Michelle Rhee Resigns: What’s in store for DC schools now?

The sudden resignation of Michelle Rhee actually makes perfect sense.  It was inevitable, so why wait around?  It’s easy to imagine Ms. Rhee coming to that conclusion once she recognized that she and the next Mayor, Vincent Gray, would not be able to work together the way she did with the current Mayor, Adrian Fenty.

Michelle Rhee ResignsWhat happens next in Washington is the big story, although most of the attention will be on Ms. Rhee. She’s a national figure, subject of much speculation. Will she go to California if Meg Whitman wins the gubernatorial race?  What about New Jersey?  Iowa?  Funny how the Republicans love her to death now, even though she was chosen by an ardent Democrat and has been praised to the skies by President Obama.

We’ve followed Ms. Rhee closely during the three plus years she’s been in Washington, airing a total of 12 segments on PBS NewsHour about the changes she’s made there. Scores and enrollment are up locally, but, make no mistake about it, she also has altered the national conversation about how teachers are paid and evaluated.  No one can defend the current system, which bases everything on years in the classroom and number of graduate credits, as appropriate or rational.  That approach is history, even though it may take years for it to be removed for good.

What is going to replace the old way is now the question. “How much of a teacher’s pay should be based on student performance?” is now the question, not “should it be?”   Yet to be determined is how a teacher’s performance will be measured, but whether it will be is no longer open to debate. For this sea change, Michelle Rhee gets the lion’s share of the credit (or the blame, if you’re hanging on to the comfortable past).

But back to Washington, where I think her reforms could be undercut. She imposed a rating system, IMPACT, that many teachers hate, even though it is less subjective than the old way (in which the principal or assistant principal visited the class once or twice and wrote a report–that was it!).  Under IMPACT, each teacher is visited, observed and graded five times, with two of those observations made by people who don’t work in the school.  On a scale of 1-4, a rating of 1 means goodbye, and a rating of 2 puts a teacher on notice.

But that system is susceptible to dilution and even subversion, if the new permanent Chancellor, whoever that may be, is not committed to it.  We have student grade inflation in our classrooms, so it’s easy to imagine it creeping into teacher evaluation.  Remember that the under the current system, more than 95% of teachers—nationally–are given high ratings, even though most students barely score at a basic level. That could happen to IMPACT.

Michelle Rhee streamlined the DC school bureaucracy and closed nearly two dozen schools. Those changes will be hard to overturn. The next Mayor has pledged to review the dismissals of any teachers let go because of the economy, but it’s unlikely that he will attempt to rehire those teachers Ms. Rhee dismissed for cause.

And the ground-breaking contract that was signed this spring, minimizing the power of seniority?  While the press reported it as a 5-year contract, we should remember that it was retroactive for nearly three years, meaning that it has less than two years to run.  In other words, negotiations for a new contract will begin next year, and I will bet dollars to doughnuts that the union leadership will attempt to water that down.  If Ms. Rhee were staying, that contract’s provisions would not be diluted.  Now what happens next is anyone’s guess, until we see just how strong Vincent Gray’s commitment is. After all, he won with the strong support of the teachers union, and it could be payback time.

Stay tuned….

(Photo credit: Robyn Twomey for TIME)

13 thoughts on “Michelle Rhee Resigns: What’s in store for DC schools now?

  1. Dear John,

    While I have enjoyed and respect your programs for the attention they provide to one of the most pressing issues facing our democracy (how we educate or mis-educate our children), the tone of your praise for Ms. Rhee’s reforms in DC strikes me unusually partisan and frankly short-sighted, given the lack of evidence that these reforms actually improve student LEARNING (as opposed to test scores).

    To me, what is sorely lacking from your shows on US education reforms is a comparative perspective, including how other countries or states in the US tackle the education issue. Why is it that Singapore or Korea or Finland do so much better on international measures of student mastery (TIMMS or PISA), or that Massachusetts when measured as a state-nation performs about 4th in the world, despite a union density rate that is at least similar to DC or New Orleans? Or take Connecticut, which is also regarded quite favorably in terms of student success and yet has high levels of union density amongst its teacher corps. Perhaps that is evidence enough that teacher’s unions are not necessarily the main problem here? Perhaps it has more to do with how teachers are trained; how curriculum is developed and assessed; how equally or unequally school funding is distributed; how equally or unequally parental level of education is distributed within the state, etc!

    In other words, quit focusing on “to Rhee or not to Rhee” and get down to the much deeper issues affecting the disparity in student performance across our country.


    Michael Baum
    University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth


  2. Baum’s point is pragmatic and expansive. We must at a minimum understand why the countries that succeed have teachers that succeed.


