Policy Documents

Reformer Rhee Resigns as DC Schools Chief

Ben Boychuk –
October 14, 2010

Michelle Rhee announced her plans Wednesday to step down after three contentious years as chancellor of Washington DC’s embattled public schools.

“I’ve put my blood, sweat and tears into serving the children of DC over the past three and half years,” Rhee said at a press conference, where she was flanked by her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, and her interim replacement, Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Gray defeated Fenty in the city’s Democratic primary in September.

“Thought of not being here is heartbreaking, to put it mildly,” she said. Rhee praised Fenty’s leadership and lauded Gray for his continued commitment to reform.

Rhee leaves on Oct. 31. She says she has no immediate plans, but expressed a desire to promote school reform around the country.

Fired Teachers, Raised Funds
Appointed by Fenty in 2007, Rhee attempted to turn around a public school system where student test scores were among the worst in the United States and the high school dropout rate topped 50 percent.

Rhee introduced new school-level data-collection systems to track teacher performance, gave underperforming teachers an ultimatum to improve their results, and fired more than 1,000 teachers and principals when they failed to do so. Rhee also closed 21 failing schools and raised more than $65 million from private philanthropy for an experimental merit pay program.

Rhee’s robust reform efforts won her many admirers across the country—including Oprah Winfrey, who hailed Rhee in September as “a warrior woman for our time.” Rhee appears as one of the heroes in Davis Guggenheim’s recent school-reform documentary, Waiting for “Superman.”

‘Sadder, Wiser and Undeterred’
Rhee’s reforms also embittered some parents and community activist groups, and enraged the Washington Teachers Union. Unions, including the American Federation of Teachers, spent $1 million supporting Gray’s primary challenge to unseat Fenty.

Among city residents’ criticisms were that Rhee did not always consult teachers and parents when closing schools, and that she generally did not solicit as much community input as they would have liked. 

“I think the most interesting development in K-12 policy over the last ten years has been ‘the Rise of the Cool Kids,’” which include Teach for America alumni, Democratic philanthropists, and several foundations, said Matthew Ladner, vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. “It is telling that the Obama Administration is at pains to align itself with the Cool Kids rather than the unions. Waiting for ‘Superman’ captures the zeitgeist quite well.”

Calling Rhee “the champion of the Cool Kids,” Ladner says she took on a difficult job with “laudable zeal.”

“I suspect that Rhee and her allies and admirers are sadder, wiser and undeterred,” he said.

Advanced Tenure Reform
Although student test scores did rise during Rhee’s tenure as chancellor, she will likely be remembered more for her confrontational relationship with the WTU and the new teachers contract she successfully negotiated earlier this year.

The contract includes a pilot merit pay program that would reward teachers for growth in student test scores. Principals may also use performance evaluations to decide whether and how to cut staffing.

Teachers also won a 21.6 percent salary increase through 2012. The average teacher’s salary will rise to $81,000 from $67,000, with senior teachers earning more than $100,000 a year.

“Rhee has put tenure reform high on the national agenda for the foreseeable future,” said Greg Forster, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. “Lots of people are talking about it, but these things don’t get traction until someone somewhere is fighting to actually implement them.”

“I don’t think we’ll see serious tenure reform in the next couple years. These things take time,” Forster said. “But the countdown to victory doesn’t even start ticking until somebody makes the first big effort. Rhee started the clock.”
 
Legacy as Reformer
Ladner says Rhee’s tenure reform proposals are well worth studying, but adds her own tenure was brief. He also praised DC’s strong gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress under steady pressure of losing about a third of their students to charter schools.

“That pressure will not be going away, even if Rhee is,” Ladner said. “It remains to be seen what if anything she will leave in the way of a legacy once her successor takes the reins.”

Lance Izumi, Koret Senior Fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in Sacramento, praised Rhee for firing low-performing principals and pushing for merit pay, along with her “fearlessness in taking on the teachers union, the bureaucracy, and the failing status quo.”

“Her resignation is unfortunate because it shows how, at least in the short run, the power of the special interests can defeat reform,” Izumi said. “But I think this may be a pyrrhic victory for the unions and the rest of the blob.”

Lisa Snell, director of Education and Child Welfare for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, says Rhee’s biggest legacy is “making it safe for other education leaders and superintendents to start questioning the status quo about how we hire, fire, and retain teachers in the United States.”

“This genie is not going back in the bottle and although we have a long way to go, the teaching profession is changing and the unions are no longer free from scrutiny,” Snell said.
 
“I believe Chancellor Rhee was very successful in eliminating inept DCPS administrators and principals who have for years been an impediment to any reform efforts,” said Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice. “I believe her legacy will be that she tried to do what was necessary to keep the focus on what was best for the children. In the midst of great controversy, her support for DC Opportunity Scholarship Program was commendable.”

“I think DC is losing a real education champion and tremendous advocate for putting the interests of children ahead of the desires of adults,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis.

Enlow says Rhee’s accomplishments after three years should “embolden other reformers.”

“Although her departure shows the difficulties of working inside a system that is fraught with political uncertainty, she proved that it is possible to take on the unions and get real concessions,” Enlow said. “I hope her tenure and its impact will spell the end for the unions.”

Unfinished Business
Rhee had often told interviewers she viewed the overhaul of DC’s public schools as a long-term project, likely stretching across two four-year mayoral terms. Rhee also said Washington would be her one and only school superintendent’s job.

“Rhee was overhyped in the sense that reformers need to put broad systemic reforms in place, like the DC charter law, in addition to strong leaders,” Ladner said. “Rhee lasted approximately the average tenure for an urban superintendent. Leaders come and go, but the struggle for reform goes on.”

“Rhee was not overhyped,” said Forster. “What was overhyped was the whole heroic reformer model that says the system can work as long as we put the right people in charge of it.”

“Now we know that if you ever really do get the right people in charge of it, the unions just pull out all the stops to destroy those people,” he said. “We need to change the system in a way that breaks the unions, and only universal school choice can do that.”
 
Snell agreed, calling Rhee’s tenure “a cautionary tale” against relying to heavily on one strong individual rather than legal and structural reforms.

“Charter schools are a case in point,” Snell explained. “While there are many charismatic charter school leaders, these schools still only thrive in states where the laws make it easier to open a charter school.”

But Walden Ford, a DC mother of three, sounded optimistic. “My hope and the hope of all reformers is that the good work that has been done to improve schools will be continued under the next administration,” she said. “We have seen positive changes and I do not think DC leaders will allow things to go backwards.”

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@heartland.org) is managing editor of School Reform News. Rick Docksai contributed to this story.