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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