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More, still, on the meaning of Rhee

Mo Udall, the late Arizona congressman and two-time Democratic presidential candidate, once observed: "Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it." That goes for the education commentariat, which continues to ponder the significance of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's departure. National Journal has rolled out some of its favorite "insiders" to offer their takes.

Tom Vander Ark, a partner in Revolution Learning, a private equity investor with a focus on education, said the fate of Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty underscores the limits of mayoral control of school districts and argues for an all-charter system:

"Mayoral control is a small improvement on dysfunctional urban school governance," he wrote. "It's great when, like in Boston, New York or Chicago you get a decade long dynamic duo, but we just saw the downside."

The problem was not mayoral control, but how that control was exercised, said Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund:

"Fenty's and Rhee's disdain for seeking grass-roots support for reform was compounded by their failure to grasp the degree of disruption that is the inevitable concomitant of reform...." Lomax wrote. "Communities have grown up around neighborhood schools. Principals and teachers are respected and beloved figures in the community. Casting them as mere obstructions to her reforms was not a tactic calculated to win Rhee the community support she needed. Fenty, who was elected by winning every voting precinct in the city, needed to take the case for reform to the neighborhood meetings with all the energy that had characterized his campaign for office. He needed to build support for reform by making the case that DCPS students in general, minority students in particular, and the DC employers who depend on DCPS graduates, were being poorly served by the school system and that reform, with all its disruption, was the road to better schools and better education. He needed to compensate for Rhee's inexperience and modulate her natural belligerence--for example by not allowing her to appear on the cover of Time magazine clad in black and holding a broom, looking for all the world like the 21st century version of the wicked witch of the west."

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and executive editor of Education Next, said the situation in DCPS was so dysfunctional and dire that even a massive charm offensive would not have made a difference:

"It's a big mistake to imagine that things would have been different in D.C. if only Rhee or Fenty had been "nicer," Hess wrote. "Education reformers love to talk about the importance of consensus and stakeholder 'buy-in.' Now, if the goal is to improve a reasonably performing school or district, that's a viable strategy. But Rhee was hired to clean up a disaster zone. You can't do that without bruising feelings. When jobs are at stake and schools are being closed, there's little incentive for those at risk to do anything but push back. When it comes to troubled systems, even a thousand get-to-know-me sessions and stakeholder roundtables won't suffice. Rhee can testify to this, because she held scores of community conversations in 2007-08 when pursuing desperately needed school closings--only to be slammed for inadequate efforts to garner input or secure community buy-in."

Richard Rothstein, research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, pushes back on a core Rhee contention, that teachers are the single-most important influence in a child's school experience.

"The assertion results from a careless glide from 'teachers being the most important in-school influence,' to teachers being the most important influence overall," Rothstein wrote. "But because school effects on average levels of achievement are smaller than the effects of families and communities, even if teachers were the largest school effect, they would not be a very big portion of the overall effect. A child with an average teacher who comes from a literate, economically secure, and stable family environment will, on average, have better achievement than a child with a superior teacher but with none of these contextual advantages. Of course, some children from improvrished backgrounds will outperform typical children from literate and secure backgrounds, but on average, the extent to which children come to school prepared to take advantage of what school has to offer is a more important predictor than what even the best school can do."

Rachel B. Tompkins, senior fellow at the Rural School and Community Trust, said she was overrated and irrelevant to most school districts, especially those in rural areas.

"And, you know, someone should mention that Randy Weingarten made Rhee look a lot better by working out a contract that everyone could live with. I know she's the Joker or someone that Superman much abolish. I probably have Batman and Superman confused. Down here in rural America where I live the general reaction is Michelle who?"

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By Bill Turque  | October 19, 2010; 11:42 AM ET
Categories:  Michelle Rhee  
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Next: Is Rhee heading northeast--or west?


For those who would like to read the full blog post by Tom Vander Ark, you can visit it at

There you will get the full account of Vander Ark's post, and see other writing about innovation and equity strategies for American public education. Thanks!

Posted by: Boogeybear | October 19, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Control by a mayor has been the preferred model of the corporate interests seeking to destroy the public schools and privatize education in the United States. That is why as former Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty campaigned to takeover the District’s public schools, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stood behind him in the effort. The events of September 14th in D.C. have shaken the confidence of the oligarchs in that strategy and that is reflected in the musings of one of their chief mouthpieces, Uncle Tom Vander Ark. Apparently they'll go all in with charters now.

