The hard work isn't over in reforming D.C. schools

The Post's Jo-Ann Armao speaks with Vincent Gray, the presumptive mayor-elect of Washington, D.C., about what keeps him up at night and how he hopes to bring financial and education reform to the city.
Thursday, October 14, 2010

MICHELLE A. Rhee's decision to step down as D.C. schools chancellor brings to an end a tumultuous 3 1/2 years in which the city's public schools underwent unprecedented change and unqualified improvement. Whether the important work she started will continue is now in the hands of Vincent C. Gray, whose victory over Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in the Democratic primary made her departure inevitable. That Ms. Rhee and Mr. Gray mutually agreed to a transition that leaves the chancellor's well-respected leadership team in place is a hopeful, albeit still early, sign.

"The best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside," said Ms. Rhee at Wednesday's news conference announcing that she will leave at the end of the month. It was acknowledgment that uncertainty over her future was fast becoming a distraction that ill served the interests of the school system. And it was clear that -- no matter the public pronouncements -- Ms. Rhee and Mr. Gray were never going to be compatible, given their clashes and differing styles. If Mr. Gray had wanted her to stay, he would have said so. As disappointed as we are by Ms. Rhee's departure, we respect Mr. Gray's prerogative to have as his chancellor someone of his choosing in whom he has confidence.

Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson, a longtime aide to Ms. Rhee who shares her vision for school reform, will serve as interim chancellor. In addition, largely at Ms. Rhee's urging, most of the system's top school managers agreed to stay on until at least the end of the school year. That should be a relief to the parents worried about possible upheaval in their children's schooling.

Enormous attention, of course, will now focus on Mr. Gray and what he will do when, as expected, he is sworn in as mayor in January. Will Mr. Gray, for example, give Ms. Henderson the kind of backing and support that Mr. Fenty gave Ms. Rhee? He's already raised questions about the system's rigorous new evaluation system; what will happen to the hundreds of underperforming teachers who have been put on notice to improve or be fired? He has said he doesn't want to turn the clock back on reform, but he's raised the possibility of undoing some of Ms. Rhee's controversial decisions. Most important, whom will he select as Ms. Rhee's permanent successor?

We worry that there's a tendency by some to think that most of the hard work of school reform has been accomplished. Ms. Rhee did much of the heavy lifting that her predecessors either avoided or were dissuaded from taking on -- from cleaning out the central office to closing underutilized schools to setting high standards to demanding accountability. New resources went into refurbished schools, and the results were seen in higher student test scores, better graduation rates and, for the first time in decades, an increase in student enrollment. Ms. Rhee's successor will inherit a teacher contract centered, for the first time, on advancing the interests of children. But despite these strides, a majority of D.C. students are still woefully deficient in even the most basics of reading and math. The system is still inadequate, and it will take someone as fearless as Ms. Rhee to continue her work.

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