By Padmini Jambulapati
Michelle Rhee, District of Columbia Public Schools chancellor, is a divisive figure in the education community. She was a Teach for America corps member (Baltimore, 1992) and headed The New Teacher Project before coming to DC in 2007. Appointed by Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee has overhauled the troubled DC school system by closing schools, introducing a new teacher evaluation system, holding teachers accountable, and bringing in private funding. Rhee has appeared on countless television news programs, magazine and newspaper stories, and most recently, in David Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman for her work. Education reformers frequently hail her work in DC while others criticize her aggressive methods. She announced her resignation on October 13, effective at the end of the month. I interviewed Rhee via e-mail shortly after her resignation.
How do you want your term as DC Chancellor to be remembered?
I’m not really thinking about how I’ll be remembered, as my hopes are more tied to the impact I want our work to have on student achievement. I believe that those who are following me will continue to build on the foundation we’ve created, and if student achievement continues to go up as a result, I’ll be satisfied with what we’ve begun here.
What would you say to education reformers disheartened by your resignation?
Have faith! I have tremendous confidence in Kaya Henderson. She is not one to shy away from tough decisions, and I respect Chairman Gray’s decision to support her in the interim. If he selects and stands by a permanent replacement who is willing to make the difficult but necessary decisions that put children first, I will continue to be very hopeful that this school district will only continue to move forward.
As you know, Mark Zuckerberg recently donated $100 million dollars to Newark Public Schools with the stipulation that Mayor Booker be given partial control of the school system—a stipulation that may not stand up to legal review. Could you talk about the outlook of conditional private foundation funding in public schools? Often these grants are one-time jolts into school coffers. In your view, how can these funding partnerships be sustainable?
If funds are tied to the right reforms and leadership, they don’t need to continually fuel the operations of the school system. For example, we used private funding for our teacher contract, but much of the funds provided for teacher raises were for the first year, with the end-years of the contract built into the city budget.
In the long term, I believe public education can reverse generational poverty. It takes a whole lot of commitment on the human and financial front to reverse what has been a decades-long downward trajectory in many districts. It’s not about pouring gobs of money into the problem every year. It’s about making the right decisions with that money to fix the dysfunction. Once you have the right systems, people, and accountability structures in place to essentially climb this huge mountain together, then you start to graduate kids with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed. Once their kids are in school, the job becomes easier on schools with the next generation of kids.
As a former Baltimore schoolteacher, what are your thoughts on the new teachers’ contract over there? You mentioned on Oprah that your experience in Baltimore shaped your belief that adults are what’s wrong in public education, not the kids. Do you think that this contract will go a long way towards fixing the problems you saw in Baltimore?
Contracts that will go a long way towards fixing the problems in urban districts have to be aggressive in areas like removing ineffective educators and tying performance to student achievement. I haven’t seen Baltimore’s new contract yet, so I can’t comment on whether or not it does this, but for a contract to be cutting edge that is what I’d look for.
Turnaround has definitely generated a buzz in education reform. What policies need to be in place to fundamentally turn a school around? What metrics do you think should be used to judge if a school has truly been turned around?
In short, organizations that do this well usually start with school culture. Within the first few weeks of school, you can tell just by walking in that there is a new leader and higher expectations. Things that seem simple—teachers in the hallways in between classes, consistency coming from all the adults in the building on school polity, sending the message that this is a serious place for learning, etc.—are an important beginning. Then it gets into the same reforms that all struggling schools need. They get the freedom to hire their own principals, and we sometimes have tied the school turnaround partnership with a reconstitution, which means they are more free to hire their own staff. They are combining innovation with some established best practices in ways to produce results in student achievement.
It seems that accountability has been shifted to the individual school, but most successful school reforms require a change at the district level. Schools can’t be functional in a dysfunctional system. Should there be more accountability at the district level? Any ideas for ways to hold districts more responsible for reform and student outcomes?