But Broad and Gates and the Waltons never have sought reform of the public schools. They seek their destruction. Gates’ first concern is plying every U.S. student with an Xbox and a Zune for the sake of Microsoft Corp. profits, then training young Indians and Chinese for high tech jobs at the lowest wage possible.

Washington D.C. has a higher concentration of severely poor people than any of the 50 states (10.8% of residents) but Michelle Rhee was instructed by her masters never to acknowledge its damning effect on the children's education. That kind of dishonesty was always instructive. Ms. Rhee was nothing more than a shill for corporate interests here to advance the privatizing of the schools.

Posted by: natturner | October 19, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

The notion that Fenty/Rhee were dismissed because they were not "nice enough" does a huge disservice to the issues at hand. Solitary torch bearers generally fail to ignite the crowd. Denigrating teachers, while leaving parents out of the mix, probably didn't help. To read about my take on this as both a parent and a teacher, please visit my blog at

Posted by: dcproud1 | October 19, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

More Rhee? Are you nuts.

Take the pledge: no more EDITORIALS, ARTICLES, OPEDS, and BLOGS about discredited former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

What does the education community think of Rhee? Well, despite bogus Post suggestions to the contrary, no big time school system in the United States has been reported to have expressed any interest in Rhee, her masking tape, her racial humor, or her broom.

Move on, pal, and get back to real reporting.

Good news, Miss Rhee, your non-stop flight out of Dulles is on time. Rhee-lief.

Posted by: broadwayjoe | October 19, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

Disclose Tom Vander Ark’s past and current relationships with the Gates Foundation, for-profit charter school operators, for-profit on-line education companies, Wall Street profiteers, Teach for America (TFA), Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and hedge fund managers.

For-profit charter schools staffed with TFA ‘teachers’ on the cheap and for-profit on-line K12 charter schools staffed to serve hundreds of students to reap profits are not neighborhood public schools. What’s Vander Ark’s motive for bashing neighborhood public schools and making public school teachers the enemy?

Posted by: nfsbrrpkk | October 19, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

Michelle Rhee-diculous is a master of self promotion.

Her paritsan positioning has tarnished her reputation as a bona fide in her field.

She is also a partisan loser, for the record.

And that makes her a loser. Just like Adrian and his mini-me, Josh "The Prepster" Lopez, who atttends and disrupts Gray town hall meetings.


Posted by: tcs1999 | October 19, 2010 9:22 PM | Report abuse

Micael Lomax's comments are right on target and well worth remembering. It is all too well to say that you are trying to do whats best for children. It is even better when you involved their parents.

Fine if you want ot close schools, but people in the neighborhood who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for a home, should not have to find it out in the newspaper, and they certainly should not have been told that their opinion didn't count.

Such an act would never have been tolerated in Montgomery or Fairfax, and it would have been castigated by the Post and everyone else as usurpation of taxpayers right to know....but noooo, not here. The prevailing notion is that DC residents, (black ones that is) have nerve to vote againt this type of tyranny, yet the airwaves are celebrating the 19 state "Spread the Hate Tour" of Palin.

Fenty, in his farewell tour, said that he and Rhee made a pact between the TWO of them, to do whats best for kids...She did not elect him to office. His pact was with the taxpayers and voters of Washington. We di not sign on to be excluded from the process. Exit Left.

Posted by: topryder1 | October 20, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

RIck Hess is simply recreating history with his statement. Rhee did not hold dozens of meetings on school closings, the Post broke the story to the people.

David Nakamura was generally sitting around Rhee and the mayor when important decisions were being made, perhaps he can come back and give a more detailed account of the truth. Sort of a tell all story.

When Rhee was asked about input" she said the consultation was highly overrated". Why pretend you want input when it is not true.

Posted by: topryder1 | October 20, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the fatal flaw here was the failure to involve parents in the decision-making process. Rhee has indicated she wants a new job where she can continue to make "radical change." I just keep getting the feeling that the room she is playing to has very little to do with the children she seeks to "liberate." I invite your readers to read my "Try to Rhee-member" blog entry at

Posted by: dcproud1 | October 20, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

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