Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Will Rhee stay or go?

By Matt Buccelli

After City Council Chairman Vincent Gray's triumph over incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty in the September 14 DC mayoral primary, the jury is still out on what Gray's victory may mean for the future of DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. During Gray's tenure as council chair, he and Rhee have maintained a rocky relationship, and on the day after the primary, Rhee chose to characterize the result as "devastating for the children of Washington, DC." (ouch) Over the course of the campaign, Rhee signaled that she wouldn't work for Gray should he win, and given her engagement to the current mayor of Sacramento, California, she may be ready to skip town anyway. For his part, Gray remained mum during his bid for the mayoralty about whether or not he would keep Rhee, and has refused to make any decisions on administrative personnel until he is officially the mayor; even in heavily Democratic DC, the presumptive mayor-to-be still has to at least go through the motions of a general election in November.

Basically, we're unlikely to hear anything for awhile. But that shouldn't stop us from speculating anyway on what Gray's victory means for the Chancellor and for the future of DC education policy as a whole.

Rhee and other prominent Fenty supporters suggested during the more heated stages of the campaign that a Gray victory would bring Washington, DC and its education system back to the "old days" of inefficiency, embarrassment, and failure, but this seems like hyperbole. On education and other matters, Gray's platform throughout his campaign was basically to continue Fenty's reforms, but to listen more to local communities. One of the major knocks on both Fenty and Rhee that created a fundamental weakness for Gray to exploit was the mayor and chancellor's brash style and perceived inability to listen to complementary voices. As far as matters of substance go, however, Gray has indicated that he is determined to continue the basic track of school reform initiated by Rhee, with a few tweaks. Reading Gray's education plan, the main difference seems to be his insistence that he will solicit community input and foster a more "collaborative approach" to education reform. (To read Gray's educational platform, as seen on his campaign website, click here)

It is reasonable to debate the merits of Gray's commitment to "collaboration" versus Rhee's more dictatorial style: arguably, Rhee has been able to get more done in her three years at the helm of DC schools because she has been so hard-charging. And it is easy for detractors of Gray's approach to deride his love for deliberation and community input as a recipe for not actually getting anything done. The bottom line, however, is that regardless of whether or not Rhee stays or goes, her current boss was voted out because the people her policies are affecting most -- the residents of DC's poorest neighborhoods, along with teachers and parents of students in the city's most underperforming schools -- were turned off by her brash demeanor and low regard for community engagement and support. In the Chancellor's own words: "cooperation, collaboration and consensus building are way overrated." Feeling disenchanted, the people whose support Rhee failed to bring along voted for someone who has promised to listen more. If Rhee isn't committed to at least moderating her approach, she should probably leave too.

Many of the Chancellor's reforms, such as her streamlining of administrative operations at the DCPS central office, have resulted in a school district that is leaner, less wasteful, and more efficient. School facilities have been improved. Textbooks now get delivered on time. And student achievement, as measured by standardized test scores, has at least ticked up -- although elementary school literacy did drop this year by 4 percent.

Still, despite these measures of success, there are legitimate issues surrounding the future of school reform in Washington, DC. What role will charter schools play? Teachers must be held accountable, an issue whose cross Rhee chose to bear, but do standardized test scores really provide a fair assessment of teacher and student performance? Does the district rely excessively on these tests, and does this damage the quality of education that students receive in the classroom by mandating that teachers "teach to the test?" How else can we insure that teachers and schools are doing their job? What else do we need to help children coming from difficult life circumstances succeed in the classroom?

These are not easy questions to answer, but the only way that the challenges they present will be met successfully is if education reform in DC, to paraphrase an article that recently appeared in The Root magazine, is done with the people it affects, instead of to them. Michelle Rhee has enjoyed some notable successes during her tenure with DCPS, but this is something that she hasn't seemed to grasp. Whether it's her or somebody different, the next chancellor of DC public schools under Vince Gray will need to have a better understanding that truly good leadership requires the support and buy-in of those who are being led.