Posts about Michelle Rhee
A new book on Michelle Rhee, The Bee Eater by journalist Richard Whitmire, reports an eyebrow-raising claim: That former Hardy Middle School principal Patrick Pope manipulated the admissions process to reduce the numbers of poor students gaining admission to the school.
Could this be true?
A high-level education administrator who served in the Fenty administration confirmed to Greater Greater Washington that this was a real concern of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her deputies.
Rhee and her team discovered that Hardy, whose students are 75% black, had a far lower percentage of poor students than other schools with a similar racial makeup, despite students being selected by a lottery.
Officials worried that Pope was making Hardy into a haven for out-of-boundary, well-off African-American students, disadvantaging others from poorer backgrounds. On the other hand, the breakdown is similar to that of magnet schools, suggesting the disparity could also simply have resulted from Hardy changing from a typical neighborhood school into a de facto magnet school.
Rhee reassigned Pope away from his position as principal of the successful Hardy Middle School in May 2010 over the objections of many parents, teachers and students. We now know that this issue was in her mind when she made that decision.
Instead, Rhee tasked Pope with designing and eventually leading a new arts-focused magnet middle school that was to open in Fall 2011. Design and funding concerns have delayed the new school's implementation for a year.
Hardy Middle School, located at the northern edge of Georgetown, draws 85% of its students from the out-of-boundary lottery. Only 15% of its students come from within its boundary of Georgetown, Burleith, Glover Park and Palisades. 75% of its students are black, while the surrounding neighborhoods are much more white.
The debate over reassigning Pope
Pope's supporters have mounted a vocal campaign to return Pope to Hardy that continues to this day. While some of Pope's support has come from in-boundary parents, the vast majority of those testifying at hearings and leading the campaign for Pope's reinstatement are out-of-boundary parents.
These parents have claimed that Rhee's removal of Pope as principal was an attempt to "whitewash" the mostly black school by replacing him with a principal who will reach out to in-boundary families. As evidence, they point to a meeting Rhee held with parents of students attending Key Elementary, in the Palisades, which feeds into Hardy. The subject of the meeting, held at a private home in the Palisades, was the dissatisfaction of Key parents with Hardy.
Rhee and her staff never publicly explained what, if anything, Rhee wished that Pope had done differently at Hardy. This silence left a void that has been filled with the claims of Pope's supporters that Rhee removed Pope because he wouldn't reach out to in-boundary, usually white, parents of elementary school children to recruit them to attend Hardy.
It now appears that, while Rhee and her deputies viewed Hardy Middle School as unwelcoming to in-boundary white students, they viewed it as far more unwelcoming to poor students. Rhee and her staff were convinced that Pope was filtering out poor students when selecting out-of-boundary applicants.
The lottery and a principal's discretion
DCPS conducts the lottery, whose process doesn't consider a student's race, income level, or academic ability. However, there is also a waitlist for students who don't get admitted through the standard lottery, and principals have much more leeway there.
Furthermore, it's up to the principal how many out-of-boundary spaces to make available through the lottery. The fewer lottery spaces, the more students will need to be pulled from the waitlist. It's this waitlist process which education officials believed Pope used to admit students from more well-off families.
While Hardy had been a typical neighborhood school when Pope became principal, Pope added an arts focus to Hardy and instituted a special application process that included a site visit by applicants.
Most principals select out-of-boundary students off of their waiting list in the order in which they entered the waitlist, that is, blind. Parents have often wondered if Pope selected out-of-boundary students blind as well, or if he used information from the application process to cherry-pick certain students off the out-of-boundary waitlist.
Education officials, Whitmire says, became convinced that Pope was doing just that:
To Rhee and her staff, it looked as if Pope's student selection process at Hardy weeded out lower-income black children who might not fit in (read: be disruptive) and possibly even special education students.Whitmire spoke with Pope, and writes that "Pope takes strong exception to the suggestion that his application process discriminated against any students."
