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Schools Monday: Rhee On Her Own

She starts out alone, literally. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee walks into a conference room at The Washington Post to meet with editors and reporters and unlike nearly every other public figure who joins us for such conversations, she has no aides in tow, no press handlers carrying folders of snazzy pie charts and carefully massaged messages. Rhee is making it clear that she's got the info and the 'tude to handle this on her own.

And for 90 minutes, she takes nearly all questions--the only "no comment" comes on a query about just how much of the school system's central office she plans to sack in the coming weeks. She's feisty, funny and frank. As a parent with two kids in the D.C. public schools, she says, "I can see all of the things that drive other parents crazy," such as the requirement that parents register their kids every year and the fact that after-school care starts several weeks after school opens.

Like the mayor who hired her, she does not hesitate to rip her own staff and system. Like Adrian Fenty, she's comfortable talking about race and class as if they weren't the city's political third rail. "I am not going to allow them to dictate the decisions we must make," she says of the small but vocal group of protesters who accuse her of placing the brunt of her proposed school closings on poor black neighborhoods. When a member of her staff suggested that she close a school in affluent, white Ward 3 just for symbolic balance, Rhee says, "I thought that was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard."

She can be disarming, warm and embracing. But then, in a flash of pique, we see the side of Rhee that those much-maligned central office employees are about to face: The chancellor, asked why she has allowed a TV crew from PBS to follow her around but has been stingy about giving time to a Post reporter, flares at Post schools beat reporter Theola Labbe and, in front of a room full of top editors, calls her out for supposedly not portraying the chancellor's comments as she'd wished in some recent story. Public figures complain to editors about their coverage all the time, as they ought to if they believe we've gotten something wrong, but it's rare to see such a personal hit in a large gathering like this. A whoosh of recognition sweeps the room: So here's how tough (and perhaps rough) this young chancellor can be.

What makes Rhee different and potentially special is the fact that even after half a year in the District's strange political culture, even after living for a while in a system that is deeply satisfied with mediocrity or less, she is angry and appalled when she runs across the complacency and righteousness that permeate the schools. She describes how central office workers have gone years without performance evaluations, and how when one of her mid-level bureaucrats finally got a critical evaluation, the employee marched in to see the boss carrying a thick binder documenting the many ways in which she didn't agree with her evaluation. Rhee, needless to say, let the worker have it. She calls this resetting the norm, and it is perhaps the most important piece of management she can take on.

But Rhee said surprisingly little about what exactly she hopes to change in the classrooms where students live. She is, perhaps correctly, focused on the larger, systemic issues--which buildings, what staffing, whose contracts, how many dollars. She says parents and voters should begin to see test scores and other measures of student performance start to move in the right direction in the next 12-18 months, but she warns, reasonably enough, that it will be many years--at least eight, she predicts--before the District might be called one of the better urban systems in the land.

That's the sort of pipe dream school superintendents have been hawking for decades, without the slightest real hope of getting there. But Rhee has set the bar higher than any of her predecessors, and with her whirlwind entrance, she's raised hopes and expectations. There really are new fields and repaired windows and more consistent heating in some schools. And at least some younger teachers seem very much energized, even as some older ones hunker down to see if they can survive this fresh hell just as they made it through previous threats of reform.

"I am only focused on the people I am serving," Rhee says, arguing that it's wrong to put so much blame for the low quality of a D.C. education on parents who fail to participate in their kids' schooling. "There's no doubt that people who have kids in the school system should be less than satisfied. Fundamentally, we have not been able to improve the quality of instruction we provide. I have seen firsthand how parents are often treated by the schools and I frankly can't blame them for not wanting to jump up and volunteer for two hours in the schools. Unless we are giving parents what they need, it is very hard for me to make demands on parents."

Rhee has weathered the storm over school closings far better than did any of her predecessors who made similar efforts over the past twenty years. She has not only met and faced the opposition, she's even won many people over--if not to her specific list of schools to close, then at least to her overall approach and commitment. "Frankly," she says of those who organize rallies against her and demand that one or another school be saved, "the adult agenda has been dictating decisions for too long, and I'm not going to allow that to happen anymore."

I hope Rhee came to see us by herself because she's confident and knowledgeable about her path, and not because she is a lone wolf. She will need allies, yet her first order of business is to clean house. Hers is a lonely task.

