Greater Greater Washington

Education


Michelle Rhee takes a break from education reform

Last week former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced that she is stepping down from her post as head of StudentsFirst, the non-profit advocacy group she founded. Is this the swan song for an education reform leader who rose to prominence through her time at DCPS?


Photo by Commonwealth Club on Flickr.

Rhee says she will remain involved in StudentsFirst and is proud of what she's accomplished there, but the group has struggled recently. The organization has pulled out of 5 states where it was active, and even some supporters acknowledge that StudentsFirst has not met the ambitious goals Rhee outlined at its launch.

It's not clear whether Rhee plans to take on another high-profile assignment in the education world, but her recent announcements suggest a move out of the spotlight.

Rhee says she's stepping down from the StudentsFirst job to focus on her family and support the career of her husband, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. She also recently took on the role of interim board chair for a small network of Sacramento charter schools, likely a welcome change from the size and prominence of DCPS. A gig on the board of Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. also won't hurt her recuperation from years in the trenches.

Love Rhee or hate her, she had a significant impact on education in DC. Her successor as Chancellor, Kaya Henderson, has continued many of Rhee's key initiatives with a tone that is more community-minded, as GGW anticipated at the time of her appointment.

While much of Rhee's legacy lives on in the District, many of her signature reforms are taking a step back in that large city to the north. Several years ago, former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein was implementing many of the same initiatives as Rhee. (I once attended a conference where Klein recalled fielding requests from Rhee antagonists asking for help in modulating her; Klein responded, "I'm not her Daddy!")

The trajectory has changed, though, with current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio winning election on a platform that opposed Klein/Rhee-style school closures and ratings of schools. And some politicians, including Rhee's own husband, are shying away from even using the phrase "education reform."

At the same time, others are taking up Rhee's mantle. Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown has formed an organization that is fighting teacher tenure laws, among other goals.

If Rhee does step back from the spotlight, who will be the new face of education reform? And what impact will that new leader have on changes throughout the country and here in DC?

Aaron Lemon-Strauss is father to a curious two-year old, husband of a civil rights lawyer, and employee of a non-profit education organization. As all three will eagerly tell you, his views are very much his own and not meant to represent anyone. 

Comments

Add a comment »

The new face is Campbell Brown. She's a former presenter on CNN or something.

Her aims are just as pernicious as Rhee's; dismantle the public school system, so we can dismantle the teacher unions, so we make teachers low paid workers without any rights in the workplace.

Brown, as with Rhee, is being funded by billionaires who seek to destroy the bargaining power of workers thereby further increasing economic inequality.

by Brendan on Aug 20, 2014 12:05 pm • linkreport

Campbell Brown is indeed a former CNN anchor.

by Dave G on Aug 20, 2014 12:39 pm • linkreport

Who will be the new face of education reform? Odd question: why does this issue have to revolve around a cult of personality?

Is the underlying assumption that reform must be a top-down, centralized sort of enterprise requiring a single charismatic but iron-fisted figure?

by Willow on Aug 20, 2014 12:40 pm • linkreport

Good point, Willow, and I think the "face of education reform" is probably more media-driven than anything else. It may be that there will indeed not be anyone. Or Campbell Brown certainly makes sense.

In terms of reform being top-down, the "Thank You Letter to Michelle Rhee" that I linked to above (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/16/a-letter-of-thanks-to-michelle-rhee.html) makes an interesting point about Rhee's acerbic actions opening up space for others to operate. The author there would probably claim that you need a lighting rod/face of reform in order to empower others to operate at a lower level.

by Aaron Lemon-Strauss on Aug 20, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport

What passes for education reform seems to revolve around personalities and faddish ideas that rise and fall with little real effect on school performance. Rhee seems like a survivor and also so someone who knows when it's time to move-on. I'm sure she'll resurface in something that provides visibility and a good salary. Campbell Brown seems well on her way to being equally myopic and even more happy to push a faddish corporate agenda that's unlikely to make anything better.