However, the conclusion of Rhee's staff was that "a selection process that separates out the 'wrong' sort of black families, as Rhee and her staff concluded Pope was doing, was just wrong."
Why prefer out-of-boundary, well-off students?
Why would a principal try to increase admissions of out-of-boundary students, particularly out-of-boundary students that are economically advantaged?
According to the former DCPS official, a common problem in big city school systems is principals who try to fill up their buildings with out-of-boundary students in order to reduce complaints from parents.
In-boundary parents often feel more entitled to complain about teachers, curricula, and other school conditions. Out-of-boundary students and their parents, on the other hand, tend to be more appreciative of the opportunity to attend the school.
Why would a principal go even further and filter low-income students out of the out-of-boundary waitlist? Low income students do have a greater likelihood of creating disciplinary problems. Reducing their numbers would help a principal to improve discipline at the school. That would also build even more support from the other parents.
The concern of many DCPS officials, in other words, was this. By transforming Hardy Middle School into a haven for economically-advantaged African-American students, Pope was able to deliver discipline and academic results that pleased previous superintendents while making entitled in-boundary parents, and poor students, problems for other principals to deal with.
It's unclear if Pope received permission from DCPS to base his out-of-boundary waitlist selections solely on information from his admissions process, or whether the process was intended by DCPS merely to set expectations of out-of-boundary students.
The former DCPS official suspects that former superintendents didn't ask many questions about the admissions process because Pope was known as a principal who was in control of his building. Rhee and her staff, however, saw the demographic data, according to Whitmire, and started asking questions.
A look at the data
A look at demographic data for DC schools lends support to this claim, while it also raises questions about whether weeding out poor students was Pope's intent or simply the effect of running a de facto magnet school.
No middle school in DC has as large a gap between the percentage of African-American students and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students as Hardy Middle School. Students are typically classified as economically disadvantaged if they qualify for free or reduced price lunches.
The percentage of low-income students is generally closely correlated with the percentage of African-American students at DC schools. The other 9 Grade 6-8 schools admit on average 87% as many low-income students as black students.
Hardy, on the other hand, had 420 students in the 2009-2010 school year, 312 (75%) of whom were African-American and 170 (41%) of whom were low-income. Hardy thus admits only 54% as many low-income students as black students.
If Hardy admissions looked like the other 9 schools, low-income students would make up 272 students, or 65% of the student body. This is a far higher increase of students (102 students, or 24%) than any expect to see from in-boundary students in the near future, and one that would mostly result from only 3 years of blind admissions.
Is there a reasonable explanation for this unique disparity at Hardy Middle School? One possible explanation is that any school with an admissions process is going to weed out poor students.
In fact, a look at Washington's magnet high schools shows demographics similar to that of Hardy Middle School.
Perhaps the unique demographics of Hardy were not the result of any specific intent to make poor students another principal's problem. Perhaps they were the unintended effect of using an application process to select students off of the Hardy waitlist with the best essays and in-person interviews.
The future of Hardy and Pope
Leaders of the campaign to reinstate Pope at Hardy complain about a rise in disruptive behavior and a drop in commitment to the arts program in the current school year.
It's revealing to note, however, that the current year's admissions waitlist was managed last summer not by Pope, who had been reassigned by then, but by his successor. Is this change simply a result of Hardy becoming more welcoming to economically disadvantaged students?
Leaders of the campaign to reinstate Pope also argue, as noted above, that the removal of Pope as principal of Hardy was an attempt to make Hardy more acceptable to in-boundary white families. Ironically, however, the change to a blind admissions process will make that more difficult.
Admitting students more randomly will likely increase the number of poor students at Hardy by up to 100 students in only 3 years. Sadly, that would statistically also increase the number of disciplinary problems, likely making Hardy less appealing for parents choosing between Hardy and private schools.
Is this right or wrong?