Absolutely. This is what it’s all about, and here I would recommend seeing Waiting for Superman if you haven’t already! We need great performance evaluations across the board, along with partnerships with unions on progressive new contracts. Our new contract includes student achievement outcomes along with clear and consistent expectations, objective classroom observations by master educators, contributions to the school community, etc. I believe No Child Left Behind (NCLB) got this issue on the table, and that President Obama is taking it to the next level with Race to the Top: in the past year states have taken leaps and bounds toward implementing higher accountability for student outcomes because of this initiative. We are definitely on the right track and there is momentum now. We just have to keep moving forward and pushing aggressively to make results in public schools a top priority.
Your Race to the Top application heavily featured mayoral control. Is mayoral control the prerequisite to education reform? Are school boards impeding true education reform?
I don’t think all school districts need mayoral control to be effective, but turning a failing school district around would be very hard to do without mayoral control. That said, it is not a panacea either. Without a courageous person at the helm who is willing to make unpopular decisions sometimes, and put children over his/her own political career, mayoral control in itself wouldn’t turn things around. I also wouldn’t blame it on people on school boards, because it’s more the structure that makes it hard for reformers to make necessary changes swiftly. I work with some people now who were on school boards, and while their ideals and plans are no different than mine, they attested to how hard it was to move on critical decisions when a number of elected officials with conflicting bases had to agree.
The ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] reauthorization is a work in progress. What are some improvements that could be made to NCLB? What would you like to see included in the ESEA reauthorization?
First, I want to say that while I would support some tweaks to No Child Left Behind, I think it was a huge step in getting people’s attention on equity for all students in this country. Because of this law we’re now held accountable for educating all students, including those who too often fell through the cracks and were subject the false belief that they couldn’t learn because of poverty, race, etc. I give a huge amount of credit to President Bush and the late Senator Kennedy on this, and I think they were the trailblazers in establishing the expectation that politics is no excuse for sweeping the problems of education under the rug.
That said, I hope that when looking at school success, with reauthorization we can include not just the absolute benchmarks of performance, but academic growth achieved during a year. I also think we have to get apples-to-apples comparisons between school districts by adopting national standards and assessments. Until we’re on the same page, we can’t really know how we compare to other states, and states shouldn’t be able to lower standards to meet the minimum benchmark.
Do you think last month’s primary was truly a referendum on education reform, and essentially, you? Can politics and sound policy work successfully together?
Yes, that’s what I understand from the polls I’ve seen, and many residents have said they would have voted for Fenty if he hadn’t closed schools, fired teachers, etc. To me this points even more toward how much courage it takes to make the right decisions for kids, rather than to make the decisions that are politically beneficial. I continue to believe that it’s dangerous for politics to get a say in decisions about children. If they have to, the political concern should be dead last in line about why you’re making a decision that affects kids’ futures.
As you know the movie Waiting for Superman has brought a lot of attention to certain people involved in education reform. What person or organization in education reform right now is doing great work but is not getting a lot of attention?
Good question. The state of Colorado has gotten some attention over the past few years, but I think they deserve more for what they’ve done with teacher quality and with the support of the community—which as we can see by the example of DC, is tough!
Looking forward, what needs to happen next in DC school reform?
There is still work to do on most fronts, but I’d say the three most important areas of focus are in human capital, special education and continuing to resource schools in the right way.
In human capital we created IMPACT, the rigorous new teacher evaluation tool. I think implementing that needs to continue [in order] to implement the new teacher contract with fidelity, to get to the point where we have an excellent teacher in every classroom. It’s also critical in human capital to continue to be able to attract and professionally develop high quality principals.
In special education we’ve made great strides on the most urgent issues, but now reform needs to develop more capacity within schools to serve more of the population in the district as opposed to private placement.
The third is a focus on the school level, seeing that more resources continue to be driven down to schools as opposed to sitting in the central office.
*Special thanks to Kerry Donahue, MPP ’11, for her contributions to this interview.