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.
For all the Post's Education coverage, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education.
For more from Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle
| 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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