by Rich on Aug 20, 2014 3:03 pm • linkreport

@Brendan, I agree with you. I think the school reformers are indeed pushing a conservative agenda. It's also how they are trying to get our tax dollars to pay for religious parochial schools.

by Dave G on Aug 20, 2014 3:36 pm • linkreport

One huckster steps down. Another joins her place. All these education "reform" personalities are just hucksters who don't care that they are well-paid corporate mouthpieces. Nothing more and there is nothing new under the sun.

by Cavan on Aug 20, 2014 4:00 pm • linkreport

reform just means "change." It doesn't necessarily mean "improvement." It's hard to see what real improvements of substance have been unleashed by Michelle Rhee.

by Richard Layman on Aug 20, 2014 11:45 pm • linkreport

I liked her simply because she made everybody in the dysfunctional DC school system and the old guard mad. Go girl.

by NE John on Aug 21, 2014 1:02 am • linkreport

It's hard to see what real improvements of substance have been unleashed by Michelle Rhee.
Got the teachers' union to sign a contract that actually allowed DCPS to fire bad teachers. Like bad as in "doesn't teach and sits in front of the class reading a newspaper while students do whatever." Created a system by which principals are accountable every year. Rid central office of a bloat of employees who didn't do any work. Created a system where teachers actually get feedback on their performance from multiple sources rather than a check mark from their principal.

And now the school system is working to implement things like extended days, extended year, probably more.

by MLD on Aug 21, 2014 8:25 am • linkreport

In my opinion, most of those "changes" are rife with arbitrariness and capriciousness.

There is no question that the "bureaucracy" needed to be shaken up. And the ability to get rid of bad teachers. But on the other hand, "bad teachers" were produced by the system.

The accountability issues are important, and were/are have been a problem across DC Govt.

My joke about the schools is the reason that they are the most poorly functioning of all city govt. agencies is because that's where Home Rule started first. (cf. _Black Social Capital: The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore_, which is extendable to DC.)

What happened is that people/leaders were more interested in the employment and contracting opportunities present within access to the school system and had limited interest in improving positive outcomes.

When the school system was segregated, the African-American division was known for excellence, with schools like Dunbar being considered one of the best high schools in the U.S.

Certainly the school system experience with principal turnover under both Rhee and since shows failure.

My biggest problem with Rhee is her mendacity. Anytime someone said "the biggest problem with outcomes for so many of the children is poverty" her response wasn't "well, then we need to get more _and the right_ resources to assist children, families, teachers, and schools", it was "you say these children can't learn."

And yet, all of the charter schools that people like Rhee tout for achieving better outcomes with difficult to serve segments get extranormal resources, have more teaching time, etc. (Not unlike Montgomery County's Title I program at the elementary school level.)

FWIW, I touted year round school and similar measures more than ten years ago.

by Richard Layman on Aug 21, 2014 10:21 am • linkreport

The other problem with Rhee is that it was important for her to destroy other competing pockets of excellence within the extant school system, because those stories interfered with her narrative of being the saviour.

In 2005, after reading an article about "positive deviance" in _Harvard Business Review_ I was struck by the story of a section of schools in Brazil. (You can find the article online "your company's secret change agents" pdf).

Anyway, the point is that most people oppose implementation of "best practice" by coming up with reasons why their situation is different.

Positive Deviance goes with the approach that even the most dysfunctional organizations have pockets of excellence, derived from the same circumstances as poorly performing units. The point is to expand outward from the pockets of excellence.

DC had great Montessori programs which were left to languish, and various "cluster school" set ups, which needed to be expanded (and have been in some instances), language programs like Oyster, etc.

Between those kinds of programs, Montgomery County's Title I program, Arlington's example at Woodlawn, etc., the knowledge for what to do and how to go about it was already present within the system and locally.

But it was ignored for some person recommended by Joel Klein.

What if instead, Joel Klein, to get rid of someone he didn't like, had recommended Kathleen Cashin?