By Marc Fisher |  January 21, 2008; 7:24 AM ET
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Yes it is a lonely task. She appears to be all that you extol: intelligent, a real go -getter. I did not know she had kids, much less kids in (the best of) the public school system. Good for her that she was able to get her kids into Oyster. Not easy to do. The question of course is: is what she's doing just the first stage of privatizing the public school system, and does the Post condone that? Lastly, I would say that there are surprisingly lack of specifics in the coverage of the schools. Yes, closing 23 schools. THEN what?

Posted by: Anonymous | January 21, 2008 8:21 AM

She's interesting. Nice to hear that a year of this hasn't worn down her outrage. Good.

For me at least, Fisher's example of the Post reporter getting a scolding didn't come off so well. I like the idea that Rhee will hit back hard, even if she's outnumbered.

And, ooh! She talked mean in front of top editors! Why it's insane. I tremble at the mere thought of facing such tremendous and powerful critters.

Posted by: Robert in Fredericksburg | January 21, 2008 8:23 AM

"[W]hen one of her mid-level bureaucrats finally got a critical evaluation, the employee marched in to see the boss carrying a thick binder documenting the many ways in which she didn't agree with her evaluation. Rhee, needless to say, let the worker have it."

Uhhh . . . to all the managers out there, isn't this how you WANT your employees to respond, if they don't agree? When am employee is afraid to tell me they think I am wrong, I'm in trouble.

Posted by: Karl | January 21, 2008 9:11 AM

Uhhh . . . to all the managers out there, isn't this how you WANT your employees to respond, if they don't agree? When am employee is afraid to tell me they think I am wrong, I'm in trouble.

As a mid-level manager, the last thing I want is excuses. Demonstrably late projects using objective numbers can't be argued and I'm tired of dealing with such arguments. My interpretation from that article is that the person had spent work time creating a binder of information and rationalization when they should be serving the kids. Is that not how you interpreted it?

Posted by: Anonymous | January 21, 2008 9:59 AM

I also think that Marc Fisher's comments about the "top editors" was hilarious. I had no idea that he was so confused about where editors sit in the grand scheme of this city, but they're far below Rhee, I assure you. I really had to laugh at that naive comment on his part- talk about provincialism!

Posted by: DCer | January 21, 2008 10:01 AM

Thanks for your weekly updates on the DC schools. Sounds as though long-suffering DC students and parents might finally have some hope for a quality education. And lonely as Ms. Rhee may have been, thankfully the Mayor's got her back...

Posted by: Rob Iola | January 21, 2008 11:45 AM


1) Where will the families we want to attract to D.C. send their kids?

2) What will be the attraction for revenue-generating families to move into the District if there are not enough good and conveniently located schools for their children?

3) Are mayor Adrian Fenty, the takeover team, some councilmembers and developers speculating that mostly or only high income CHILDLESS couples and singles will gentrify and finance the District?

Sure, it's easier to sell our public property than doing the hard work of rebuilding our public schools into centers of educational excellence. It's time to pause, think and consider the long term consequences, and at least one genuine and effective student-focused idea beyond closing schools, and selling taxpayer-owned property to private developers.

Why not renovate and convert parts or all of the under-enrolled schools in evening adult training and leaning centers, or strategically located pre-school learning centers, DCPS satellite offices, family preventative healthcare centers, and community-based D.C. government agency offices (DMV, employment, taxes, housing, etc.). Once these public properties are sold for private use, they're gone forever.

Moreover, to attract more revenue-generating families with conveniently located schools of academic excellence, let's redevelop D.C. public and charter schools into non-tuition citizen and teacher controlled Public Academies standardized by 10-student class sizes. Isn't the point to make D.C. a truly family-friendly city by also having and improving our public schools?

The academy concept is designed to enhance greater attention to individual student needs and academically empower all children, particularly our special education achievers, with a stronger, empowering and challenging educational program. At a basic level, we believe our plan fosters a truly student-focused District educational system where children are accomplishing basic reading and introductory mathematics by age 3, not grade 3 -- with an infrastructure where college attendance or post-high school professional occupation training is a standard accomplishment. Citizen-parent oversight and control is a key element throughout.