  3. One of my great frustrations over the years has been my inability to raise funds to do the kind of international reporting Michael Baum writes of. The Singapore story is particularly compelling because it has turned its back on its old test-driven approach. As I understand it, the attempt to make a 180 degree turn is working in about half the schools, but resistance is great. Ironically, the US is trying to emulate the old Singapore way–maybe not aware of what’s really going on there.


  4. Bloomberg in NYC will hire Ms. Rhee since we are back to failing with a 28-30% drop in State scores in elementary school this year. New York State revised its scoring rubric and all the gains of the past decade have been wiped out The Race to the top with Charter schools, small school, more tests, college-bound mania, and more and more metrics is out of gas, and we are ready to blame the teacher once again. At least when we can target the experienced, high paid teachers with IMPACT, money can be saved to pay these consultants for a zero sum gain.
    Instead, we should take a radical course of action: change the curriculum by empowering the teacher in a supportive. Stop paying consultant who slash and burn and provide teacher-initiated , incentive grants to build programs and bring appropriate supplies and equipment that match the teachers and students intertests and abilities- similar to the Perkins’ grant funding the national Career and Technical Education movement. The Race to the Top should begin with small steps rather than leaps of organization reform


  5. Having spent a fair amount of time in Japan, Israel and some other countries, I want to urge caution in making international comparisons. There are many differences among countries. Picking out one factor generally misses important points.

    For example. Some people are focusing on the fact that Finland, a high performing country, has strong teacher unions. It does.

    Finland also has a much more extensive, high quality early childhood program, a much more efficient health care system, higher taxes, and considerably less diversity than the US.

    Japan has strong teacher unions, a longer school year, a longer school day, a national curriculum, and a very high stakes national examination. It also has the “Confucian culture” which strong promotes and honors academic achievement. Meanwhile, students who succeed in school are regarded as “nerds” in the US.

    So asserting that one or two factors from another country, transplanted to the US, will produce higher achievement, seems to me to be unwise. We should study other countries, sure.

    But I think we’ll learn as much, or more, from studying and applying lessons from high performing district and charter public schools in the US.


  6. John, you wrote, referring to the current pay teacher schedule, ” No one can defend the current system, which bases everything on years in the classroom and number of graduate credits, as appropriate or rational.”

    John, we apparently are reading different comments and different articles. There are hundreds of comments and articles that have come out in response to the “Waiting for Superman” movie that strongly attack implications that there is anything wrong with the current pay schedule. You can see these on the NY Times, you can see this response to Valerie Straus’s column in the Washington Post, in Huffington Post and many other places. There are LOTS of people defending the current pay system.

    I’m not one of them, but the current system has many defenders.


  7. Joe
    That was intended to be ironic. No one can make a rational case for ‘seat time’ as the basis for salaries for professionals–that’s my point.


  8. OK, so Fenty is voted out of office, Rhee resigns! The old ways of tenuring teachers is also kaput! There is no Superman to fight for truth, justice and the American way! But wait! Let’s Impose market forces and capital enterprise, increased privatization, competition to save the day in our impoverishes public sectors. Give us a break, Please!!!!
    As a retired teacher (’07), having completed 43 years, teaching entirely in (alternative) public high school programs all in urban settings, and having earned 2 Masters and a CAS, I have to wonder about two issues regarding the current “end of tenured teachers” debate. I agree constructing a system of pay incentives that encourages teachers to earn more “seat time” and more graduate degree credits (professional staff development) is not the best way to increase teacher effectiveness . However, I am very skeptical about the true motives behind abolishing tenure and disempowering unions. I am skeptical for all kinds of reasons. I wonder about the true calculus–and real politics — behind deciding to budget for teachers’ “merit pay” based on student test scores. Test scores are strongly correlated to Zip Code. These outcomes constantly fluctuate with flow of “special needs” and cognitive challenged students in and out of the most resource deprived and asset depleted school districts’ classrooms. Granted, paying out ever higher salaries to aging, senior, tenured teachers with several graduate degrees also does not guarantee higher test scores, especially in these most challenged districts. Seems to me, abolishing tenure and union busting it is shortsighted cost-cutting that will inevitably and quickly become counter-productive. Basing pay incentives on test score outcomes does not save students or their teachers from continuing failure. I know all too well about all the abuses of the old pay scale systems, collective bargaining around “bogus” professional development incentives, that were largely worthless and wasteful. But I also know that the vast majority of published research demonstrates that merit pay schemes are just that, and that the vast majority of new teachers are burning out after 3 or 5 years, most particularly in those “extraordinary new, innovative charters. They quickly burn out and leave before they earn seniority, precisely because these hyped, new, anti-union teaching enterprises provide so little protection to their fresh, young, diligent recruits against the ever-increasing harsh and stressful working conditions that comes with these impoverished urban territories. I suspect the expected net effect of all this is significant savings in over-all teacher salaries. Plus, consider anticipated reduction in future pension plans, given the rising resignation rates. Hmmmmmm???? More Savings! The attack on tenure and teacher unions is becoming highly suspicious to me, most especially when I reflect on all the talk about privatizing the public sector. Seems the new conventional wisdom is: “We can close the daunting ‘Achievement Gap.’ We don’t need tenure, and we surely can do away with unions. They are the problem! All we need do is base all assessment and teacher accountability on test scores. We can rely exclusively on test scores to determine firing and retaining (and rewarding) teachers and administrators, closing and expanding existing schools, etc. I fear we are gravely devaluing wisdom gained from experience. We dismiss the importance of collaboration and the resulting collective wisdom acquired. We discourage community building among staff and administrators, and between teachers and students, school districts and their respective communities. We risk destroying the last vestiges of direct agency in our teachers, students, parents, school committees and, yes, our community organizers. All this denies and obfuscates the existing conflicts of race, class, gender, religion. This is all a perversion of bourgeoise competition. It engenders so much joy kill and deadening buzz kill in our classrooms, and worse it destroys the passion for teaching, learning and understanding. We are dehumanizing education at our grave peril. Teaching and learning, self sustained, life long inquiry and discovery is wired into our DNA. This is what makes us most human. Great teaching that produces genuine and deep understanding is exceedingly labor intensive, and per force costly, no matter how you try to slice it. Great classroom teaching is a very messy, soft, fuzzy affair. There is so much trial and error. Testing and assessing learning and understanding is highly problematic, and has always been a sloppy affair, subject to great debate. Determining true value requires open and honest debate. It demands much patience, and much, much humor. Budget officers can hardly make good sense (or cents) out of all this. Capitalizing, monetizing teaching and understanding? It is an oxymoron.


