Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 3:30 PM ET, 11/ 2/2010

What Michelle Rhee did in D.C.: Point by point

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Rachel Levy, a native of Washington D.C. and a graduate of the city's public school system. She has been a teacher of social studies and E.S.O.L. in D.C. Public Schools, Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, and in Oakland, Calif. She is a writer who lives in Ashland, Va., with her husband and three children. A version of this piece appeared on her education blog at

By Rachel Levy
Here's what a lot of people are saying about Michelle Rhee as they sort out her legacy as chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools: Her policies were right on target and she moved city schools forward, but her big problem was simply that she didn’t play well with others. This assessment is wrong. Her reforms weren’t good policy, and criticism that her hard-charging style stifled her own well-intentioned reforms, such as is made here, misses the point.

Rhee's ideas about how to fix the ailing school system were largely misinformed, and it's no wonder: She knew little about instruction, curriculum, management, fiscal matters, and community relations. She was, to be sure, abrasive; she and Mayor Adrian Fenty, admitted as much here. But as education historian Diane Ravitch has said, "It’s difficult to win a war when you’re firing on your own troops.”

Rhee is the national face of the new brand of education reformer, so evaluation of her leadership is important not just for Washington D.C. but for the democratic institution of American public education.

Various reviews of her tenure have recently been written. This well-written and comprehensive report by Leigh Dingerson in Rethinking Schools, called "The Proving Grounds: School ’Rheeform’ in Washington, D.C" chronicles the history of D.C. public schools, Rhee’s belligerent approach to teachers, administrators, and parents, her connection to right-wing conservatives, the lack of attention given to curriculum and instruction, and the problems with her teacher-evaluation tool, IMPACT.

Not all of Rhee’s critics are liberal defenders of teachers unions; in this article in The American Spectator, Roger Kaplan makes several great points about problems with Rhee’s reign. Bill Turque, the fantastic education beat reporter for the Metro section of the Washington Post, published this succinct summary detailing the Rhee administration’s accomplishments and failures.

As a graduate of D.C. public schools and a former D.C. teacher, I offer my critique, point by point.


Rhee arrived in Washington D.C. in c. in 2007 with extraordinary power to do what she wanted. In fact, she only had her boss, Fenty, to answer to, and he never challenged her. Shortly after she started as chancellor, she met with the professionals and community leaders who had a long history of working to improve D.C. schools and promptly decided she didn’t have anything to learn from them. The die was cast.

Rhee never displayed an understanding of the city’s particular history--of political disenfranchisement, taxation without representation, and paternal federal control.

To the city’s black community, D.C. schools were a source of empowerment, autonomy, and even pride, for that community. People’s parents and extended families were educated and employed by D.C. schools. From Dingerson:

"The vast public sector employment created by the federal government helped establish a significant black middle class that supported its public schools. Many African American parents and grandparents remember their schools as neighborhood institutions and gateways to success."

Rhee paid no respect to members of the community whose elders had helped to build and fill the school system she was charged with leading. And that helped turn sentiment against her and Fenty.


A common refrain echoed by Fenty and his supporters is, "I know there were mistakes, but look at how Rhee has gotten people excited about urban public education."

Michelle Rhee did get a lot of people to pay attention to public education. Who? Many of them are unelected billionaires and conservative ideologues without any education expertise who have donated vast amounts of money to programs that have no basis in research. Some seek to privatize the public school system.

Rhee also drew some people into the profession of teaching, Who? Freshly minted graduates from highly selective colleges, teaching amateurs, most of whom don’t want to become professional teachers and who know very little about inner-city communities.


Rhee has been credited with improvements to the physical conditions of school facilities, but since June 2007, all capital planning, construction, renovation, and major repairs of D.C.P.S. school buildings have been the responsibility of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, which is an agency separate from D.C. schools.

Facilities maintenance was moved from D.C. schools to the facilities modernization office in 2008. One of the reasons the office has been able to make so many improvements to public school facilities is that Fenty and the D.C. Council increased the schools’ capital budget to amounts unheard of prior to the takeover of the school system by the mayor in 2007


Rhee and Fenty and their supporters claim -- and some critics even agree -- that under her leadership, test scores went up. But here, too, things aren’t what they seem.

