Jeff Ross, MPA
One year ago this month, Michelle Rhee stepped down as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Anyone who has lived in the District knows that it is an odd mix of national and local priorities, Redskins fans and Cowboys fans, transplanted individuals and born-and-raised lifers. But no matter how connected or disconnected one is with the goings on of local DC issues and politics, nearly everyone who lived in the District from 2007-2010 had an opinion about “that Korean lady who was running the schools.”
Ms. Rhee, selected as chancellor by Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007 shortly after the D.C. City Council voted to establish direct mayoral control of the public school system, was young for an urban superintendent and had a non-traditional background for a superintendent of a large urban school district. She taught elementary school in Baltimore for three years before founding the non-profit The New Teacher Project, an organization that has worked with urban school districts to recruit or hire over 43,000 teachers. At the time, DCPS had long been considered one of the worst performing school districts in the nation, a system that spent one of the highest amounts of dollars per student yet got some of the lowest academic outcomes in the country. Leadership had been a constant revolving door, with six different superintendents in the previous ten years.
In the three plus years of Ms. Rhee’s controversial tenure, she brought a sense of urgency coupled with significant change aimed at improving the school system as quickly as possible. Washington Post writer Bill Turque, who covered the D.C. Public School system since relatively early in Ms. Rhee’s tenure, recently wrote a review of Ms. Rhee’s record. For the most part, I think it paints a fair picture of the successes (improvements in student outcomes and test scores, operational improvements in central office functions and food service, increased focus and importance on education as a civic issue) and challenges (opposition from some parents and community members, continued high principal turnover) faced by Ms. Rhee during her tenure, with a few caveats:
1) While the statistics surrounding D.C. Public Schools prior to Ms. Rhee’s tenure mentioned earlier are well-known and oft-cited, I think people often forget just how much agreement there was in the unacceptable state of affairs in DCPS at that time. The landslide 9-2 vote to enact mayoral control coupled with the unanimous vote to approve Ms. Rhee as chancellor are but two markers of the universal call for change at the time.
2) A noticeable omission from the article was the focus Ms. Rhee and DCPS put on ensuring every school had an arts, music, and physical education program. While parents and teachers alike often complain of the edging out of more robust educational opportunities in some schools (particularly those in urban areas) in favor of more practice with tested subjects (reading and math), DCPS under Ms. Rhee invested significant resources to ensure these options were available to all students for the first time.
3) Turque mentions that parents and community members felt that Ms. Rhee moved forward with school improvement efforts – including but not limited to closing underutilized school buildings – despite their stated objections. Indeed, Ms. Rhee faced decreasing approval ratings from D.C. residents during her tenure. However, it is important to note that while residents disapproved of Ms. Rhee personally in increasing numbers, Washington Post polls found that residents were in fact more satisfied with the levels of safety and overall satisfaction with public schools under Ms. Rhee, suggesting that much of the discontent was communication or personality related.
As a former employee of DCPS under Ms. Rhee, I certainly think that there were things that could have been done better. While I’m sympathetic to the position of Ms. Rhee and others that when it comes to student outcomes, change and improvement cannot happen fast enough, I think that it is crucial to present such efforts in as fair and collaborative manner as possible. While some would call that a subtle distinction, such a mindset shift would potentially have large effects on the number of new programs created, the rollout of vital new systems like the IMPACT teacher evaluation system, and communication with elected officials and community members. That’s why I’m confident in the future of DCPS under the leadership of current DCPS chancellor Kaya Henderson, who brings the same unwavering passion and commitment to improved student outcomes with a more inclusive style. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to take stock of where things were just a short time ago, and to have the understanding that such meaningful and positive change wouldn’t have occurred without the efforts of Chancellor Michelle Rhee.