In the Excellent Schools Plan (ESP), the standard elementary to high school curriculum includes comprehensive English, general sciences, technology, practical to advanced mathematics, environmental studies, critical analysis, strategic thinking, conflict resolution, performing arts, fine arts, American cultural history, world cultural history, social science, government studies, entrepreneurship, and personal finance. Additionally, courses will include writing, public speaking, interpersonal communication, literature, language arts (Spanish, Hausa, Swahili, Yoruba, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Aramaic, Cherokee, French, Italian, Russian, Latin, Greek, German, and Portuguese), pre-college studies, life management, team dynamics, citizen activism, physical fitness, martial arts, and health education. Included in ESP are diverse training courses and paid apprenticeship programs for Senior Academy students (computer repair, software and Internet programming, electrical and electronics repair, plumbing, carpentry, automobile repair, healthcare services, and small business development), complemented by rigorous academic studies, and extended full week neighborhood-based student services.

The ESP initiative is designed to systemically provide guaranteed full funding, upgrades and accountable operation in all aspects of the Public Academies to effectively educate pre-kindergarten (age 2) children to high school students. Estimated systemic funding for ESP will be conservatively at least 11% less than the current overall spending for the entire DCPS system. In an example, as a support tool for teachers and students and on-time delivery of up-to-date curriculum materials, students are assigned highly durable wireless notebook computers. These rugged lightweight units will be pre-loaded with secure curriculum software appropriate to each grade level and specific teacher lesson plans or course materials -- plus additional CD and DVD formatted educational resources. The computers' wireless capability will be encoded to only have access to a school-based Internet transmission, the ISIS system (Information Systems Infrastructure for Schools), and formatted CD, DVD and MP3 educational content. As our children are already electronically engaged, we must embrace this interest and ability by using familiar tools and hands-on teacher instruction that enhance their education. These tools will increase fiscal responsibility and accountability regarding expensive annual textbook procurements, storage, waste and on-time delivery.

Within 5 years we have the power to effectively empower all of our children by initiating the development and standardization of a Public Academy education system with the Preschool Academy (ages 2-3), Primary Academy (kindergarten to 4th grade; ages 4-8), Junior Academy (5th to 8th grade; ages 9-12) and Senior Academy (9th to 12th grade; ages 13-16) students. The program combines highly motivated and experienced teachers with state-of-the-art educational resources. Each class of 10 students has one teacher, amounting to a maximum 500 students per school composed of 100 students per grade. Companies can be given tax incentives and afterschool support to facilitate smaller onsite Preschool Academies and Primary Academies -- as well as increase the productivity and peace of mind of their working parents. In the Senior Academy years, 16 year old graduates will go into pre-college and/or private and public sector apprenticeship programs.

Admittedly, the ESP Public Academy concept is bold and outside the box. Yet, it is a very doable, educationally effective, practical, fully accountable, fiscally responsible plan.

More details on the ESP Public Academy Concept are at:

Dennis Moore, Chairperson,
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 21, 2008 1:46 PM


No doubt, we desperately need to improve and increase the District's pool of educated, trained and job-ready citizens. The exponential socioeconomic benefits are much greater than any savings from closing and selling public school property. Remember, once this public property is sold for private use, it is gone forever. Then what happens if we attract more families to the District than there are good and conveniently located schools to educate them?

Education Week recently rated D.C. public schools at the bottom with a D+ as one of the nation's worst performing school systems in its detailed 2008 annual 50-state report. Despite the devastating details, mayor Fenty's takeover team of Michelle Rhee, Victor Reinoso, Allen Lew, and de facto mayor Dan Tangherlini use the logic that fewer public schools and educators will raise the educational status of the District of Columbia. After one year, it's time to admit we have clearly elected and appointed officials that are running a major national and world capital like a small suburban county.

The hard work of planning, creating and effectively managing a public school system of excellence in the "Nation's Capital" is being avoided in favor of the easy choice to just sell taxpayer-owned public property to private interests. This is especially important regarding the many educational, training, and diverse family oriented services (so-called "wrap-around" services) needed in every District ward. Is the real problem that they've had no real plan, or clue, since dissed and dismissed superintendent Clifford Janey's plan?

There's a lot to be said about D.C. Public Schools chancellor Rhee's meetings on school closings. Having attended a few, it's abundantly clear that the takeover team also has no clue about communicating with District communities, or the D.C. Council. Justified suspicion comes from their secrecy and a clear lack of transparency. In fact, the more Rhee and associates talk (or don't talk), the more you realize they don't have an actual comprehensive plan of their own. It's amateur hour in the nation's capital, and there are weak checks and balances from our councilmembers.