First of all, standardized tests should only be used as one of many teaching tools, so test scores should certainly not be the only standard by which we measure student achievement or teacher effectiveness. Standardized tests may tell you something about the students who are taking the test, but virtually nothing about who is teaching the students taking the test. What’s more, an emphasis on standardized tests is problematic because standardized test-based content makes for lousy curricula.

As Kaplan puts it, "The substantive issue is whether it serves a useful educational purpose to turn schools into fill-the-bubble-test cram boxes instead of teaching content-rich courses."


"No one who has looked seriously at the way achievements in math and reading are assessed under the No Child Left Behind rules believes you can judge a district on the basis of scarcely a couple of years. The D.C. schools implemented reforms aimed at improving scores, anyway, in 2006, so at most Miss Rhee should claim credit for staying with them, notwithstanding her stated plan to break with business as usual."

Furthermore, according to Dingerson (and she has the data and analysis to back this up thanks to seven-year D.C math teacher and 2010 finalist for D.C. Teacher of the Year, Chris Bergfalk):

"There have been dramatic drops in standardized assessment scores, and, on closer analysis, the highly touted increases in D.C. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are a reflection of the changing demographics of the schools, not the result of any real improvement in the quality of education provided to D.C.’s poorest and neediest students."

Finally, in this timeline of events that was developed from a series of Washington Post articles and a July 2009 D.C. schools press release, former D.C. math teacher Guy Brandenburg shows that there were questions raised about possible cheating on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests. Though asked to investigate by Deborah A. Gist, then the state superintendent of education for the District of Columbia, the Rhee administration failed to do so.


Rhee emphasized teachers over the practice of teaching. There was no focus on what or how teachers were teaching. Wrote Dingerson:

"It is worth noting that, as a so-called ’education reformer,’ Rhee has not focused on content or pedagogy. There have been no initiatives to improve teacher induction or strengthen instructional practice. The focus has remained on management and staffing, and the tone has been judgmental rather than supportive."

And Kaplan wrote:

"The core of the matter is not this or that lapse of judgment or a clumsy manner with people. She is said to be abrasive, texts even while in the midst of formal meetings. Well, you can put that down to an American get-to-the-point spirit. However, Miss Rhee never bothered to explain just what all this reform and professional development and search for ’excellent’ teachers is supposed to mean. She did not explain it to the parents. Or to anybody.”

Rhee displayed questionable knowledge of teaching practices in this stunningly inappropriate account told during a Welcome to Teachers address ( I highly recommend listening to this) of taping shut the mouths of her inner-city Baltimore students such that she caused them to bleed.

Rhee was having a classroom management crisis in her classroom and chose to respond in an unprofessional and crude way. Similarly chose narrow and crude solutions to the crisis in D.C. schools.

Although Rhee’s teacher evaluation system called IMPACT has been touted by some as "ground-breaking," it’s a flawed instrument. Valerie Strauss, a long-time education journalist at The Washington Post, discusses the flaws of IMPACT in this post on this blog.

"IMPACT is actually a collection of 20 different evaluation systems for teachers in different capacities and other school personnel. In its first iteration, teachers were to be evaluated five times a year by principals and master teachers who went into the classroom unannounced for 30 minutes and scored the teacher on 22 different teaching elements. They were, for example, supposed to show that they could tailor instruction to at least three ’learning styles,’ demonstrate that they were instilling student belief in success through "affirmation chants, poems and cheers," and a lot more. It was so nutty to think that any teacher would show all 22 elements in 30 minutes that officials modified it. Now the number is a still unrealistic 10 or so. Some teachers, fearing that their professional careers were being based on an unfair system, got someone in the front office to alert them to when the principal or master teacher was to show up, according to interviews with a number of teachers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Then they would send difficult kids out of the classroom, and, in some cases, pull out a specially prepared lesson plan tailored to meet IMPACT requirements. Meanwhile, some teachers never got five evaluations, apparently because a number of master teachers hired to do the jobs quit, according to sources in the school system."
Many teachers deemed "ineffective" by IMPACT were actually solid, experienced teachers, while others who were deemed "effective" were some of the weakest teachers in their schools.


The ultimate questions to ask about Rhee are not about whether she was liked or disliked, nice or mean.

They are, instead: Did she have sound and informed ideas about curriculum, fiscal and personnel management, education, and the craft of teaching? Were her policies and reforms effective? Did they improve the quality of public education in the District of Columbia? Did she adequately serving the communities and families she was hired to serve?

