By JONATHAN TILOVE
November 5, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service<
WASHINGTON _ The same June day that Mayor Adrian Fenty took control of the District of Columbia schools, he fired the superintendent and named Michelle Rhee _ a 37-year-old Korean-American education entrepreneur with three years in the classroom, a master’s degree and no previous experience running a school district _ as chancellor of one of the worst big-city school systems in America.
It was an audacious move by the popular new mayor, high-handed in its disdain for process and bracing in its disregard for the racial politics that seemed to require the schools be led by someone the same color as the mass of students they were largely failing to serve.
And, according to Rhee _ who says she never aspired to the “impossible” job of urban superintendent _ it was the right move.
“If I was him I would have chosen me too,” she said in an interview. “His personality is like, `I don’t want to hear all the reasons why or why not. If we know what needs to be done let’s just do it.’ And that’s exactly how I am.
“I don’t follow rules and I don’t care who we’re going to upset if it’s the right thing for kids.”
Nearly five months into her tenure, Rhee’s mission is plain: to clear-cut her way through the dead wood of the school bureaucracy and bring in a new cadre of principals and teachers who can close a black-white achievement gap as large as any in the land.
The ramifications extend beyond Washington.
If she succeeds, she will make honest men and women of a president and Congress who believed they could mandate that no child be left behind and that the goal could be accomplished in the classroom without regard to questions of race and poverty. (Rhee’s boosters include Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Laura Bush, who invited her to the State of the Union Address in 2004.)
If she fails, she may be remembered as yet another chimera of the quick fix. Doubters will say “I told you so,” and some now enamored of her will wonder, “What were we thinking?”
Rhee made her name as one of the new breed of outside reformers known as “edupreneurs” _ founder and president of the New Teacher Project, dedicated to bringing better teachers into public schools and especially the lowest-performing classrooms.
“She had created the thing that I thought was the magic sauce in public education _ the quality of teachers,” New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who had recommended Rhee to Fenty, told the D.C. Council at Rhee’s confirmation hearing in July.
As chancellor, Rhee said, “I am looking for educators who are willing to say _ despite the fact that these kids didn’t eat breakfast this morning, despite the fact that nobody helped them with their homework last night, despite the fact that there is no quiet place in the house to do homework, and that no one went to bed at a decent hour, that they have a cavity in their tooth so bad you can see their gums when they open their mouth _ it is my responsibility to make sure that these kids are achieving at the highest level.”
Rhee knows it can be done; she says she did it as a novice teacher. Fresh out of Cornell University, she joined Teach for America _ a private, non-profit Peace Corps of sorts for would-be teachers _ and was placed in one of Baltimore‘s poorest schools. After a disastrous first year, she says, she brought her students from the depths to the heights on national standardized tests. There are, however, no records to prove it _ a lack Rhee and others acknowledged at her confirmation hearing.
In order to reform the D.C. public schools, Rhee first must persuade the black community that it is worth sacrificing some of the jobs and influence it has accumulated in the system in exchange for a better education for its children. This may prove a tough sell: The D.C. Public Schools paycheck is the bird in hand, and higher achievement remains very much the two in the bush.
But, Rhee said, “I am used to being in a position where I come into something, people tell me it can’t be done, and then I do it.”
“She has no fear, no slow pedal,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a Washington advocacy group, and who also chairs the board of the New Teacher Project.
Working in Rhee’s favor is her hand-in-glove relationship with the mayor, and the amassing of public and elite opinion behind them.
“There’s a mighty wind blowing,” said Mary Levy, a veteran school reformer with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Through countless past efforts, “I haven’t seen this kind of energy and this kind of power.”
Enrollment in D.C. schools dipped below 50,000 this fall. About 85 percent of students are black, 10 percent are Hispanic, and 5 percent are white. More than 60 percent come from poor households. The achievement gap is enormous, with black Washingtonians scoring below blacks in other big cities and whites scoring higher than whites elsewhere.
Since 1970, Washington has had 10 superintendents and three acting superintendents, all black except for Robert Rice, who served on an interim basis for five months in 2004. (With the mayoral takeover, the superintendent was renamed chancellor.) While there are no precise figures, the overwhelming majority of professional and support staff in the district are black.
Adrian Fenty, who won in every part of the city when he was elected mayor last year, is 36. Where former Mayor Marion Barry was racially polarizing, Fenty, like Barack Obama, is seen as a unifying figure. Like Obama, Fenty, a graduate of Oberlin College and Howard Law School, is the son of a black father and a white mother. He is a practitioner of what might be called post-racial politics. He named a white woman police chief, and appointed white men fire chief and city administrator.
And as Barry _ these days a council member _ ruefully noted at Rhee’s confirmation hearing, the four top education officials in D.C. are now “non-African-American.” One is white, two are Asian-Americans, one is Latino.