Should a middle school that had been open to out-of-boundary students regardless of economic status have been transformed into one disproportionately closed to poor students?
Should the plea of Pope's supporters to maintain this system be denied for reasons of economic equity?
The big difference between the magnet high schools mentioned above and Hardy is that the magnet schools were created as magnet schools, whereas Patrick Pope transformed Hardy, with some degree of DCPS approval, into a de facto magnet school.
Given the dire state of child poverty, which is a moral stain on our city, this seems like a bad idea. A better idea would be to create a new middle school that is explicitly a magnet school, thus increasing educational options for all students. This is, in fact, exactly what Chancellor Henderson says she is doing.
The new magnet middle school will be the first in the DC school system. Placing Pope at the helm of the new school would leverage his real strengths in building magnet schools versus running a standard neighborhood school. Chancellor Henderson's plan with regard to Hardy and a new magnet middle school thus enables us to focus on increasing educational options for all children regardless of race or economic status.
Several weeks ago, former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee topped off her media blitz by unveiling her new venture, StudentsFirst, on Oprah. With this grand annoucement, local residents got a peek at her vision to take her agenda to the national level.
At times, I've been a fan of Rhee's passion and drive, but on some occasions, her methods have pushed me towards skepticism. Unfortunately, this newest venture has only amplified my hesitation.
In the Newsweek piece that complemented her televised pitch, Rhee says that she was "stunned" when Fenty lost the election. Really? It's remarks like these that cost her points when it comes to communicating political savvy, casting further doubts on her ability to effectively steer what seems like a lobbying organization.
During her tenure, Rhee did make efforts to listen to the community and hear from parents, teachers, and principals. Although the media spin paints her as completely disconnected from the ground level, she and her staff did spend a hefty amount of time outside the central office.
I'm glad that she isn't crawling away into the shadows. Her ability to grab the spotlight helped her fundraise and drew well-deserved attention to the issues facing our schools.
The problem is that her mantra of putting the needs of students before the needs of grown-ups is too polarizing. You're either with her or against her. And while her action-oriented leadership may have its benefits, it doesn't leave much room for those who may have a different (but potentially valid) perspective towards what's best for their children.
For the most part, I found myself agreeing with those who suggested that her vision might be well intentioned but overly simplified, failing to deeply examine what it is that she's promoting and the nuances behind her claims. The type of education that she'd like students to have can't be boiled down to test scores, or a glut of bad teachers, or vague notions of equal access.
The issues are more complicated than her mission allows us to explore. How can I sign up to support her cause if I'm unable to understand exactly what she's intending to do, other than raise money and generate additional rhetoric?
If she can achieve her goal of gaining a million supporters and raising a billion dollars in just one year, she will certainly have solidified her image as a powerful force within education reform. A piece of me hopes that she will be successful. After all, I'm happy anytime the country starts to care more deeply about the type of experience students are having within our schools, or tries to energize others around these problems.
Her famous quote that "collaboration and consensus-building are quite frankly over-rated" recognizes that waiting around to get every last person on the same page can greatly impede progress, especially when trying to get past self-serving interests. But is she the right person to transition into a grassroots advocacy role, after earning a reputation as a tough-as-nails executive?
Here's what I'd like to see her do, improving on areas where she fell short within DC:
- Generate conversation with like-minded organizations. I don't see many solid partnerships prominently listed on her site, which screams "trail-blazer" much more loudly than anything else.
- Channel funds towards boosting the infrastructure of school districts that are ill-equipped to maximize the value of the information they are collecting, fully implement promising initiatives, and operate more efficiently.
- Encourage ongoing collaboration with research and evaluation experts that can help her understand the evidence for or against policy decisions, rather than taking data at face value.
- Follow through on her emphasis on parental and community engagement, showing the world that she's more willing to connect than they might think.
For right now, however, my mouse will continue to hover over the "join" button on her home page, waiting to see how her big announcement plays out. I'll keep my fingers crossed that it ends up benefiting kids everywhere.
