In her nearly three-and-a-half years as chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee brought waves of changes to the school system’s central office. She shrank it by a third, hired a new team of instructional superintendents to help principals improve school performance, and established a “rapid response team” to deal expeditiously with parent concerns.
But in describing the experience to an audience of American University students Wednesday evening, Rhee left the impression that that the central office remained unresponsive, obstructive and contemptuous of parents, teachers and students.
“You know, I used to walk through the central office all the time and I’d see people who picked up the phone and it was parents who had questions. And they literally looked like they could not be more annoyed to be answering that question,” Rhee told a packed auditorium at the Ward Building after a screening of “Waiting for Superman.”
The comment was part of an extended answer recounting the ills of the DCPS bureaucracy. “Having run a large public school system, I can tell you that a lot of things the District does make absolutely no sense whatsoever. And so it was an incredibly frustrating environment for a high-performing, motivated principal or teacher to work in, often times. Part of what I tried to do when I came into the system was to give some autonomy, some freedom and flexibility to those schools that were doing well. What the central office was doing was making their lives harder. I thought the best thing I can do is just get out of their way. Let’s stop putting all of these bureaucratic things in place where they have to come to this meeting on truancy when they have 98 percent daily attendance. So I think it’s important for the central office of a school district to understand that their job is not to lord over schools and tell them what to do. Their job is to be in service of schools, the families the children. And that’s so counter to what the current culture is.”
Rhee has been traveling the country building support for her new political lobbying organization, StudentsFirst, and speaking out on her favorite issues: tougher teacher evaluation systems that tie assessment to student growth, and an end to tenure and seniority-based layoffs. Other points she made during an hour of questions:
Her Baltimore teaching career. Rhee did not address recently renewed scrutiny of the claim on her resume that after two years 90 percent of her students scored at the 90th percentile or higher. She said only that her three years at Harlem Park Elementary was the transformative experience of her life, and that her students’ academic achievement “grew significantly.”
On criticism that “value-added” models of teacher evaluation have too much margin of error. Rhee said that while value-added may be imperfect, traditional teacher evaluations, which often involve a quick look by a school principal, are clearly dysfunctional. “The question is, we don’t have the perfect model, do we just stay with the really crappy model or do we move towards what we know right now is the best thing we have? Even with all of the research that will tell you there are certainly some issues with the value added growth model. It will also tell you that it is the best measurement we have right now”.
On No Child Behind unfairly branding some schools as failing because they miss AYP. “A lot of what you hear is this stuff about these schools that are rated as failing schools and that’s demoralizing and so we demoralize people and make them feel like failures because the schools that are rated failing. But they are failing. You have to call a spade a spade.”
On charter schools and whether they hurt traditional public systems. “I don’t think that charter schools take away at all from a school system. For example here in D.C. because the charter school sector had grown so rapidly and kids were leaving en masse to go to the charter system, that absolutely provided some of the leverage the mayor needed to take over control of the schools. I think the competition and the dynamic they’ve created is a positive one.”