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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 10/13/2010

Rhee’s big legacy: Being a whirlwind

By Valerie Strauss

She came in like a whirlwind, kicking up dust wherever she went, and now, Michelle Rhee, all-powerful chancellor of D.C. public schools, is leaving after three years, securing her place in the history of D.C. public education as, well, mostly a whirlwind.

Larry Cuban, the Stanford University educator and former superintendent, had it right when he predicted on this blog last month that Rhee would wind up being no more than a footnote in a doctoral dissertation, just like Hugh Scott, the first African American superintendent in Washington D.C., who served in the early 1970s.


Because the kind of business-driven, standardized test-centric reforms that Rhee championed, with the full support of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are guaranteed not to help improve troubled schools. They can’t work because they don’t address the most basic issues confronting students and teachers.

Rhee is a leader in a school reform movement that embraces public charter schools -- even though they can't ever be a systemic answer -- and standardized tests, even though assessment experts warn about using them for high-stakes decisions.

Rhee ignored the effects that poverty has on students trying to learn how to read and to memorize Newton’s Law of Gravity. She based her assessment system -- of kids and teachers -- on standardized tests, which she was seeking to expand to every grade, a move that ignored the fact that the current obsession with testing has already unacceptably narrowed curriculum.

Real change necessary for a successful school -- great curriculum, great development for teachers, children who come to school ready to learn -- was never seriously addressed in the Rhee administration.

Certainly Rhee will rattle off a string of accomplishments as she walks out the door, but we’ve heard this sort of thing before.

Let’s look back at the last time a powerhouse of a superintendent left the D.C. school system. That would be Arlene Ackerman, who resigned in exhaustion in 2000 after a three-year tenure as chief academic officer and then superintendent.

A release was issued by the school system when she resigned, saying:

“Ackerman became Superintendent in May 1998. Since then, there have been significant accomplishments that have contributed to the national attention now focused on the District’s public schools:

* Improved academic achievement
* Ended social promotion
* Year-round (Saturday and Summer) learning opportunities for more than 40,000 students
* Highly-regarded content standards for all subjects
* Performance targets for schools with incentive awards
* Social studies textbook adoption for grades K-12 and science secondary subjects
* A Weighted Student Formula that promotes fiscal equity among all schools
* Negotiated pay increases for teachers and principals, and developed evaluation instruments that include pay-for-performance incentive clauses
* Collaboration with the Washington Teachers’ Union on multiple education initiatives
* Restructuring of the Special Education department for improved programs and services and the elimination of longstanding backlog for initial assessments
* Improved school facilities with major capital improvements and repairs
* Reduced central administration costs from 15% to less than 6% of school district budget
* Two additional hours of operation for central administrative offices to better serve school staff and citizens (new hours of 7:30 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. replaced 8:00 a.m. 4:30 p.m.)

"Mrs. Ackerman is especially pleased with the aggressive reform agenda that puts children first. 'I believe that we are on the right track,' Ackerman states, 'and have laid the foundation for continuous progress.' "

That's quite a list. A few years is time enough to start a lot of things, but not really to finish much. By the time Rhee arrived, nobody remembered much, if any, of Ackerman's initiatives.

By the time Rhee’s permanent successor shows up, it won’t be surprising if that little piece of history repeats itself.


Give us Your Take: What's next for Michelle Rhee? Who do you think should replace her as interim chancellor? How do you feel about Rhee's departure? Use #Rhee to discuss on Twitter and we'll post the best responses on our site.


Give us Your Take: What's next for Michelle Rhee? Who do you think should replace her as interim chancellor? How do you feel about Rhee's departure? Use #Rhee to discuss on Twitter and we'll post the best responses on our site.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 13, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  d.c. schools, michelle rhee, michelle rhee quits, michelle rhee resigns, reformer quits, reformers, rhee leaving, rhee quits, rhee resigns, school reform  
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Next: A different vision from a different superintendent


I am sorry to take you back to reality Ms Strauss, we need to test people.
I know I sound like a bad person, but sometimes you need to be mean, you have to challenge people, and hold them accountable, if not we are going to fail.
We are failing already... It is sad, but true. People can achieve things, if they fight for them, but we need courage and sacrifice
I would rather have someone like Ms Rhee fighting to improve the quality of our schools, than nothing, than more of the same

Posted by: hectorquintanillaf | October 12, 2010 8:32 PM | Report abuse

My daughter is an attorney for child services. She says that when a baby is removed straight from the hospital for cocaine addiction, they are almost relieved. At least the baby is not addicted to the prescription pills the mother had been taking. Apparently those babies are in NICU for weeks on end and we don't know the long term damage done there yet. She says it is ten times bad.

