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Michelle Rhee outspoken to the end of her tenure as D.C. schools chancellor

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 11:18 PM

She is D.C. schools chancellor for just one more day, but that didn't stop Michelle A. Rhee from issuing one last warning Thursday, this one to ineffective teachers and the undergraduate education programs that granted them degrees.

"Now we have a new teacher evaluation system where we know who's ineffective, minimally effective and highly effective," she told a hotel ballroom filled with educators attending a College Board forum. "We're going to back-map where they came from, which schools produced these people. And if you are producing ineffective or minimally effective teachers, we're going to send them back to you."

Rhee is exiting the District much as she entered it more than three years ago: outspoken, impatient, apparently indifferent to the kind of tension and pushback that most in her line of work labor to avoid. What she did here, and how she did it, will be debated for years. But her signature contribution, many supporters and detractors say, was a change in the conversation.

Rhee added a new urgency and righteous anger to the school reform movement, one that she will now take to a national platform. She asked how the District could compile an abysmal academic record and yet rate most of their teachers as meeting or exceeding expectations. She decreed that poverty was no longer a reason for expecting less of a child in Anacostia than one in Tenleytown.

"Whether her way of getting there was the best or only way is an open question. That expectations have changed is not," said Matthew Frumin, father of a ninth-grader at Woodrow Wilson High School. "In that sense, with all the controversy, the city gained and learned from Michelle Rhee. And, one would think that Michelle Rhee learned from the city."

Although many of her achievements come with asterisks and caveats, by any standard Rhee improved a school system that was among the nation's worst.

District and national standardized test scores improved. Enrollment stabilized and began to edge upward for the first time in nearly four decades. A detailed new framework of guidelines gave teachers and principals across the system a common language with which to discuss effective classroom practices. A rigorous new evaluation system began to hold some teachers accountable for student test scores.

Rhee, meanwhile, shrank the system from 150 schools to 123, closing ones with low enrollment. She winnowed a top-heavy central office staff from 900 to fewer than 600, pushing some of the savings down into the classrooms. She overhauled the system's school leadership, filling 91 principals' openings created by firings, resignations and retirements, according to a Washington Post analysis. She revamped a teaching corps that she said had too many ineffective practitioners, terminating or laying off nearly 700, at least 120 for poor performance.

Along the way, Rhee attempted to re-create the instructional staff at least partly in her image, turning over more than half of the city's 4,200 teaching jobs. She filled many of them with young educators who share her core belief that good teaching can help children prevail over poverty and other barriers beyond the classroom. Many of the 2,600 new educators hired on her watch (an unknown number of whom are already gone through the usual attrition) came from alternative training programs in which she and her senior staff have their roots: Teach for America and DC Teaching Fellows.

And although it took more than two years and a mediator, she secured a contract with the Washington Teachers' Union that gives principals new freedom to pick and choose teachers who were once guaranteed jobs in the system when their positions were "excessed," or eliminated by budget or enrollment issues. It also establishes a pay-for-performance system that links compensation to student achievement, something long resisted by teachers unions.

But there is a fragility to the changes Rhee has wrought. Elementary reading and math scores dipped in 2010 after two years of gains. Testing data also show that efforts to narrow the achievement gap separating white and African American students stalled this year. Many schools remain deeply troubled; 12 percent of sophomores at Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington are proficient in math, 17 percent in reading. At Johnson Middle School in Southeast, 14 percent of the students are proficient in reading and 14 percent in math.

Enrollment, another success story, also comes with questions. It's not clear whether the gains, mostly at the preschool and pre-kindergarten levels, mean that the system is actually capturing a larger proportion of school-age children or merely benefiting from mini-baby booms in some D.C. neighborhoods.

Miguel Rosario, who is a parent at Watkins Elementary on Capitol Hill but lives in Ward 8, said schools in his neighborhood have felt the churn of Rhee's changes but received little benefit. "Principal after principal, security company after security company, a little touch-up paint, but the bathrooms are still the same. The children are not being educated," he said.

The changes also came, as Rhee now acknowledges, without a successful attempt to build a base of support that gave residents ownership of the changes.

"We made a ton of mistakes," she said Thursday. "I thought, very naively, that if we just put our heads down and we worked hard and produced the results, people would be so happy that they would want to continue the work. We were absolutely incorrect about that."

Other stakeholders said they appreciated Rhee's attempts at reaching out. "I think she tried to engage the parents," said Lisa Barton, former PTA president at Ballou Senior High School, from which her daughter graduated last spring. "I would have liked her to stay. I felt like she was doing something good."

Rhee's difficulties were compounded by questionable management and maladroit sense of public relations, embodied most notoriously in her broom-wielding Time magazine cover of December 2008.

A week after a triumphal announcement of a breakthrough contract last April, she touched off a furor that nearly scuttled the deal, first by disclosing that she discovered a $34 million surplus in the school system budget earlier in the year - just four months after laying off 266 teachers for budgetary reasons. That led to a lengthy public scuffle over how to pay for the pact with D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, who said no such surplus existed.

With teachers still raw from the layoffs, she told a business magazine that an unspecified number of the sacked educators "had had sex" with students or had engaged in corporal punishment. When she produced the actual numbers, they were tiny: one accused sexual predator and five disciplined for corporal punishment.

"It's been one explosion after another," said Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker. "I thought she would know when enough had been said. I thought she would understand the power of words."

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