. In this version of history, Rhee did what was necessary to fix the schools in Washington, only to see her boss ousted by ungrateful voters who just couldn't stomach the price of progress. Rhee has shown signs of promoting that narrative.

That's only part of the story. As I wrote in my column Thursday, Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso has retained popular support even while doing many of the same unpalatable things as Rhee, including dismissing teachers and closing schools. Gray has got to hope he can find someone like Alonso who delivers Rhee-like results without leaving half the community feeling bulldozed.

As she steps down from her job, though, let's give Rhee her due. Nobody has done more to embed in people's minds the aspirations that schools should top on the District's agenda, that progress needs to be achieved now, and that some pain must be borne in the process. For some time to come, that will be a yardstick by which we measure performance of chancellors and mayors alike.

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