The heavy hostility and fearful questions from a variety of parents, across all 8 wards, has been hard to bear even for one evening's meeting. There's a definite sense of betrayal, disgust and dictatorship behind the feelings of parents and educators who expected a partnership with Fenty's takeover team. You don't hear much about "parent involvement" from officials anymore. Parent questions are usually answered with scripted responses providing no indication about real intentions.

A one-night meeting, during bad weather, for hundreds of disgusted parents at 23 schools on January 17 is not an example of leadership, competence or critical thinking. Clearly, the takeover team is in violation of DC Official Code Title 5, Chapter 36, Closing Public Schools - Sec. 3600.4, Sec. 3602.1, Sec. 3607.2, Sec. 3608.4, and Sec. 3608.6.

However, through all of the takeover team's rhetoric, violations, dodging and purposeful manipulation, has anyone thought about what's really going on? Have we thought outside this box, or even about the box itself? Closing public schools is not a minor matter. The price for implementing desperate and undisclosed solutions has unintended major educational and fiscal consequences. We've been here before. Therefore, here are five critically important questions to consider in 2008, and before our next D.C. election:

1) What happens if the District's family population rises and there are not enough nearby schools, operating revenue, school personnel, and property space to build schools?

2) Beyond a fiscally expensive new baseball stadium, pricey stores, dwindling affordable housing, and crime emergencies, what will be the attraction for revenue-generating families to move into the District if there are not enough good and conveniently located schools for their children?

3) Are mayor Adrian Fenty, the takeover team, some councilmembers and condo developers speculating that mostly or only high income childless couples and singles will gentrify and finance the District?

4) Is the real deal behind the selling of school properties and other taxpayer-owned assets actually due to the D.C. fiscal crisis that Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi knows is coming?

5) Are we actually witnessing, but not talking about, America's biggest yard sale of schools and other taxpayer owned properties to raise money for D.C.'s coming fiscal crisis?

What happened to the billions in revenue mayor Fenty and others said was budgeted for improvements based on Dr. Janey's plan. Let's not forget about the millions of stolen dollars to be revealed in federal investigations and indictments. All of this sounds like a shell game behind a crap game. "The Perp Walk" may become the title of Chuck Brown's newest D.C. dance song.

In the meantime, anyone interested in the details of a concept to effectively educate and thoroughly prepare our children for a globalized 21st century, read about the ESP (Excellent Schools Plan) Public Academy concept at:

Dennis Moore, Chairperson,
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control (DCICC)

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 21, 2008 2:15 PM

Dennis, first cut out the extended double posts. The extended commentary with several personal shots gives me some idea of the entrenched interests that the new mayor an chancellor face.

Second, would you care to cost some of your proposals? Your organization calls for 10 students classes and a ~20% increase in the base salary. I'm also curious as to how you propose to attract all of these outstanding teachers, given the competition from private schools and the suburbs.

Ultimately, it comes down to this. If you have a viable vision, then run candidates and win power. Fenty isn't running an autocracy. He won election with a clear mandate to change the way the game is played.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | January 21, 2008 3:08 PM

And I should mention that I'm tired of having to label all these posts as Spam in the WaPo comments section. They're often the same rambling posts reposted in multiple forums. It's not creating the image for his company that Dennis wants.

We're all independent thinkers Dennis, we're all independents here. You don't have the franchise on that. In fact, can you actually say that you've built up any solid support outside of your family? Would you really want to put yourself out there at this stage without the backing of key community groups or an existing career as an elected official? The last person I will vote for is someone who wasn't already an ANC Rep or PTA president or union leader or at least ran a small company of 100-200 employees.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 21, 2008 3:52 PM

Past efforts clearly didn't work. So, I wish Rhee all the luck, simply because I also wish that all DC residents.

Posted by: Parent of 3 year old about to enter PS Pre-K | January 21, 2008 4:47 PM


I truly respect and appreciate your above comments "BB-Fairlington Blade." Regarding your point: "I'm also curious as to how you propose to attract all of these outstanding teachers, given the competition from private schools and the suburbs." I can just simply say that a city with a quality school system effectively administered by competent, experienced and effective officials easily attract quality educators. As a former adult educator, I know the word gets out pretty fast and far.

