New DC Schools Chancellor Presses Strong Reform Agenda

Published December 1, 2008

Turning around America’s public schools is one of the litany of promises every ambitious politician makes en route to Washington, DC. But on Capitol Hill itself, the woman charged with turning around the worst urban schools in America carries herself less like a politician than a pugilist.

After just one year in the newly created office of “chancellor” of District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Michelle Rhee has fired and replaced almost 50 principals—including the one at her own child’s school—along with dismissing 93 members of the central office staff.

Of the 144 schools she took command of last year, 21 are already history. That number is expected to grow.

Multiple Protests

Needless to say, Rhee’s reign of terror has left many former employees gnashing their teeth. At 37, Rhee, a Korean-American, has been accused of racism, sexism, and ageism by the principals union. Other protests complained the terminations, which took the form of letters stating the recipients’ contracts would not be renewed, didn’t even offer explanations.

Rhee’s response to this criticism was summary: “Both principals and assistant principals serve at the will of the chancellor.”

Speaking to the media in September at a luncheon in Washington, DC, Rhee opened with a humorous promise to disregard her advisors.

“Today I have several staff members with me, because they’re absolutely terrified that I’ll come to the National Press Club and actually do what I normally do, which is speak my mind about things,” Rhee said.

No Quarter

Rhee then went on to detail why what she called “the four Cs”—cooperation, collaboration, consensus-building, and compromise—are overrated. An example is her unwillingness to compromise with the Washington Teachers Union (WTU).

“When you are talking about a contract or a collective-bargaining agreement that has provisions in it that I do not believe are in the best interests of children, then I refuse to sign my name,” Rhee said. “This is me being absolutely unwilling to compromise when it comes to the rights and futures of our kids.”

Performance-Based Pay

At the center of her struggle with WTU is a groundbreaking effort to change how Washington pays its teachers. Favoring a performance-based compensation package of salary and bonuses over the existing one, Rhee has devised a two-tiered plan under which teachers could opt to earn up to $131,000 annually—in many cases more than twice as much as they currently earn. First, though, they would be required to relinquish tenure and prove themselves during a one-year probationary period. Rhee has dubbed this option the “green tier.”

Alternatively, current teachers could choose the more traditional “red tier,” which wouldn’t offer the same increases in compensation but would include current tenure protections. New hires would not have this option, so eventually tenure protections would be phased out. Irrespective of their chosen tier, the chancellor says, all DCPS teachers would receive a minimum raise of 28 percent.

If implemented, the new contract would be the first of its kind nationwide, and Rhee already has made clear her willingness to bypass WTU to get what she wants. At stake are two of the primary mechanisms by which she believes DCPS’s abysmal performance can be reversed—empowering principals to fire ineffective teachers and attracting better teachers by increasing compensation.

Rhee’s union-proof ace in the hole, officially named “Plan B,” will use a seldom-enforced provision already on the books to place underperforming teachers under a 90-day performance review. DCPS principals have been asked to prepare and submit lists of their underperforming teachers immediately.

Creative Solutions

Another weapon could soon be added to the chancellor’s arsenal. The DC Superintendent of Education, Deborah Gist, has suggested changing how DC teachers are licensed. Her proposal would make current licenses nonrenewable and require a probationary period in order to earn the new license.

Backed by Gist and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee has made no secret of her leverage in contractual negotiations with WTU.

“The contract is the way that I would prefer to go,” Rhee said. “But if we can’t get to agreement on the contract, there’s another very clear way that we can get there. The bottom line is we are going to bring accountability in a very significant way to the educator force in this school district.”

Accountability will not solve everything, Rhee says, so she is encouraging an array of outside-the-box solutions for students coming from dysfunctional homes and destitute neighborhoods.

After-School Programs

Among them, the new Capital Gains program pays students for attendance, good grades, and proper behavior. Another program, initiated last year at Raymond Elementary School, where performance in critical skills was suffering, utilizes every member of the school staff—teachers, administrators, counselors, and custodians—in order to tutor students after hours. In the past year, math and reading scores jumped 32 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

“I love the after-school programs,” said Danielle Holloman, a grateful mother of a Raymond student. “Thanks to all the staff for all they do. They go beyond the call of duty.”

Nonetheless, the problems ahead cannot be shrugged off. Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Education placed DCPS on its list of schools and districts at “high risk” of losing Title I federal funding based on “numerous accountability issues.” It now stands alone among all the school systems in the nation on that list.

Rhee, who in July axed 750 underqualified teachers and paraprofessionals, managed to bring DCPS into compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act this year—an important step toward meeting federal accountability mandates.

Forging Ahead

Facing federal threats, at loggerheads with the unions, sued by angry ex-employees, and overseeing a decrepit and crumbling educational empire, the chancellor remains emphatically determined.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Rhee said during her September press luncheon. “I’m extraordinarily confident that we have everything it will take to turn this into the highest-performing urban school district in the country.”

Two things are certain: Rhee is not the type to make idle threats or empty promises, and until DC’s schools begin to shape up, the heads will keep rolling.

Matthew Bishop ([email protected]) is the National Journalism Center Fellow at The American Spectator in Washington, DC.