But I want all of these future students to be TESTED, TESTED, and TESTED some more. As the Ministry of Education in China told us, "We have tested the creativity right out of our students". Our kids are starting to hate school, and as always the teachers are to blame.

An article I just read stated that when we baby boomers leave the school systems across the country, there will be an immense brain drain. Because during our high school years, the brightest and best females went into education or nursing. Now the new recruits are generally from the bottom 30% of high school graduates. What insanity education has become.

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | October 12, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

Whirlwind? She outlasted every other DC schools chancellor in the past 20 years.

Spin it as you wish, Valerie, the facts say otherwise.

Posted by: confounded | October 12, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

Testing is only good when used as a portion of an overall assessment. What Michele Rhee doesn't seem to understand, and apparently Arne Duncan is also ignoring, is that when testing is the primary measure of success, teachers are encourage by their principals and district to teach to the test. Who cares about understanding, acquisition of knowledge, problem solving skills, teaching and learning, etc. ?
If it's not going to be on the test, IT DOESN"T MATTER.
Raising test scores is not the same as educating children.

Posted by: TheShadowKnows | October 12, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

What is this blog's author's qualification to even comment on educational issues? It seems like she is reading off the teachers union fact(spin)sheet. These are the same unions that sat around, got paid, got fat and watched this cities kids lives go down the sewer.

How can you be known as doing the worst job at educating students in the country - your chosen "profession" - and then fight tooth and nail someone who is trying to make improvements? How can any honorable, respectable person do that and look themselves in the mirror?

Poverty? Hardship? There are kinds in this country who have much tougher home lives, have a fraction of the educational budget as does the District, but who have higher literacy and graduation rates. This blog's author's assertion that these conditions preempt ANY efforts of educational reformed are ludicrous, and reflect small minded outlook at resolving the cities ills. DC deserves better scrutiny and commentary than this.

DC public schools WERE a laughing stock, a situation completely enabled by the unions and the writers of the Washington Post. The new mayor BETTER chose a wise replacement, or else all the gains DC has made since Anthony Williams will be lost in two years.

Posted by: robl | October 12, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

Washington DC is home to some of the finest universities in the country. In the rest of the city must be some of the finest minds working in those buildings. Are those employees mentoring in the city schools? Are those organizations "adopting" schools and helping them? Or are they too busy sending THEIR kids to the tony private schools? When the city as a whole takes responsibility for THEIR school system and work to make it better, it will be.

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | October 12, 2010 9:25 PM | Report abuse

To the shadow knows and veterenteacher1
Great post!

I would like to know why they, hire these Teach for America candidates?
If I wanted to teach I would need a formal education in the EDUCATION field, take and pass State test to ensure I know the subject matter.
Get back to the basic in teaching our children. Hire the teachers that took the time and money to get the degrees and test to become a teacher.

Posted by: TheAgent | October 12, 2010 9:59 PM | Report abuse

If, indeed you buy the canard that all public schools are failing, then the reason is that we have a crisis in leadership. This pattern of revolving door leadership is rampant in all school districts from small town rural districts where I teach to large urban schools. Principals and Superintendents come in for three to five years, "shake things up" and then the successful teachers, the ones who commit to the profession and who survive the first five years, are left to clean up their mess as another new "shaker upper" is anointed.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | October 12, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with theShadowKnows. Knowing what I know about college freshman writers, I really haven't noticed a spike in intelligence or ability with students in the last ten years or so. To be honest, though, I have noticed a drop in writing ability and performance. I bet that teaching the fine art of bubble filling has something to do with it.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 13, 2010 12:39 AM | Report abuse

In a perfect world we wouldn't need testing, but we are in a state of emergency when it comes to D.C. education.

I am all for kids being well-rounded and not simply learning to pass a test, but when so many kids are not reading up to their level, or do not have math skills at their level, testing is unfortunately necessary to pull them up to a minimum standard.

Posted by: twigmuffin | October 13, 2010 3:42 AM | Report abuse

"She came in like a whirlwind"
Indeed. Will it take as long to repair the damage by hurricane Michelle as the devastation by Katrina?

Posted by: Gray62 | October 13, 2010 5:10 AM | Report abuse

What is truly confounding is all these great universities in DC seem to have no impact on the DC public school system.