  9. John, as a DC resident and parent of a child in DCPS, I liked the changes that Rhee was making. But I was shocked and dismayed at how she made them. It wasn’t until her resignation that she showed any political acumen or that I felt she was leading a team. Up until now it was a one-man (OK, one-woman) show. Don’t people realize that while Superman did a great job catching the bad guy and rescuing a girl or two in all of those comic books and TV shows, he never stopped crime and I am not sure he really even lowered the crime rate in Gotham. He did make a good story, though. School systems need leaders who, by definition, are part of the system. Rhee was a Lone Ranger (pardon the shift in metaphor) who did good things but did not fix the system.


  10. John,

    In the case of DC Public Schools, we now have a look at what can happen when mayors move the authority over education from local school boards to their office. It seems to have worked in New York City, so far, perhaps because the Mayor Bloomberg is still mayor.

    However, in DC, the chancellor/superintendent role became too visible in the larger city politics. We now see that when a mayor loses re-election, the schools are affected more directly than when there was a school board buffer. On the other hand, Ms. Rhee lasted longer than any of her recent predecessors. We still have a tremendous amount to learn about school governance and the challenge of balancing change with stability when the lives of other people’s children are in the balance.


    • John, Joe & Others thrashing about in the wind

      It saddens me to see so much good brain-power expended over issues that could come much closer to being resolved productively through reframing the problem. The basic problem is that our 19th centuiry system is obsolete and can’t educate a sizable percentage of the kids who now need much higher levels of education than were needed in1890, or even 1950.

      Larry Aaronson gets to some of this need for reframing in calling attention to “the importance of collaboration and the resulting collective wisdom acquired. We discourage community building among staff and administrators, and between teachers and students, school districts and their respective communities.” But he doesn’t seem to realize that our public school systems (especially in our cities, and not just the very largest) have done a miserable job on those fronts, and that their bureaucratic culture indeed obstructs these needed new relationships.

      Despite her aggressive “shake up” of the DC schools, Rhee did not project a vision of a different kind of system that would gain the allegiance of students, parents, teachers, and communities — all of whom have to work together for our children’s success in new and different ways, both in and outside of schools, if we want to see these radically improved results. And neither, for that matter, have Bloomberg-Klein in NYC. This is where our creative brain-power should be directed, instead of blaming each other for failures of a system that is doomed fo failure, and for reforms that are also doomed to failure so long as the basic obsolete system remains unchanged.


  11. I disagree with your comments about how Republicans only recently developed a fondness for Michelle Rhee. Many of us on the right supported what she was trying to do for a long time. She is yet one more victim of the unions in education which have contributed as much as any single group to the ossification of American education. I was always skeptical and critical of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” but Rhee seemed to be on a productive track. What is the old expression,” you cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” She broke more than a few eggs and the unions hated her for it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s