Rhee's necessary toughness

By Richard Whitmire
Saturday, January 22, 2011

Michelle Rhee left her D.C. schools post only a few months ago, but around the country a conventional wisdom has already settled in: Rhee had the right idea but the wrong approach.

The thinking on the former D.C. Public Schools chancellor goes like this: True, she had to focus on teacher and principal quality, but not exclusively. Yes, she had to close underutilized schools, but not without collaborating. Finding a better way to reward teachers was admirable, but not by riling the unions so much.

I've come to think of this conventional wisdom as Michelle Lite. Improving teacher quality, streamlining schools, giving teachers new pay incentives - all good ideas, but only if done gently, quietly, cooperatively.

The broad embrace of Michelle Lite among politicians is understandable. Who can blame them, especially after Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his reelection bid partly, or even mostly, due to unpopular school reforms? Surely there's a more politically palatable path.

Newly elected D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray falls into that camp, as does U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who recently endorsed interim chancellor Kaya Henderson - direct support he never threw Rhee's way. Both are hoping Henderson turns out to be Michelle Lite.

Among school superintendents and union leaders, the Michelle Lite theory is popular for different reasons. The key lesson learned in Washington, they agree, is that you can't fire your way to success. Boosting teacher quality, they say, requires a tempered meshing of improving teacher evaluation and professional development.

All that sounds logical, but worrisome. At least for the urban districts where students are in serious academic trouble - which includes nearly every major city in the country - I wonder if there is a Michelle Lite alternative.

Before researching a book on Rhee's reforms, I was convinced that the path to reform lay far from Rhee's playbook, which called for a relentless push on teacher and principal quality. During Rhee's 3 1/2 years in the District, a third of the principals turned over, mostly a result of firings. She also fired roughly 400 teachers for performance reasons.

Firing teachers and rapidly turning over principals wasn't what I saw as a strategy used by the highest-performing urban school districts when I worked as the project journalist for the 2009 Broad Prize for Urban Education. In districts such as Long Beach, Calif., and Aldine, Tex., teachers well informed by smart professional development carried out sophisticated curriculum reforms. It was inspiring to watch.

Why, I wondered, was I seeing so little of that in Rhee's changes? Through school visits and discussions with education experts familiar with D.C. schools, I discovered the reason: Only about a third of D.C. teachers were capable of carrying out the sophisticated kind of instruction I saw in Long Beach and Aldine. As a result, D.C. schools lagged a good 10 years behind competent urban districts such as those.

Unfortunately, the District is not an outlier on teacher quality. The well-documented decline in the caliber of those aspiring to teach - calculated by SAT scores, grades, scores on certification tests, etc. - has been evident for many years. That phenomenon, a natural offshoot of more attractive career options opening up for the best and brightest women, is somewhat noticeable in well-functioning suburban schools - but glaring in low-performing urban and rural schools.

The result of this long slide in teacher quality can be captured in multiple snapshots: the declining U.S. ranking on international education comparisons (down to middle of the pack), the embarrassing number of military applicants who get rejected (more than one in five does not meet the minimum standards for Army enlistment) and the astonishing rates of those needing remedial classes in college (as high as 40 percent).

When Rhee took over in 2007, D.C. schools were tied with Los Angeles for worst-in-the-nation status. Rhee boosted the District off the cellar floor, with significant gains on the federal "report card," widely considered the gold standard of academic achievement. Those gains came about the hard way, by firing principals and teachers with low expectations, minimal skills as educators or both.

That raises the question: Could Rhee have succeeded with a Michelle Lite approach?

The only solid answer lies in example. Several urban school chiefs are winning applause for carrying out important reforms with more collaborative approaches: in Baltimore, Tampa and Miami, for instance. But their reform packages fall short of what Rhee accomplished in the District. Winners of federal Race to the Top grants are states undertaking admirable school reforms. But I can't identify one state poised to make Rhee-style academic gains.

It's possible that in districts such as Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Kansas City and Dallas, there are no Michelle Lite reforms likely to move student achievement numbers in the direction this country desperately needs to see them move.

And that is what's worrisome about the rush to embrace Michelle Lite school reforms. It may be a warm, fuzzy illusion.

Richard Whitmire, a former president of the National Education Writers Association, is the author of "The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District."

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