Posted by: szl8 | October 13, 2010 7:47 AM | Report abuse

I have trouble with Valerie Strauss trying to define a legacy before Rhee has even resigned. With all due respect to freedom of the press, VS has focused almost exclusively on the negative side of MR from Day One. VS seems to lack the open-mindedness it takes to be a solid journalist, and her legacy will not even warrant a footnote.

Rhee, far from perfect and extremely prickly, has made my situation much better as a teacher in DCPS. She has put results first, and not taken excuses, which is the way I teach my class. She has differentiated between teachers, a major flaw in the union's perspective. The people who successfully voted her out need to grow up a little bit and realize the education world needs to go through a period of "rough and tumble" reform, as painful and humiliating as that can be.

Valerie Strauss, of course, just sits on the sidelines offering her infinite wisdom about all matters she has virtually no experience in from what I can tell.

Tests are helpful and a good enough gauge to measure student learning. Better assessment is already in the pipelines and will be rolled out in 2014 or 2015. Deal with the tests until then because they are a part of the landscape whether you like it or not.

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | October 13, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

hectorquintanilaf: I hate to tell you this, but you are wrong. You may have a reality in which being mean and testing are cruel necessities, but in the world of objective evidence, you have no support for your assertions. Where is your evidence that testing leads to better learning outcomes, that being mean leads to better learning outcomes? Some of the finest students in America are home-schooled, and many of those students don't take high-stakes tests and don't receive grades. I don't home-school, but I have a first-grader who has never been tested and has learned to do some amazing things and reads, writes, and computes with the best of them.

Please stop treating education as a political game and spewing your political rhetoric while discussing it. Read some research about how children learn and how children become and stay intrinsically motivated. Too many of today's leaders in the school reform movement are driven by politics and not knowledge. Please rise above these people.

Posted by: thesilverback | October 13, 2010 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Answer Sheet, you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.

Where is the factual support for your statement "the fact that the current obsession with testing has already unacceptably narrowed curriculum."?

Unacceptable by whom? You??

Maybe the "unacceptably narrowed curriculum" (was) a critical refocus on basics such as English and Math in which the District historically ranks at the bottom on nearly every measure of performance used by the U.S. Department of Education.

It would be inaccurate for you to list "journalist" on your resume.

Posted by: dcCougar | October 13, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Although I hate to give Rhee credit for anything, she actually did two things for teachers:

She disproved the myth that a teacher can't be fired;

She demonstrated the need for "due process" for teachers and other government employees. She did this by firing a large number of teachers regardless of effectiveness and then replacing them with people from the agency she founded. This is exactly the sort of thing that happened before teachers were granted job protections.

From now on when people say teachers can't be fired or "get rid of tenure" I hope someone will bring up the name of Michelle Rhee. This will be her legacy.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 13, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Very little substance in this column, and lots of inaccurate information. Especially egregious: "Rhee ignored the effects that poverty has on students trying to learn how to read and to memorize Newton’s Law of Gravity." This could not be further from the truth. Rhee did not ignore the effects of poverty, she disallowed it as the excuse for everything that it had become: Johnny can't read, well of course you know he comes from a low income family, Mary can't add, Sylvia doesn't know her alphabet--momma didn't read to them or teach them how to count because she's a drug addicted hooker. Rhee acknowledged that these were facts, but NOT excuses. She put teachers on notice that this could not be used as an excuse for the school system to abandon these children. It is about the children. It is about the children. It is about the children. Did you hear that? It is NOT about the adults, whether they be parents or teachers. And Rhee did not have any control over the parents, only the teachers. So instead of whining that nothing could be done because of the parents, she put the screws to the teachers and let them know they needed to teach ALL DC CHILDREN. This was to the benefit of those that voted against Fenty (and thus Rhee), and they of course don't get it.

Posted by: streff | October 13, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

It should be noted that testing in and of itself is fine. And I can safely say that most educators would agree with this statement.

The main problem lies in how we assess students. A perfect example of this is in the writing portion of many of these fill-in-the-bubble type tests. Instead of making them performance based, many of these tests look for narrow skills that may not have application in the student's own writing. When I asked students how they would have fixed various problems on a multiple choice test, many of them came up with perfectly acceptable different versions to fix them that were not on the test. Fill-in-the-bubble testing does not test a student's ability with the subject of writing but how well a student can take a test like this (this is what teachers mean, I think, when they say teachers teach to the test). And it has no real application in the real world of writing. A writer will not get to choose between four separate choices before making a decision on the "right" choice. A writer writes what he or she thinks works with their style of writing and voice.