Secondly, having actually worked within DCPS at the central office (under superintendents Ackerman and Vance), and onsite observations inside various schools (with great personal comment and complaint about what I witnessed), the amount of waste of resources and funding between the two sites is far more than what is known and reported in the media. With a conservative estimate of at least an 11 percent savings in the multi-million dollars in annual waste, teachers can easily have their annual base salary upgraded to a realistic $50,0000.*

Lastly, there is significant past evidence from other councilmembers, actual election data (see link below) and ongoing proof that refutes your assertion, "Fenty isn't running an autocracy. He won election with a clear mandate to change the way the game is played."

If there is anyone still in denial since Election Day 2006, and his councilmember years, we have elected a bona fide autocrat in the form of mayor Adrian Fenty. We've been here before. Remember mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly? All image and posturing, and little or no substantive and effective governance.

Ironically, here in the capital city of a major democracy, we are experiencing the typical behavior and governance style of a pretentious democrat governing as an autocrat: a ruler having unlimited power; a despot (as in dictator) - The American Heritage College Dictionary.

With less than 30 percent of the registered D.C. electorate** and top-dollar developers (some who have received rigged development contracts) having "elected" and funded mayor Fenty, greater challenges are ahead. Read the signs, they are big! 2008 and 2009 will be exceptionally challenging fiscal, socioeconomic and embarrassing years for the District of Columbia and its officials. The quiet storm of federal investigations and indictments will reveal significant surprises.

Behind the smiling face and pretentious energy of the Trojan Horse known as mayor Adrian Fenty, D.C.'s new statehood motto and governance model has become, "Taxation Without Expectation."

*D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics 2006 Election Data:

Improving D.C. Schools - The ESP Public Academy Concept:

Dennis Moore, Chairperson,
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control (DCICC) Political Party

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 21, 2008 5:50 PM

Past efforts did not work simply because they did not have the support (political and financial) backing of the mayor's office or city council. Chancellor Rhee has not done or suggested anything new that previous superintendents did not recommend. The only different is that she does not have to deal with the level of bureaucracy that her predecessors faced.
She will accomplish many things not because she is smarter, passionate, or more committed but because of the lack of bureaucracy faced by others.

On another note, lets be clear the only reason that there is a sense of urgency in reforming DCSP is due to the demographic shift in the population which is becoming increasing middle to upper middle income, white and young. So the majority of the children from urban and working poor families who happen to be children of color, unfortunately they will not benefit from the effective changes to
5-8 years from now. However, they will be used to test new curricula, teaching paradigms, school consolidations and any other 'innovative' education strategy.

Posted by: Khathu | January 22, 2008 9:40 AM

So the majority of the children from urban and working poor families who happen to be children of color, unfortunately they will not benefit from the effective changes to
5-8 years from now.


How can that be true if their families don't move? I know many families in our neighborhood who didn't sell their houses during the real estate boom who love the new stores, safer streets, condo and retail construction, etc.

I challenge people that every parent wants what they think is best for their kid.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 22, 2008 10:27 AM


Thank you for your direct and responsive post. I think it will take a long, hard fight to wring the savings out of the system and it seems to me that the current administration is committed to doing this. We disagree on their intent--this is a case where the incoming mayor won a mandate for change. However, it's clear that an active and involved citizenry is a necessary ingredient for success.

From my screen name, you can probably guess that I live on the other side of the Potomac. We'll be looking at a place to move long term around the time our kids hit school age and I hope that DC schools are moving in the right direction.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | January 22, 2008 7:37 PM

Unfortunately, change should not mean shutting down programs that were produtive and fullfilling a vital need. The Early Childhood program for screening and assessing children ages 2 to 5 will also be closed on Monday. All EC assessments will go back to the local schools whom already are loosing there coordinators and do not have enough staff to screen let alone preform the over 200 assessments that come into the CARE Center monthly. What the new regime fails to realize this used to be the task of the local schools prior to 1995...It did not work the schools could not assemble a team to preform the intervention and the initial assessment piece...So what was old is now new again...were recycling. CONGRATULATIONS

Posted by: Related Services | January 24, 2008 8:28 PM

The majority of the urban and working poor are renters and not homeowners.

Posted by: Khathu | January 29, 2008 9:31 AM

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