Rhee's successor escapes her shadow; challenges remain

By Bill Turque
Saturday, January 29, 2011

A picture of Michelle A. Rhee, from a recent Newsweek cover, hangs above Interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's desk. It shows her outspoken mentor and friend seated at an old-style classroom desk, smiling.

"It's the Michelle Rhee I know," Henderson said, "and it reminds me of how far we've come on education reform."

Yet, as she seeks to build on Rhee's accomplishments, Henderson faces challenges as daunting as the ones her predecessor did when she arrived in 2007. Some are as basic as seeing through a controversial new teacher evaluation system, managing severe budgetary pressures and finally developing citywide curriculums for reading, math and other subjects.

But more broadly, newly elected Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has made clear that he expects Henderson to push ahead with reforming one of the nation's lowest-performing school systems without provoking the furious community backlash that hastened the end of the Rhee era.

"It's not going to be good enough for Henderson to take what Michelle Rhee did and run with it," said Mark Simon, a parent at School Without Walls, former president of the Montgomery County teachers union and a member of Gray's education transition team.

Simon said Henderson must contend with teachers still seething at what they view as disrespectful and insensitive treatment from Rhee, an issue crystallized by an earlier magazine cover, from 2008, that pictured Rhee with a broom and a frown. "You couldn't replace all the people that despise what she did in the name of reform," Simon said.

Since becoming interim chancellor after Rhee's abrupt departure in October, Henderson has brought a more naturally accessible style to the job. At meetings around town, her entrance often comes with a broad smile and a round of hugs. "She wasn't a hugger," Henderson said of her predecessor.

Some skeptics have already suggested that Henderson is simply "Rhee-light." But friends say those who who doubt her toughness, or her resolve to preserve Rhee's emphasis on teacher quality and accountability, are underestimating Henderson.

"People are just starting to learn about her because she was under such a shadow with Michelle Rhee," said Jacques Patterson, chairman of the Ward 8 Democrats and project director at the Federal City Council, an influential group of business and civic leaders active in education reform. "Kaya is very focused, very clear-thinking and knows where she wants to go. She can be as hard-charging as Michelle Rhee, but she won't be a bull in a china shop, breaking china."

Focus on priorities

Among the trickiest immediate challenges is instituting IMPACT, the teacher evaluation system ranked among Rhee's signature moves. The system ties teacher pay, in part, to student performance on standardized tests and makes it easier to dismiss those rated as poor performers.

IMPACT has won the devotion of many education reformers and the disdain of teachers unions, who worked hard to defeat Rhee's political patron, former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). But it was not just the union leadership that has rejected IMPACT. School officials disclosed this week that 40 percent of the 636 teachers judged "highly effective" under IMPACT declined the performance bonuses because they involved waiving certain job protections.

The fiscal picture Henderson has inherited, meanwhile, is likely to require increased class sizes and, possibly, furloughs and layoffs, both at the school level and in the central office. Despite a systemwide enrollment that stabilized last year after decades of decline, the District still has under-populated schools that could face closure in the next couple of years.

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