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/04/nyregion/04schools.html?_r=0

We would be so much better off today, without all the waste between charters and the public schools, but with much better functioning "public schools" and a more parsimonious and logical use of public financial resources.

by Richard Layman on Aug 21, 2014 10:31 am • linkreport

My god, plus the cheating. How could the change in incentive systems without the addition of extranormal resources not encourage cheating?

http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2011-03-28-1Aschooltesting28_CV_N.htm

E.g., Noyes, touted as a success, was a lie.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/principal-slammed-for-cheating-report/2013/01/09/a45c1bfa-5a7d-11e2-88d0-c4cf65c3ad15_story.html

People in Atlanta are going to jail over similar acts.

Instead, Rhee becomes a well paid director of Scotts Miracle Grow (good thing we are a fertilizer free household...).

It's another example of falling upward when you're favored.

But it's a crime. A crime.

And she sails away, "scott" free.

Talk about lack of accountability. (Not to mention her narrative about her "success" in Baltimore as a teacher is a lie too.)

by Richard Layman on Aug 21, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

Sorry, I said Woodlawn in Arlington, I think I meant Wakefield. (Woodlawn was like DC's School without Walls.)

also, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/traditional-va-schools-find-themselves-in-high-demand-as-they-eschew-experimentation/2014/03/21/1533c9a0-af9a-11e3-9627-c65021d6d572_story.html

Manassas Park's previous superintendent was also quite good and the schools good, although it's a pretty big jump from that school system size to Washington's.

by Richard Layman on Aug 21, 2014 10:39 am • linkreport

I do not know SWW, but HB Woodlawn in arlington is focused on progressive education models - its the hippie school. ATS is virtually the opposite, afaict. Both draw countywide, I beleive and BOTH are considered very desirable. Wakefield is a neighborhood high school, that draws from the poorest part of Arlington, and is considered less desirable than Arlco's other two high schools, though IIUC its demographics are not terribly different (except more hispanic and less African american) from Wilson which is considered DC's most desirable neighborhood HS.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Aug 21, 2014 10:49 am • linkreport

MLD says: "Got the teachers' union to sign a contract that actually allowed DCPS to fire bad teachers. Like bad as in "doesn't teach and sits in front of the class reading a newspaper while students do whatever." Created a system by which principals are accountable every year. Rid central office of a bloat of employees who didn't do any work. Created a system where teachers actually get feedback on their performance from multiple sources rather than a check mark from their principal.
And now the school system is working to implement things like extended days, extended year, probably more."

And where did firing those supposedly "bad" teachers (according to her new IMPACT evaluation system) get DCPS? Exactly nowhere -- if you measure by student achievement, which has not improved and the achievement gap has actually gotten worse for DCs poorest kids -- the ones Rhee came here to save.

It also cost a lot of money to hire new teachers who apparently weren't any better than their predecessors. And there's huge turnover among teachers, which never helps learning.

The same thing with principal "accountability" which just meant getting principals to promise a big score increase - just only caused a big cheating increase.

by efavorite on Aug 21, 2014 5:03 pm • linkreport

NE John says: "I liked her simply because she made everybody in the dysfunctional DC school system and the old guard mad. Go girl."

Really -- it doesn't bother you that the head of the school system spent a lot of money on programs that didn't help children? All you care about is making people mad?

by efavorite on Aug 21, 2014 5:06 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman :-) Such passion!

by Tina on Aug 22, 2014 3:47 am • linkreport

I hate waste and wasted time and the failure to understand how things work. The hagiography of Rhee in this entry and others is so "angrifying."

It's no wonder that "the more things change, the more they remain the same."

... and it sucks to not be one of the annointed ones, when you know what really ought to be done.

by Richard Layman on Aug 22, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

The other problem with Rhee is that it was important for her to destroy other competing pockets of excellence within the extant school system, because those stories interfered with her narrative of being the saviour.

If true, such an approach bespeaks extreme insecurity or utter arrogance. Either case would be no surprise where faith is put into a personality instead of focusing on building sustainable institutions.

by Chauncey on Aug 27, 2014 4:31 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or

Support Us