The answer to those questions is "no."

Rhee’s successor, Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson was Rhee’s right hand woman. Henderson is similarly inexperienced (a few years of teaching in Teach for America before going into administration) and holds carbon-copy ideas about education to her former boss.

Rhee supporters are pleased, saying that she will continue the reforms but is more likely than Rhee to be collaborative. But collaboration and consensus would require that Henderson compromise on the reform narrow, ideological, and inflexible platform.

Is Henderson prepared to give up her ideology or will she continue along the same path as Rhee, but just be kinder along the way?

We’ll be watching.


Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | November 2, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  d.c. schools, diane ravitch, michelle rhee, naep, rhee's legacy, standardized tests  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Rhee's testing legacy: An open question
Next: Education policy: What will happen now



Posted by: gonzosnose | November 2, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

We will all be watching to see if we return to the days of DCPS as a jobs program (fine if that's what you want it to be, but don't argue it's all about the children or policy-based education). We will all be watching to see if the schools open on time, the books are ordered and the facilities are free of fire hazards (yes, facilities are the purview of Mr. Lew, but without a take-no-prisoners Chancellor will the urgency still be there?). And, yes, we'll be watching to see if reforms to the test-taking obsession actual reform anything or become simply as excuse to let teachers, students and parents off the hook. We'll also be watching to see how art, music and languages are integrated into the curriculum, how the love affair with charter schools impacts traditional public schools and let's down 83% of the kids who thought they were getting a better education by attending one, and how abysmal graduation rates are addressed through alternative programs like vocational education.

Posted by: horacemann | November 2, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

George Stephanopolus said on Fox recently that Michelle Rhee caused test scores to soar.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 2, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

"To the city’s black community, D.C. schools were a source of empowerment, autonomy, and even pride, for that community. People’s parents and extended families were educated and employed by D.C. schools."

Indeed, that is why all the kids in Northwest are entering the lottery to get a spot in Anacostia schools.

Rachel Levy does not have a firm grasp of reality.

Posted by: AdmiralBoom | November 2, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

As a DCPS teacher and former parent, I concur that the lack of attention paid to curriculum has hurt us all. I taught summer school a two years ago, and the curriculum guide I received from the central office was a joke. DCPS standards are too broadly worded, and too many fundamental skills are ignored. Within the classroom walls, where the real battles are won, teachers operate too often without clear curricular objectives beyond the ones they, themselves, devise. For more on my experiences in the classroom, please visit my blog at

Posted by: dcproud1 | November 2, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

horacemann seems to be off again.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | November 2, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Before I make my point I'd like to describe a commercial I saw on TV today. The commercial was touting the success of a "technical institute" that I knew was actually a diploma mill. As the narrator beckoned young men and women to come to his "institute" in order to learn technical skills that would enable them to obtain a lucrative job, the camera focused on students who were mainly young men and women of color. Anyone who reads the daily paper knows that these students will incur huge debts while learning little or nothing from these diploma mills. The federal and state governments are fighting these for-profit "colleges" but powerful interests are fighting back.

Until very recently these education scams were restricted to higher education and the adult population. However, in the last few years, with the advent of charter schools, K-12 schools have become available, for the first time, to scam artists who are now able to get their hands in the public education tax money till.

The only obstacle that stands in the way of these opportunists are the teachers and their unions as well as knowledgeable citizens. If teachers continue to make decent salaries and to make a career of teaching, there is much less money for the "entrepreneurs." The only way they can make a huge profit is to employ inexperienced people right out of college and to encourage these people to move on after a few years.

This is all about privatizing public education for personal gain and in that sense Rhee was almost successful. She replaced senior teachers with youngsters right out of college who were not planning to stay very long. She devised an evaluation system that would allow her to get rid of many veterans, whether they were ineffective or not, and she got teachers to vote for a contract that effectively enabled her to get rid of expensive veterans for any reason whatsoever. (This was the most puzzling for me. The only thing that makes sense is that many newly-hired teachers voted for the contract while discouraged veterans stayed home.)

Fortunately the citizens of DC saw Michelle Rhee for what she is: a leader who represents citizens who want to privatize the public schools for personal gain. Just as the higher ed con men targeted poor people of color for their "technical institutes," these people figured that the poor folk of DC would make easy targets. But they were wrong.

