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What’s Up Down South

Exclusive Interview with Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools
By Adam Sugerman
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The 2007 version of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins suffered through a disastrous one-win season. A few weeks before the saga ended, the organization hired football guru Bill Parcells to run its football operations. Parcells helped revamp the front office and the coaching staff with personnel who were doggedly persistent in revamping the team. The result? Partial success. Many of the players on the 2007 Dolphins became lynchpins for the playoff bound 2008 team. But the 2009 team missed the playoffs as long-suffering fans continue to clamor for the Dolphins to end their Super Bowl drought.

So what does football have in common with struggling school districts? Attitude and determination! On June 12, 2007, Washington, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty gained authority of the district’s public school system (DCPS). He then hired Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the Bill Parcells of the capital’s school district. A protégé of New York City’s Joel Klein, Ms. Rhee has taken the reins of DCPS, and in a few years, has helped turn the district around on many levels. Yet in her own words, “My goal in this, and the mayor and I set these goals together when we started, was to be the highest performing urban school district in the country and close the achievement gap between white kids and kids of color in the city, and I think that’s absolutely achievable.”

So how is DCPS going to accomplish this? Ms. Rhee implements best practices and established research to make improvements districtwide. In one study, many students not performing at grade level have less instruction time than students who perform above grade level. Thus, Ms. Rhee implemented the “academic power hour” in all district public schools, “Saturday’s College” at the public high schools, and a more comprehensive summer school. The “academic power hour” is an after-school program that is specifically for children who are not operating on grade level. The first hour is focused on academic intervention. After that, children work on their dance, music, and academics. According to Rhee, “We think that it’s one of the reasons why we’ve been able to see such huge gains in such a short period of time because we’ve essentially added an hour onto the school day without formally lengthening the school day and the school year.

Ms. Rhee might not win every popularity contest, but clearly she is making a positive mark on the system. Students are earning higher scores on standardized tests, many in the community view the city’s schools more favorably, and D.C. is a finalist to receive Race to the Top funding. What has helped Ms. Rhee immensely to shake up the system is the fact that she is not a career superintendent, nor does she intend to be. Just as important is that her two children are students at one of the city’s magnet schools. She launched her professional career right out of Cornell by joining Teach for America and was placed in the Baltimore Public School system where she taught inner-city children for three years; during her last two years, she worked with the same group of children. Then she went on to earn her master’s degree in public policy with a concentration in education policy from Harvard, and eventually launched the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that “develops solutions for school districts, state education agencies, nonprofit agencies, and unions to change how schools and other organizations recruit, select and train qualified teachers and staff in schools that are difficult to staff.”

Thus, Ms. Rhee has developed criteria in hiring personnel. When she hires principals, for example, she looks for three characteristics. First is for a prospective principal to be “okay with controversy” if it means “doing the right thing.” One of the critiques of which Ms. Rhee griped was that many D.C. school administrators are “conflict-averse” and so they cannot, or will not, make decisions that will anger people. A second condition is that a prospective principal be a good manager of children and adults, especially through change. Communicating effectively, knowing when to tighten or to loosen control, and providing an inspiring and compelling vision for the community are paramount. Finally it is imperative for the principal to be passionate about this work because “even at the end of the day,” says Ms. Rhee, “we’re so far behind compared to where we need to be.” A principal must be fully committed to this mission.

During her time with DCPS, Ms. Rhee has had run-ins with unions, but her bottom line is to base decisions on what is good for the children. On the issue of DCPS firing teachers and school administrators, she states, “it’s a balance because it’s about developing a process that, on the one hand, is fair and transparent, yet, on the other hand, is expeditious.” She added, “Resources must not be siphoned from the schools. For example, people remain on the payroll for a long time while their cases are investigated. Taxpayers get weary of the system when they hear of these cases.” So what is a reasonable amount of time for due process? Ms. Rhee says about two weeks. In terms of effectuating change, that would come from the superintendent’s office, a collective bargaining agreement with the union, or a legislative body.

Ms. Rhee also brings business acumen to the job. According to Ms. Rhee, at one time, DCPS enrolled as many as 140,000 students. Now it serves 45,000 kids. Each year for 30 years, the district had been losing students, but this is the first year that enrollment didn’t decrease from year to year. Because the district has underutilized facilities, she is looking to collaborate more with the community to put these facilities to work.

Regarding charter schools, Ms. Rhee is completely in favor of the concept as long as the charter schools are effective. Failing charter schools should be closed down. To those who opine that charter schools siphon money from public schools, Ms. Rhee responds by taking the point of view of children and parents. Effective charter schools provide more opportunities, especially in those instances where the alternatives are big, bloated bureaucracies. “Washington, D.C. spends more money per capita on its public schools than any district in the country, and look at the results. It’s resulted in 8 percent of the children in this city being on grade level. More money does not equal better outcomes.”

In response to the idea of students starting college after completing the 10th grade and passing an exit examination, Ms. Rhee says, “we need to strike a balance. For a 15-year-old to go off to college is pretty young, especially from an emotional and a developmental standpoint.” She added, “We should be building more bridges so a high school student should be able to take college-level courses so they would be better off when it’s time to go to college.” Right now, Rhee doesn’t believe that DCPS is doing enough to build these bridges.

When asked what school districts could do to replicate the success of her district, Rhee immediately responds with two ideas. The first is to replicate the governing structure. In areas where superintendents report to school boards, decisions take much longer to make. But when a school district leader reports directly to the mayor, the leader can present an idea and receive permission to proceed without endless debate, or to trading votes or making backdoor deals. Another implementation could be an easy-to-use teacher evaluation tool that is transparent. The evaluation tool that DCPS uses is online, and its key components are that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on how well students progress academically.

So what is going to occur first: the Miami Dolphins winning their first Super Bowl since the 1970s, or DCPS becoming the top performing city school district in the land? #

Adam Sugerman is co-publisher of Education Update.



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