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First big crisis over for Rhee--when's the next one?

I share my colleague Bill Turque's well-earned skepticism about reports of an agreement on a D.C. teacher's contract, but Washington Teachers' Union chief George Parker's encouraging public statement about the negotiations is one more sign that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's job is safe-- for now.

There are smart people around town, and in the country (Rhee remains the most interesting story in U.S. education circles), who thought the D.C. Council criticism and teachers union legal action against her would end her tenure when she laid off 266 teachers and staff in October. But I ran into a council member at a holiday gathering last week who agreed with me that she has successfully ridden the crisis out.

So what's next? I can confidently predict she will be in trouble again. She is essentially attempting to charterize a public school system---give individual principals the same powers that charter school leaders have to hire and fire their teachers and create education teams that focus intensely on raising student achievement. No other major urban school system has had a leader with such an agenda before. She threatens many strongly held views about how schools should be run, and she isn't that diplomatic in going about it.

But there are signs that she is learning how to avoid some political pitfalls. I notice the Post printed a correction of our Jan. 2 story about her fiscal 2011 budget. We said she had "vowed" to protect spending on teachers and classroom supplies. The correction, which I am sure was inspired by a complaint from her people, admitted she had never used that word, and had made no promises, but said she would do her best to make sure budget cuts did not affect classroom instruction.

That is what politically sophisticated school administrators do to avoid being blamed down the line for breaking promises. They make sure we media types get their words right. It seems trivial, but lesser things have gotten other superintendents fired.

I noticed a Tom Toles editorial cartoon recently that showed exactly why she got through this latest crisis, and what will determine how she does the next time powerful forces come after her. It shows her confounding a critic at a debate with nothing more than a sheet of paper showing that test scores are going up.

I have expressed some doubt about the significance of the latest D.C. success on national math tests for fourth graders. But my skepticism is meaningless in this context. If the test scores look good, it is going to be hard to dislodge her, or to beat her patron Mayor Fenty in the election this year.

I think she is taking the right approach to helping D.C. school children, so I applaud that result. But I also know that even good schools sometimes see their test scores drop, and good principals and teachers get fired. So for Rhee watchers, both pro and con, there is likely to be plenty of excitement ahead of us.

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By Jay Mathews  | January 5, 2010; 12:01 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Bill Turque, D.C. schools, D.C. teacher contract, Michelle Rhee, Tom Toles  
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I think characterising Rhee's aganda as "charterising" is pretty accurate. How much of that she can continue to get away with remains to be seen. She is making some powerful enemies who may not have made themselves known yet.

Relying on the recent uptick in a few scores of a certain grade-level does not even begin to indicate the overall improvement of learning city-wide. Only 3 to 5 years of consistent increases across all grade levels can assure us that the improvement is really happening. Anything much less is political hay and nothing else.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | January 5, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

"If the test scores look good,"

Why would they look good (or bad)?
Because of poor reporting like the reports a few years ago on Maury Elementary School.

Or consider this from the recent article on Arne Duncan:
NICK ANDERSON (12/29/09): "Soon after Arne Duncan left his job as schools chief here to become one of the most powerful U.S. education secretaries ever, his former students sat for federal achievement tests. This month, the mathematics report card was delivered: Chicago trailed several cities in performance and progress made over six years.

Miami, Houston and New York had higher scores than Chicago on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Boston, San Diego and Atlanta had bigger gains. Even fourth-graders in the much-maligned D.C. schools improved nearly twice as much since 2003."

From the highlighted passage, the reader might think that three urban systems (Miami, Houston, New York) “had higher scores than Chicago,” and that several other urban systems (Boston, San Diego, Atlanta) recorded “bigger gains” than Chicago. From this passage, would readers guess that Boston and San Diego also recorded higher math scores than Chicago—substantially higher scores, in fact? In his third paragraph, Anderson says that Chicago “is nowhere near the head of the pack in urban school improvement.” But for our money, he has already produced an oddly misleading account of some basic facts.

In 2009, how well did Chicago’s kids score in math, as compared to kids in other urban systems? Anderson never quite explains—and his first attempt at an overview struck us as oddly misleading. This leads to our second question—how much improvement did Chicago kids show from 2003 to 2009, during the bulk of Duncan’s tenure? This is an important type of question. We think it’s handled poorly too—in a way which can be improved.

Posted by: edlharris | January 5, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

"If the test scores look good,"

Exactly, and they will "look" good as long as people like Toles produce widely distributed vivid images depicting rising scores that don't exist in reality.

You and I and some others know that the scores aren't really good. Will that word get out just as dramatically?

As for the correction on "vowed" -- too late -- it's in print. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Rhee lies shamelessly and repeatedly about her success increasing scores from her days teaching until now - and gets people in the press like you to spread the word. Every now and then journalists use a word she doesn't like.

Too bad.

Posted by: efavorite | January 5, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Rhee is the Right leader at the Right time for DCPS. She would not have gotten away with the firing of teachers if she "RIF" FCPS. She would not have gotten away with cleaning out central office if she swept out PGCPS. She would not have gotten away with ruffling the feathers of parents and council members if she ruffled MCPS. She could only have gotten away with her acrimonious style of leadership in DCPS. Without question, Rhee has achieved the tipping point for turning DCPS around and has become the model for superintendents charged with saving the nation’s worst schools.

But this turnaround is precisely why Rhee herself must now turn around and become less caustic and more conciliatory with the council, teacher union, and parent groups in order to remain the Right leader at the Right Time for a much improved DCPS.

Posted by: motherseton | January 5, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

"for a much improved DCPS."

DCPS is much improved now?
Or are you referring to the future?

Posted by: edlharris | January 5, 2010 7:33 PM | Report abuse

I think that if there are more Michelle Rhees in this world I will not only leave teaching myself, I will encourage young people not to go into it.

Posted by: resc | January 5, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

I think that if there are more Michelle Rhees in this world I will not only leave teaching myself, I will encourage young people not to go into it.

When evil is portrayed as good - it's time to get out of the way and warn others as well.

Posted by: resc | January 5, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse

What is so wrong with the charter model where principals can hire & fire the teachers? If teachers are that scared of their job security, they probably aren't good teachers.

Posted by: ami00000 | January 6, 2010 9:44 PM | Report abuse

"What is so wrong with the charter model where principals can hire & fire the teachers? If teachers are that scared of their job security, they probably aren't good teachers."
Years ago, there was a principal who like to hit upon his young female teachers, going so far with one of them as to drop a porno mag on her lap and tell her that looks good.

Posted by: edlharris | January 6, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

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