That hearing ran 11 hours, 35 minutes and 48 seconds. Rhee was indefatigable. When, late in the day, Council Chairman Vincent Gray teased that he might want her to spend a few more hours answering questions, she sounded seriously ready and willing. She gave out her cell phone number to everyone listening.
If she still has the open and winning manner of a favorite elementary school teacher, Rhee bristles at being described as “nice.” She is very direct. “I hate muck,” she says. “I’m all about clarity.”
At a recent community meeting in a black neighborhood in Southeast Washington, Rhee listened attentively to several hours of complaints about the schools, then offered her own compelling summation of the residents’ well-founded frustration.
“We are not doing right by our students,” she declared. “This is the biggest crime that we can commit.”
The next morning, Rhee was at a press conference with Fenty and five white council members, seeking broader powers to get rid of central office employees. Asked about central office morale, she replied, “I am not somebody who believes in making everybody feel good when they shouldn’t be feeling good.”
Not everyone thinks this headlong assault is wise.
“It’s just stupid and mean and unnecessary,” said Marc Dean Millot, the editor of School Improvement Industry Weekly, based in Alexandria, Va., who believes Rhee is just deepening the resistance. “These guys are going to stand by, watch her screw up and be glad to help her pack.”
Former D.C. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, now at Columbia‘s Teachers College in New York, said she learned the hard way that “just because the system is broken doesn’t mean the people in the system are all broken.” She warns, “This sort of blatant disrespect comes off with racial overtones,” especially from a chancellor who is not black and a mayor who is biracial.
Rhee “will encounter resistance,” said Brown University political scientist Marion Orr, the author of books on race and school reform. “People are not going to forget that you put my cousin or my daughter out the door.”
Haycock concurs _ to a point. “There are those among black elected officials where jobs are in the end more important than the kids; the more open ones will admit that,” she said. But, she added, if Rhee goes slow she’ll fail.
Rhee herself recalls the encouragement of an older black gentleman she met in her first weeks on the job: “He said, `You know we’ve had the old African-American experience. We’ve been really heavy on the age and experience and light on results, so I figure I’m going to give you a shot.”’
One by one, she has been meeting with principals, asking those in failing schools, “What are you willing to guarantee me in terms of academic gains for this year?” Fall short, she tells them, and you’re gone.
She returns often to her experience teaching at Baltimore‘s Harlem Park Community School.
“Through a two-year time span I took a group of kids who were performing at the lowest end that they possibly could and took them to the highest levels. And people saw the test scores and said, `What did you do, how did you do it?’
“It wasn’t magic; it wasn’t anything special. There was no silver bullet. We worked harder and longer and I had higher expectations of the kids. I engaged their parents and the community.”
According to Rhee’s one-page resume, in those two years she “moved students performing on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.”
It is a breathtaking claim, one for which neither she nor the Baltimore schools has proof.
Asked about this at her confirmation hearing, Rhee explained: “We at that time were not given a piece of paper that sort of showed documentation of our student achievement gains. What happened was we usually sat down with the principal, in this case Mrs. Carter, and she would tell us at the beginning of the year, this is where your students are performing on average, and then at the end of each year, she would sort of say this is what growth we’ve seen.”
Rhee said she had “on multiple occasions looked into whether that documentation was available from the Baltimore Public Schools and they repeatedly told me it was not.”
At the time, Harlem Park was one of nine Baltimore schools engaged in a controversial experiment in private management by Education Alternatives Inc., which ended abruptly not long after Rhee’s tenure. A study by the University of Maryland Baltimore County found that in the first year, test scores dropped at what Education Alternatives called its Tesseract schools, and in the next two years, rebounded. Scores ended up about where they started, but at a greater than average financial cost.
The name Tesseract comes from the children’s book “A Wrinkle in Time.” A “tesseract” is the wrinkle in time through which the characters can travel fantastic distances in the blink of an eye.
At Rhee’s confirmation hearing, Linda Carter, her former principal, sang her praises. But first, in a sweet lilt, she offered up the song Harlem Park staff and students joined each morning: “I’m a great big bundle of potentiality.”
Carter said she knows Rhee’s students made impressive gains, but, like Rhee, “I don’t have actual documentation.”
In Haycock’s view, the public has been “suckered” by the education establishment into doubting the kind of success Rhee claimed at Harlem Park.
“Not just individual teachers can produce stunning results, but whole schools are now producing stunning results,” she said. With Rhee at the helm of the D.C. schools, “we hope a whole school district will be producing results of that sort.”
On that last ambition, Ronald Ferguson, an expert on the achievement gap who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, counsels skepticism but not cynicism. Great teachers can produce remarkable results, he said, but Rhee’s mission is to create a district replete with such rare talents.
“That is a tall order,” Ferguson said. “But it is one that we need to aspire to.”