My guess is that the rest of American is waking up and we'll soon see an end to Rheeform.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 2, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

To the city’s black community, D.C. schools were a source of empowerment, autonomy, and even pride, for that community. People’s parents and extended families were educated and employed by D.C. schools. From Dingerson:

"The vast public sector employment created by the federal government helped establish a significant black middle class that supported its public schools. Many African American parents and grandparents remember their schools as neighborhood institutions and gateways to success."

Rhee paid no respect to members of the community whose elders had helped to build and fill the school system she was charged with leading. And that helped turn sentiment against her and Fenty.

When are the schools for the adults? This discredited every argument put forward for me. You would not really claim this as a success if you had to deal with these teachers and these schools and see the consequences for these kids. These adults run it for themselves, screw the kids.

Posted by: Brooklander | November 2, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Everything that is done for children (dentistry, legal services, medical care, education) must with done with the involvement and approval of the adults who care for them.

People who want to help children never trash the adults who care for them.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 2, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

you didn't read what you quoted:
" Many African American parents and grandparents remember their schools as neighborhood institutions and gateways to success."

"Gateways to success" for their kids.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | November 2, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Linda, that's exactly what has happened.

It is worth looking at this example of naked fraud and greed, just published yesterday by the Bloomberg News team which has taken on for-profit education fraud (including the Washington Post). It is long, but a very good read:

Posted by: mport84 | November 2, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

ANother excellent article - thank you Valerie for finding these writers and giving them space in your column.

Linda/RT - the teachers went for the money - they figure they are probably going to leave anyhow - because they can't stand the mistreatment or because they get fired - so they might as well get paid for it.

I suspect that's the case with some of the "highly effective" teachers too.

Posted by: efavorite | November 2, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm just realizing, efavorite, that you are neither a DC resident nor a teacher. This is a breakthrough.

Posted by: axolotl | November 2, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

Everyone is entitled to an education - but in the proper environment. You can not combine special needs children, sociopathic children, and advanced students with the general population in the schools and expect anyone to come out with a good education. Teachers are not qualified to teach in this broad scope. Schools are not providing safe environments for the students or faculty.

As an author, I recently published a book, Because, It's Just Good Manners! and with that publication I challenged students to practice good manners for one week. I also urged parents, businesses and the media to "bully" schools into participating in the challenge - for one week. My book is offered as a free download as an incentive.

Are schools qualified or capable of teaching good manners to students in today's schools?

People need to realize there is a direct correlation between the decrease in good manners and common courtesies and the increase in violence, abuse, and bullying, across the nation. What happened to the concept of enforcing civil rights in the schools?

Why do we need local, state and federal laws against bullying in schools when we already have the civil rights acts which are not being enforced? Why not let the law enforcement types, step into the schools and educate the faculty and students on what their rights are - and then be prepared to enforce those laws?

We have managed to turn our schools into ineffective environments by making them into multi-service facilities. Can we learn from this mistake?

When you look at the numbers, the number of students, versus the number of teachers, do you honestly believe the priority today is teachers wages versus providing a safe learning environment to children - an environment in which they can and will learn. These are the adults of the future. Teachers do want more money and partly because of the demands that are now placed on them to teach in multi-service, unsafe environments. The multi-service environments are wrong. The unsafe environments are wrong.

Learning good manners and common courtesies is not about pointing fingers as to who is or is not teaching or setting the good examples. It is simply about accepting the responsibility and living the lifestyle.

Our under age - student - population continues to grow and the real problems are out of control. They are fixable but the administrators need to think outside the box and go back to basics.

As my book says on the back cover, "It may be the most difficult decision you ever make." Do you or don't you teach good manners? Do you or don't you live by good manners?

Posted by: jhcesi | November 3, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

George Stephanopolus said on Fox recently that Michelle Rhee caused test scores to soar.

Posted by: jlp19

I don't know if he made a false statement intentionally, or out of ignorance, but it was a false statement. The test scores rose the 1st 2 years of her reign, but by less than they had, on average, over the previous 15. By her 3rd year, about the time the effects of her policies would be test scores dropped or stagnated.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 3, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse


We cannot combine special needs children and 'sociopaths' in the same classroom as the general population?

You are completely ignorant and insulting.

You must believe in racial segregation, too?

Posted by: vnm202 | November 4, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company