Adrian Fenty says he focuses on the big picure and hires "A+" people. I'd say some are A+, some A-, a few B- or C. Would Vince Gray hire A+ people? Would he keep some of Fenty's on? Would he hire even more A+ people than Fenty has?
I wish Gray would come up with a list of cabinet appointees now, because it would make the decision of who to vote for for Mayor much easier. Keep Harriet Tregoning, Gabe Klein and Michelle Rhee while sending Peter Nickles back to Great Falls? Skies are looking sunny with Gray!
But if they're all out and their successors lack the boldness and vision to really make DC better, choosing instead to always take the safe road, electing Gray would cast all the bright progress DC has made into shadow.
This is the real question which has been on many of our minds, including Dan Malouff's.
Gray has steadfastly refused to talk about appointments, except for assuring everyone that he would fire Peter Nickles. That's probably the smart move from his standpoint; Presidential candidates refuse to talk about Cabinet appointees too. However, it also complicates our task of choosing.
At least we have a pretty good idea of who would run departments if Adrian Fenty is reelected, though it's worth keeping in mind that we don't even know for sure that Fenty will keep all his people. Traditionally, all members of the cabinet resign after a mayor is reelected, so he can select his new cabinet members. We have no reason to think he'll replace anyone in particular, but he might.
Most discussion here has revolved around Harriet Tregoning, Gabe Klein, and Michelle Rhee. I'll try to read the tea leaves for you on all three.
When we spoke, Gray had glowing things to say about Harriet Tregoning. And no, I don't think he was just telling me what I want to hear, since Gray has said similar things in the Council. His description of Tregoning's strengths also resemble many of the qualities he's said he wants in a cabinet appointee, so there's a good hope he might try to keep her on.
In fact, maybe he could promote her. What if Gray made her the deputy mayor for planning and economic development? She's doing a great job with planning. Her agency already meets the gold standard on process, which Gray would insist upon, but they also still achieve tangible results like Fenty touts. I believe that results and inclusive, communicative process needn't be mutually exclusive; today's OP is living proof of that.
Gray has made positive comments about the work Michelle Rhee has done, though he's also said school reform has to be bigger than any one person. That's probably true, though changing horses could also introduce opportunities to derail reform. Gray might well ask Rhee to stay but only if she's willing to work a little on interactions with the public. Edited to add: Rhee has said she wouldn't stay if Gray were elected, but it's not clear whether that's just an empty threat meant to help Fenty, or not.
One Gray staffer familiar with the Fenty cabinet suggested that perhaps Rhee has learned some of her more controversial behaviors, like refusing to meet with people, from the Mayor himself. Rhee was new to high-level government work when she joined the Fenty Administration (as was Gabe Klein), and therefore, this person noted, she hasn't had other role models. Might Rhee (and maybe others) be becoming more arrogant than necessary under Fenty's tutelage?
Speaking of Gabe Klein, what about DDOT? There, we have less to know as Gray hasn't worked directly with Gabe Klein much. Commenter jeff worries that Sarah Campbell could become DDOT Director. She replied that she doesn't want the job.
Of course, even if she's not DDOT Director, she might end up with a role over budgets, like she has today, including over transportation. However, Gray is pretty unhappy with how the streetcar saga played out, which will hopefully influence that decision. Plus, she's not a one sided caricature; she's done some good work on the Council's budgets and pushed for some good outcomes along the way as well.
Others on Gray's staff, like legislative counsel Rob Miller who also represents Gray on NCPC, are excellent, and should be part of a possible Gray administration. Another official not affiliated with Gray pointed out to me that if Gray gets elected, people like Rob will also be in a position to mentor the new Council chairman's staff, most of whom will be new and might not see very strong leadership from the new chairman himself.
Unfortunately, the potential Gray appointments have to remain a big question mark. We know who we'll get with Fenty, some good, some not so much. We have a few hints about who we might get with Gray, but we'll have to vote without solid knowledge.
