Education implications of D.C. mayoral primary
Two weeks ago Sam Chaltain, a D.C.-based educator and strategist, wrote about whether D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee should stay or go. Here's another view about the future of D.C. public schools, this one from Frederick M. Hess, director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
By Frederick M. Hess
The Washington Post just reported that D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is trailing challenger and City Council President Vincent Gray by 17% among likely voters in the run-up to the city’s Democratic primary. The primary will be held September 14 and, in almost entirely Democratic DC, is tantamount to election.
The poll results follow several weeks of straw polls suggesting that Fenty was in trouble. Fenty, who swept to a massive citywide victory in 2006, has held his support among the city's white voters but cratered among black voters—with Fenty trailing Gray 64-19 among registered black Democrats. The deep-pocketed Fenty effort has foundered even though 67% of registered Dems say the mayor “has brought needed change” to the city.
Hard-charging D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Michelle Rhee has made it clear that she regards Fenty as a stalwart champion and is skeptical that Gray would provide the same support. For his part, Gray has equivocated about whether he would seek to keep Rhee, just as he has on the contentious particulars of her efforts.
In a race where The Washington Post reports that the public school system is the single most important issue for voters, reactions to Rhee’s efforts loom large—with 41% of Democratic voters saying her record is a reason to vote for Fenty and 40% terming it a reason to vote against him.
I see three takeaways here.
First, there’s a lesson here about the metrics used to gauge reform. Rhee and her team have done numerous important things that are important and measurable but that I would not expect to have yet shown up in reading and math scores—yet Rhee and her supporters have tried to argue for her efforts almost entirely in terms of test scores and “achievement gaps”, minimizing these accomplishments and shifting the debate away from some of her most impressive feats.
Rhee’s team has cleared an enormous backlog in special education, shuttered a slew of underutilized and decrepit schools in a move that saves millions each year, fixed a profoundly dysfunctional system for procuring and distributing textbooks, overhauled a broken data and human resources operation, improved hiring, built a top-shelf research department, and created a performance-based evaluation system that will enable supervisors to gradually improve classroom instruction over time.
Such wins are critical to the long-term prospects of DCPS, even though they are unlikely to yield short-term test gains. Yet, for reasons that continue to escape me, would-be reformers are actively disinclined to measure these things, focus upon them, or claim clear gains in efficiency or service as significant wins. Not surprisingly, the media—and even those critics who say it’s not just about test scores—then discount the unmeasured and rarely discussed infrastructure wins and focus on debating the reliability and trajectory of test scores.
Second, the popular question of the moment is: “Would a Gray victory offer a chance to build on what Michelle has done, while soothing the rough edges?” I’ve heard this query from at least a half-dozen reporters, civic leaders, and self-styled reformers of late.
The historical record suggests that the clear answer is “no.” If Rhee leaves under duress after a little more than three years and hands off to someone brought in as a conciliator, it’s safe to say that much of the good that she’s accomplished will be unraveled. A Gray victory would embolden the Washington Teachers Union and the neighborhood and bureaucratic interests that chafed under Rhee’s firm grip. (Unless, of course, should Gray choose to forthrightly embrace Rhee).
A new “collaborative” superintendent brought in to foster consensus will have difficulty resisting various claimants—and will quickly be attacked as insufficiently collaborative should she try.
The talented central staff, school leaders, and new teachers recruited under Rhee simply haven’t had time to put down deep roots deep enough to upend decades of established culture. Absent district-level accountability and steely leadership, history teaches that these staff would be left to mount a rearguard fight against resistant community and school interests. Many would be poached by other districts or by charter schools, and the new systems put in place at the district level diluted or rendered toothless.
Third, there’s a caution for overcaffeinated fans of mayoral control. Mayoral control can allow a city like DC to promote a coherent, aggressive agenda for improvement. Done well, it can be a promising and viable strategy.
However, Washington D.C. is an example of why we ought not to romanticize mayoral control or ignore its limitations. Because Rhee’s efforts are integral to Fenty’s legacy, a challenger who unseats him has particular incentive to alter course in a visible way. This is true anywhere the prior administration’s efforts were ambitious (and, therefore, polarizing).
The nature of an appointed superintendent’s relationship to the mayor means that Rhee has spent three years without much of an independent mechanism for organizing civic leaders, building mailing lists, or holding community gatherings (outside of school-based information sessions).
That kind of blocking and tackling is essential if would-be reformers are to convince parents and voters that all the noise and unpleasantness is necessary—and not, as critics charge, merely a question of personality and abrasive leadership style. I believe mayoral control, on the whole, to be a good thing for the city. But it’s necessary to approach it with eyes open and avoid the temptation to treat it as a shortcut.
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| August 30, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories: D.C. Schools, Guest Bloggers | Tags: adrian fenty, d.c. mayor, d.c. mayor's race, d.c. public schools, d.c. schools and rhee, fenty and rhee. mayor's race, fenty poll, frederick hess, mayor's poll, michelle rhee, rick hess, washington post poll, will rhee stay?
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