Has D.C.’s radical experiment in school reform really worked?
Whitmire doesn’t shy away from reporting the questions that have been raised about Rhee’s claims of dramatic increases in her students’ test scores during her TFA stint in Baltimore, and he’s careful to attribute the claims to Rhee and her principal in Baltimore, neither of whom could produce evidence to substantiate the statements on her resume. Recently, USA Today published a series of stories suggesting that cheating on standardized tests in the Washington public schools was common during Rhee’s tenure as chancellor. The paper found that there were unusually high rates of wrong answers that had been erased and changed to right ones on student tests at more than half of the system’s public schools between 2008 and 2010. Rhee, who routinely used improving city test scores to justify her reforms, initially attacked the paper’s reporting, but she more recently acknowledged that there may have been isolated cases of cheating and has endorsed a probe of the paper’s findings that is currently under way by the city’s inspector general.
Rhee’s biggest failing, Whitmire argues, was her inattention to the racial dimension of her reforms. The racial side of school reform is not frequently discussed in policy circles, and Whitmire makes a valuable contribution by addressing it head on.
Unfortunately, many of Rhee’s changes in Washington—the purging of patronage hires from the central office dating back to the Marion Barry era; the performance-based firings of principals and teachers; the ending of teacher tenure—led to the undermining of job security for many middle-class African Americans, for whom urban public school systems have long been an important source of stable government employment.
As a result, blacks saw Rhee’s reforms as a threat to a system that sustained many members of their community. As Whitmire writes, “White voters thought Rhee was cleaning house; black voters saw no reason to sweep out a head of household with a steady paycheck.” In addition, Whitmire reports, many of the city’s African Americans saw the large number of predominantly white TFA and D.C. teaching fellows that Rhee recruited to her central office and classrooms not as new talent to help the city’s struggling students but as “cultural tourists.” Whitmire blames both Rhee and Fenty, an African American, for failing to convince the city’s working-class blacks of the connection between performance firings and school quality.
So when Rhee sought to attract both black and white middle-class families to public schools in transitional or mixed-race neighborhoods by introducing programs like preschool education and International Baccalaureate classes, representatives of the city’s many impoverished African American neighborhoods interpreted the moves as Rhee currying favor with white residents at the same time she was laying off blacks. It didn’t help that she was firing working-class African Americans during the height of one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history.
Rhee also hurt herself by introducing a plan to make teachers’ jobs and pay dependent on their performance before she had put a defensible teacher evaluation system in place. Washington teacher evaluations, like those in most school systems, were cursory and undependable when Rhee arrived. Declaring that she was going to end tenure and introduce performance-based pay before teachers knew how they were going to be judged guaranteed that they and their unions would oppose the plan.
Nor could Rhee bring herself to build more health screening and other student and family assistance into her reform agenda, a strategy that Fenty’s deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso, advocated. That move would have improved her many needy students’ readiness to learn and signaled to teachers and principals that she recognized the many challenges they faced in educating students from impoverished backgrounds. Doing so would have won her allies without spending a lot of additional money or relinquishing her commitment to high standards and accountability.
By the time Rhee introduced the new system, in 2009, opposition to her reforms was already widespread among the rank-and-file. The enmity toward Rhee among Washington’s African Americans contributed to Fenty’s resounding defeat in the city’s black wards in last fall’s Democratic primary and spelled, shortly afterward, the end of Rhee’s important work in Washington. She has since launched a national advocacy organization, Students First, to counter the influence of teacher’s unions.
Rhee’s crusade in Washington was about transforming a system driven by bureaucracy to one shaped by performance incentives. This shift remains the core challenge facing reformers in urban school systems and public education generally. That Rhee got as far as she did is a testament not only to her take-no-prisoners personality but also to the importance of mayoral control of urban school systems. If Rhee had had to deal with a traditional elected school board, and if Fenty hadn’t cleared a political path for her, she might not have been able to push through the most important reforms.
It’s hard to overestimate how much Rhee accomplished, despite her flaws—or perhaps in part because of them. Reformers have sought for decades, without much success, to implement many of the changes she was able to make in Washington during her brief tenure. She put an end to hiring and firing by seniority. She shrunk D.C.’s famously bloated central office and closed struggling schools. She created a new staffing model with clear standards and a state-of-the-art teacher evaluation system built not just on student test scores but on classroom visits by both principals and trained school system observers.
It’s an impressive system, albeit one that needs to be improved to win teachers’ respect, a key to its longevity. The other key to its longevity is political support, and that, surprisingly, seems assured, at least for a while: Fenty’s successor, Vincent Gray, has named Rhee’s deputy and close ally Kaya Henderson to replace her as chancellor.
Of course, the ultimate measure of any set of reforms is whether they improve student performance. In D.C., despite the allegations of cheating on the city’s standardized tests, students’ scores on the federal NAEP test, which is very hard to cheat on, rose during Rhee’s tenure. If those increases continue under Henderson, it will be hard to argue that the system Rhee created wasn’t worth the pain it took to build.
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