I titled this series, "Should urbanists be nervous about Vince Gray?" Ultimately, I would say we should not be. There are some unknowns, but there are also many promising signs. The race is very close, and if Gray should win, I am optimistic that he would continue the progress DC has made.
Therefore, we have two candidates who would maintain forward momentum. Which to vote for? Next week, I'll talk about Adrian Fenty and my conversation with our incumbent Mayor.
Especially since the streetcar funding debacle, many urbanists have viewed Vincent Gray's candidacy for Mayor with some trepidation.
Certainly Adrian Fenty has his problems, but at the same time he's pushed hard for streetcars, bike lanes, and more housing (though not always affordable housing), and turned over planning and transportation to two excellent leaders. Plus, he's made education reform a priority. Would a Mayor Gray spoil that?
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Gray to discuss these issues, and also had a few conversations with his campaign manager, Adam Rubinson. Gray was able to address many of my concerns, though other questions remain. I may or may not make an endorsement in the Mayor's race, but many of you wouldn't simply vote based on my say-so alone in any case. Instead, I want to share with you what I learn as I consider whom to pick in this high-profile contest.
First, here are some questions that were on my mind before starting to speak to Gray and his people. Edited to add, since some have asked: These are not in priority order. Rather, I started with some issues where many readers here had been exposed to Gray, and worked around to other issues.
- What really happened with the streetcar funding?
- Gray says he supports streetcars. Does he "support streetcars" like the Committee of 100 and Phil Mendelson support streetcars (only if they have absolutely no impact on any views, anyone's parking, slow down any drivers, or annoy a single person), or does he really, actually support them?
- Gray has talked about wanting more planning. If he's Mayor, would Gray maintain the momentum toward projects like the streetcar and simply add some more public communication and/or creation of planning documents, or would the planning slow down the process?
- Would Gray have handled bike lanes differently? Would fewer have gone in because there would have had to be a longer and slower planning process? Or would stakeholders have been able to participate more in the design of lanes like the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane?
- Would Gray have handled sidewalks differently? Would he have intervened in DDOT's decisions in cases like the sidewalks in North Portal Estates, where Fenty overruled DDOT for political reasons?
- Gray is from a fairly car-dependent part of Ward 7. Fenty is from a fairly car-dependent part of Ward 4. Both probably have neighbors whose reaction to bike lanes is to oppose anything that interferes with car flow. Is that Gray's view?
- Would Gray keep Harriet Tregoning? Or promote her? What about Gabe Klein?
- How supportive is Gray of Smart Growth? Would he push to add housing opportunities and retail around Metro stations? Would he stand firm despite opposition from the perennial opponents of such measures?
- Many groups and individuals who traditionally spend most of their effort opposing growth and change rather than supporting a certain vision for growth and change are supporting Gray. Will that support make him obligated to stop projects they don't like?
- Under Mayor Fenty, DMPED often pushes to get development projects done quickly, but often at the expense of getting a good project that will work with the long-term needs of DC. How would Gray balance the need to get development done with the fact that, once done, projects will be around for 50 years or more?
- Mayor Fenty is widely criticized for the way he makes appointments to board and commissions, selecting fellow triathletes and/or developers for zoning positions, for example. How would Gray approach appointments?
- Would OCTO under Gray keep getting small yet tangible projects completed which add value for people, like Where's My Bus and the open source feed of Circulator positions, which OCTO achieved with minimal time and resources?
- No discussion is complete without education. Many younger residents of DC feel that regardless of tone or appearances of impropriety, the Mayor's number one job is to improve the schools in time for their young children or future, unborn children to be able to get a good education in public schools. Would Gray put any of that momentum in jeopardy?
- If Gray becomes Mayor, what is his vision for how the District would be different in 20 years?
Are there other questions on your mind? What do you think about Gray in these areas? Next, I'll describe the answers I received as well as what I believe thus far would happen under a Gray administration.
