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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 08/30/2010

Education implications of D.C. mayoral primary

By Valerie Strauss

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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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Comments

Mr. Hess' views are misguided and show he does not know and/or does not care what the people of the District of Columbia think about education reform and Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Mr. Hess overrates Chancellor Rhee's accomplishments and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's understanding of public education reform strategies.

In essence, Mr. Hess does not know what he is talking about regarding DC public education reform. It is also unfortunate Ms. Strauss has not discussed District public education reform with local community groups, such as the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, Inc., Ward 4, 5, and 7 Councils on Education which are committed to public education reform, but rather Ms. Strauss chooses to ignore them.

Robert Vinson Brannum
rbrannum@robertbrannum.com

Posted by: robert158 | August 30, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

Then how do you account for the fact that DC's NAEP scores have been steadily increasing for over 10 years under 6 different superintendents?

Clearly, changing leadership hasn't impeded progress.

Could achievement have increased even more if they had stayed longer? Maybe - but that's not what's happening with Rhee. Scores are going down and the achievement gap is widening.

Posted by: efavorite | August 30, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse

We must be grateful that the Oligarchs (Gates, Broad, and the Waltons) have sent Mr. Hess to issue their dire bullet points on the likely effects of the predicted trouncing of Fenty/Rhee in the upcoming election.

On Takeaway 1: Mr. Hess finds it unfortunate that the media has not investigated all the non-testing accomplishments that Ms. Rhee's public relations department has not bothered to chest thump about, themselves. Could it be that there is not much to really brag about in making a working textbook inventory system or in choosing a new data tracking system from SchoolNet, which has been the recipient of a many-a-no-bid contracts from the likes of Paul Vallas and former Chicago CEO of Schools, Arne Duncan.

As for Rhee's "top shelf" research department and test score based teacher evaluation system, here's proof that unlimited corporate foundation dollars can buy you lots of things, even if it can't buy you love.

On Takeaway 2: Here Mr. Hess makes the claim that the snarling Ms. Rhee is the way she is because to be otherwise would be a sign of weakness and, therefore, allow the teacher and parent hoards to sack the Central Office. Collaboration, according to Mr. Hess, will be read as a sign of weakness, and without Ms. Rhee's "steely leadership," all the Oligarchs' non-empirical corporate ed reform plans will go up in smoke. Since democracy demands dialogue and compromise, then there is no place for democracy in these public schools, for dialogue and collaboration are signs of weakness. And weakness, well, remember the hordes.

Which brings us to Takeaway 3. On mayoral control and appointed superintendent, Mr. Hess sees the utter failure of Fenty/Rhee to engage parents and teachers as due to an over-exuberance for mayoral control, rather than the hubristic expression of unleashed megalomania into the public domain of DC Schools. Mr. Hess recommends going back to the basic managerial "blocking and tackling," where mayors and their superintendents learn salesmanship and manipulation, rather than depending upon the bare-knuckled ramrodding that Ms. Rhee has now made infamous. Whichever tactics are chosen moving forward, Mr. Fenty or Mr. Gray may rest assured that an informed public will be watching for the not-so-invisible meddling hands of those who own the market. Caveat venditor!

Posted by: SchoolsMatter | August 30, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

I happen to think that Michelle Rhee is the best thing that has happened to DCPS since, well, forever. But I'm still not voting for Fenty (actually, I'm not voting for Gray, either, since I'm an independent, so, more accurately, I wouldn't vote for Fenty). But Fenty's cronyism and arrogance and his dismissive attitude toward everyone in the city who doesn't adhere to his "bike lanes, streetcars, and dog parks" approach made him lose my support. The straw that broke the camel's back was when Mark Seagraves got footage of Fenty illegally using his police escort to stop traffic in Maryland so that he and his bike club could ride on roads where bikes are prohibited. And besides, Michelle Rhee has made it clear by marrying Kevin Johnson that she doesn't intend to stick around for another four years. So, why vote for King Adrian if his best appointee is about to leave?

Posted by: WashingtonDame | August 30, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

"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" ... recruited talent from all over the nation.