A secondary problem is how the tests are used. Scores only matter to the students, the teachers of those students, and possibly the parents. Scores on these tests do not determine a student's worth or value in a classroom, just as they do not determine a teacher's worth or value. It is silly to think that anyone can effectively judge a person's worth--whether they be a student, teacher, doctor, lawyer, mechanic, or whatever-- based on a fill-in-the-bubble multiple choice test. A perfect analogy for this would be the elderly taking driving tests. Yes, they can pass these tests, but they no longer have the reflexes to safely navigate the road. Evaluating students and teachers--and just about everyone else in the world--should be done through multiple measures of performance-based assessments.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 13, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Ms.Rhee has only damaged public education in this nation.

The reality is that DC had some of the best public schools in this nation based upon national tests when Ms. Rhee arrived. These are the non poverty white public schools where the students outperformed students in the nation.

The problem in DC is the large number of poverty public schools where there are large numbers of children that have great difficulties in learning and many who may never be able to learn.

Instead of focusing on the problem of these children in public education Ms. Rhee has helped to create the perception that there is a problem in public education in the nation caused by teachers.

The national policies that Ms. Rhee played a part in formulating are policies that will only degrade public education in this nation as they simply ignore the problems of poverty public schools where there are large number of children with great difficulties in learning.

It is interesting to note that those who pretend that the solution is standardized testing will never accept the idea of testing all children when they first enter public schools with tests such as the standardized school preparation test.

If this standardized test was used for children entering public school it would be apparent of the large difference in children entering poverty public schools and those entering non poverty public schools.

These tests will never be allowed since it would immediately show that the policies of Ms. Rhee do not address at all the problems of the poverty public schools in DC and in the nation.

Ms. Rhee will be remembered as someone who simply aided in degrading public education in this nation.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 13, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I developed and published a test that has been used in public schools for over 30 years. How many times do we have to say that no array of standardized tests measure all the skills, info, behavior, etc that children should learn and that teachers teach in public schools.

If that message is not clear then think parents, parents PARENTS, when analyzing why and how much children learn.

I could go on but first we must absorb these two realities if we want to improve educational opportunities for children.

Posted by: bkrich | October 13, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse


Here is how a real newspaper reports on the testing mania that is "education reform" in the country:

Posted by: mcstowy | October 13, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse


(reference to post
by thooker65):

Read about the scam testing procedures,
described below ! ---

"My daughter participated in the D.C.
Saturday Scholar program for nearly two years.
After I found out that she was only 1 of a few students from each school that had above average skills in learning, (Talented and Gifted), were asked to participate in that program. She along with other students that processed that higher level of learning were in this class to take the test (the NAEP exam
a national assessment, deliberately administered to only a selected 'sample group' of DCPS students) --which was then manipulated to artificially bolster DCPS test score ratings, as a whole district.
So how does that make the school system
better (?!), if only this selected group of smarter kids bring up the school standings (via a clandestine process)?
After I found out what was going on, I removed my daughter from that program. I’m pretty sure that Michelle Rhee would like to take credit for the
better scores, but did anyone really look into that smoke screen of what was really going on, I can only imagine -- and when I found out about the program I felt sick to my stomach.


Posted by: newmanagement2 | October 13, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

newmanagement2 Get thee to a doctor...why are you "sick to my stomach" all over the comment pages?
Time will tell...the long time abuse of DCPS school children got a kick in the pants by Ms.Rhee Hold your fire...Ms. Henderson might just show you that so many posters and Ms. Strauss...haven't been there...done that ...yet! Ms. Strauss, why not visit some DC schools and interview Ms. Henderson? At least try it...we might like it! We are all here to learn!

Posted by: judithclaire1939 | October 13, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

newmanagement2 Get thee to a doctor...why are you "sick to my stomach" all over the comment pages?
Time will tell...the long time abuse of DCPS school children got a kick in the pants by Ms.Rhee Hold your fire...Ms. Henderson might just show you that so many posters and Ms. Strauss...haven't been there...done that ...yet! Ms. Strauss, why not visit some DC schools and interview Ms. Henderson? At least try it...we might like it! We are all here to learn!

Posted by: judithclaire1939 | October 13, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

So many people pretend that there wasn't any reform before Rhee came. Yet there was.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 13, 2010 10:28 PM | Report abuse

Valerie Strauss' blog is the sewage gutter of Washington Post journalism.

Posted by: RL68 | October 14, 2010 1:25 AM | Report abuse

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