Teachers displeased with their union's decision not to even hold a vote on Michelle Rhee's proposed two-track contract have launched a petition. It criticizes the WTU's decision as driven by the loudest voices in the room, and calls for a secret ballot vote. Via DC Teacher Chic.
It's the season for undemocratic behavior, as Mayor Bloomberg's plan to extend his own term limits (and the City Council's) without a referendum gains a key political supporter; the Examiner's education columnist lambastes Rhee's sudden firing of a principal, Bloomberg's decision on term limits, and New York teachers union president Randi Weingarten's endorsement of Bloomberg's action.
Term limits aren't the only hot topic in New York education; things are also heating up over the Mayor's decision to drastically cut free parking permits given out to, and frequently misused by, public employees. A teacher wrote to NYC's Gridlock Sam, dismayed that his or her school's permits were dropping from 120 to 52. Sam replied:
Frankly, I don't know why the mayor allows any parking permits for teachers. We have a great transit system, and, somehow, private-sector workers, including local merchants, get to work in even the remotest locations without permits.(Some) teachers bombarded Sam with angry emails, like this one he published this morning:
I teach in a school with 100 staff members near the George Washington Bridge. About a third of our staff commutes from New Jersey and 10% commute from Connecticut, Westchester, or Long Island. We went from 50 to just 13 permits. Using public transit is extremely difficult for those having to travel long distances at a very early hour. The reduced number of permits has created a real problem.Sam responded:
Boy, did I anger a lot of teachers with my lack of sympathy for their parking permit reduction. My answer to you, Jeff, is the same I'd give to any teacher. I don't see any compelling reason to give a teacher a permit when bodega employees and office workers somehow manage to get to work all over the city with no permits. Many use transit. And in your case, several Metropolitan Transportation Authority and NJTransit buses and the A train serve the area, along with multiple opportunities for connections from other parts of the city.If only Sam were so staunchly pro-transit when it comes to Chevy Chase, Maryland.
The fight over Michelle Rhee's merit pay proposal has much in common with recent fights over parking reform or development on Wisconsin Avenue. We have a creative, 21st century vision for making things better, and most newer stakeholders support it. On the other hand, many people feel the old system is working well for them and resist any change. Institutions which claim to represent everyone are promoting the anti-change viewpoint to the frustration of their newer members.
Playing the analogous role to the Federation of Citizens' Associations and the Committee of 100 in education is the Washington Teachers' Union. Ryan Avent writes that many of his teacher friends ("young, talented, very good at what they do, and sick of dealing with the union") feel their union leaders aren't representing their interests.
Defenders of the status quo even take the same derogatory tone toward newer members in both areas. Marc Fisher interviews David Brocks, a 34-year DCPS veteran who keeps sneering that Rhee "just got to town" as if that makes her unqualified to fix a broken system.
The difference, of course, is that everyone agrees the school system is seriously broken. But teachers' unions have shown a disappointing resistance to changes even when they are in the clear public interest, like the NYC teachers' union defending illegal parking permits for some teachers even though most teachers don't drive to work and can't benefit.
I generally only write about unions to criticize their excesses, but I believe there is an important role for such organizations. In many fields, employers (being few) have great power over the labor market, while employees (being many) have none, and it leads to widespread abuse. But fighting tooth and nail against any intrusion of job performance into pay or promotions, for special parking privileges that harm communities, and against almost any change only reinforces public perception that unions are dinosaurs.
Teachers' unions claim that merit systems leave teachers too vulnerable to political decisions from potentially vindictive vice principals. That's probably true, though most people in most jobs are vulnerable to political decisions from potentially vindictive vice presidents. Instead of opposing everything, teachers' unions need to work with reformers to find a way to mitigate the intrusion of office politics into schools while still ensuring talented and dedicated teachers can rise to the top.
Update: DCist has more about the generational divide in the contract debate.
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