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A Report Card for Rhee

She's almost certainly leaving. So how did she do?



    A Report Card for Rhee
    Robyn Twomey
    Michelle Rhee appears on the cover of the latest edition of Time Magazine.

    Michelle Rhee is not going to stay on as D.C. Schools Chancellor. Thinking otherwise is to follow in the steps of those still pushing an Adrian Fenty write-in campaign -- a willful denial of the results of the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

    The absolute best case for Rhee under Mayor Vincent Gray would be a continuation of things as they are -- near-total authority with the full support of the mayor. And there’s no way Gray would give her that. More realistically, Rhee would see her autonomy curtailed greatly, and major decisions made subject to mayoral veto.

    So why, when Rhee is basking in the national glory attached to the film “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” would she want to stay? She can have her pick of urban school systems to lead -- or may go even higher.

    Though I seem to be alone in this prediction for now, I think Rhee could end up as the U.S. secretary of education in the near future. Republicans are expected to make big gains in November, and replacing Arne Duncan with Rhee -- a high-profile Asian-American woman who appeals to conservatives -- would be a logical political move for President Obama.

    Rhee will be on the scene for a long time, even if it’s not in District governance. But just who is she, anyway?

    It’s hard to assess Rhee without passions getting in the way. The mere mention of her single syllable surname causes some to swoon and others to foam at the mouth. Her actual record in the city is rarely looked at dispassionately.

    After three years teaching in Baltimore as part of Teach For America, Rhee founded the nonprofit New Teacher Project in 1997, when she was just 27 years old. By 2007, the group, which works to recruit and train teachers in problem districts, had found more than 10,000 teachers for schools in 20 states.

    She had labored in relative obscurity for those 10 years, and many were stunned when the new mayor of D.C. asked her to take over the city’s schools in 2007. Rhee initially rejected Fenty’s offer, but gave in when he promised her unprecedented authority and aggressive backing from his office.

    When she came on the job, just one in 12 D.C. eighth graders was at grade level in mathematics, and other indicators weren’t much better. Rhee shut down schools, fired teachers, forged a merit pay agreement with the city teachers union, and scored outside funding for her initiatives. In just three years, she went from obscurity to being the public face of education reform.

    The results: high school standardized test pass rates went up 14 percent in reading and 17 percent in math, while elementary school pass rates went up by smaller but still impressive margins. High school graduation rates climbed slightly. Underperforming teachers were booted, and Rhee has recruited a new generation of bright replacements.

    But critics point out that significant achievement gaps remain between students in high-performing and low-performing schools, which in D.C. means between white and black students. Teachers and parents said Rhee cut them out of the reform process, and members of the D.C. Council criticized Rhee for ignoring their requests for information on her decisions and on school operations. Some schools were closed without public hearings.

    Cutting through the hyperbole on both sides, it seems fair to say that Rhee improved the District’s chronically poor schools for some, but not all, students, and -- more importantly -- that she leaves a legacy where good teachers have an incentive to stay in the system and where bad teachers can no longer expect to be left alone.

    But she is not “Superman,” and she is not infallible. Though it might not make for a neat network news profile, the reality is more complex. 

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