Had she then sought to be a collaborative leader, I'd be singing her praises. Rhee did not have the humility to just play her position; she had to be a one-woman team. Had she the administrator sought to fix administrative problems, as opposed to micromanaging teaching and learning, I'd be praising her. Had she focused on D.C and not tried to impose a "reform" agenda across the nation, it would be different. Had she allowed a performance based evaluation system to be collaboratively developed and not politicized, I'd support her. Why couldn't she have battled FOR kids and not AGAINST the wide universe that she called "the status quo?" Why couldn't she had done her job in D.C. and not try to impose her ideology on my classroom in Oklahoma City?

Posted by: johnt4853 | August 30, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

The problem of D.C. schools is not that different from other Title 1 poverty public schools in urban areas.

There are large numbers of children in D.C. that have great difficulty in learning.

Ms. Rhee has not created any new methods or programs to deal with this problem.

Instead Ms. Rhee has simply blamed teachers with the pretense that teachers on their own can simply deal with the great difficulty that these children have in learning.

The reality is that any teacher, no matter how superior, in a class room with 30 children can not work miracles and make children learn when they have great difficulty in learning.

The national tests for D.C. in 2009 showed 56 percent of children failing in 4th grade reading.

Time for Ms. Rhee to go and bring in a new educator with actual experience in public education.

Blaming teachers may please the crowd but does nothing to deal with the problem of large numbers of children that have great difficulty in learning.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 30, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

"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."

Each of these systems is now worse because of Rhee and her uninformed TFA cult cronies. She is dedicated to enriching herself and her corporate masters at the expences of poor chhildren and working people.

Posted by: mcstowy | August 30, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Aww, poor Michelle. We, the public are not being FAIR to her when we rate her on immediate numbers and improvement...

UM--Mr. Chaltain--Rhee is the one who graded teachers based on an untested tool (IMPACT) and FIRED them after ONE year (no long-term evaluation... no thoughtful testing or evaluation of IMPACT itself... no calibration... no second chances... 1 poor year, you're out...)

So, she can fire teachers with an untested tool after ONE year, but we're supposed to give her another 4 years to try out her schemes?

Sorry buddy, hypocrisy will not be tolerated by this educated electorate...

Posted by: adcpsteacher | August 30, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Hess says that Rhee "...recruited talent from all over the nation."

Please name this talent and exactly where in the country they came from. And please don't just include central office staff - these are a lot of former TFA types who may be talented at a lot of things, but are generally not experienced enough to have established a reputation in education administration.

Please tell us how many star principals came from around the country to work in Michelle Rhee's ed reform dream. I haven't heard of any coming further than the surrounding suburbs.

How many successful, experienced teachers with solid records of increasing test scores have flocked here? I haven't heard of any out-of-towners except for first-time TFA teachers.

I'm serious about wanting answers. Someone writing a news article shouldn't be allowed to make statements that can't be backed up with facts.


Posted by: efavorite | August 30, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Hess says that Rhee "...recruited talent from all over the nation."

Please name this talent and exactly where in the country they came from. And please don't just include central office staff - these are a lot of former TFA types who may be talented at a lot of things, but are generally not experienced enough to have established a reputation in education administration.

Please tell us how many star principals came from around the country to work in Michelle Rhee's ed reform dream. I haven't heard of any coming further than the surrounding suburbs.

How many successful, experienced teachers with solid records of increasing test scores have flocked here? I haven't heard of any out-of-towners except for first-time TFA teachers.

I'm serious about wanting answers. Someone writing a news article shouldn't be allowed to make statements that can't be backed up with facts.


Posted by: efavorite | August 30, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Efavorite, I sat on a principal search. The three we interviewed were all appointed, despite zero experience on the part of one candidate, and resumes with spelling errors and typos. All are now leading a DCPS. And yes, none came from outside the Beltway.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | August 30, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Fenty has caused suvh polarization I don't know what to think about his circle of friends.

The whole Rhee as a campaign ploy seems dubious math. Rhee is only 48% approval and can only transfer a portion of her support to fenty. Can anyone do math. That is not enough to win. At this point even the ones who like her don't think she is the one wedding her with a Fenty vote.

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