There is a lot of talk about the future of Michelle Rhee, who resigned as the Chancellor of Washington DC 's schools last week. Speculation centers around possibilities for her next job.
The timing couldn't be better for her. Not only is she leaving before she had to demonstrate sustained improved academic results for the children of the District, but is now the "star" of the propaganda documentary Waiting for Superman. Her public reputation is at its apex.
Some of the speculation has her coming to Newark, N.J., a school system whose failure is rivaled only by the one she is leaving in the nation's capital. Newark's schools are the lucky recipient of $100 million in the form of a charitable contribution from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
Mr. Zuckerberg also understands public relations timing, as he is also the subject of a current film, one in which he is portrayed in a mostly negative way. It has been speculated that the timing of his generous gift is no accident, perhaps designed to counter the poor image presented of him in The Social Network.
Newark, however, can find better ways to spend its money. Colbert I. King, the Washington Post columnist helps deflate the Rhee mythology. Mr. King points out that Ms. Rhee was no innovator, basically expanding on the strategy of her predecessor. Clifford Janey was even more aggressive in removing "ineffective" teachers, showing 370 the door, nearly twice the number booted by Ms. Rhee. At the point when Mr. Janey was let go by Mayor Adrian Fenty, plans were in place to jettison hundreds more, slowed only by the reality that, while it is easy to give a teacher a pink slip, it is a lot harder find a new teacher to put in front of the class who will do better.
The New York Post, which will blame the local teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), for everything including bad weather, has come up with a new idea to bring Ms. Rhee to New York. "DC's loss could be New York's gain, and it behooves city school's Chancellor Joel Klein to scoop her up before she departs for another system."
Now of course New York already has a chancellor, Mr. Klein, who is about as beloved to Gotham's teachers (and parents) as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But presumably the Post feels that the addition of Ms. Rhee to the lineup is good insurance, just in case Mr. Klein might be hit by a bus (presumably one hijacked by a UFT member). Actually, having Ms. Rhee waiting in the wings might provide a form of life insurance for Mr. Klein.
Now it would be nice if someone who actually knew something about instruction, curriculum and the like would join the New York school administration, since this is truly its weak spot. The original Bloomberg mandates for a city-wide curriculum have long since given way to "I don't care how you do it, but get the damned test scores up" approach. This seemed to be working just fine as long as state education officials were wildly inflating test scores. But since the state let the air out of that balloon back in July, it is clear that it's time to take things back to the classroom.
Unfortunately, Ms. Rhee's resume doesn't include much experience with instruction, other than a short teaching stint, which was questionably successful.
With a higher testing bar, more rigorous national standards underway, and little instructional direction, New York needs someone who can do more than crack the whip on teachers. After failing to make any substantial academic progress after eight years, it is clear that Joel Klein wasn't the answer. If anything, Ms. Rhee would be demonstrably worse.
When New York finally gets a new chancellor, it should be someone who can lead the teachers and principals on a new instructional path. Educators who really understand what goes on in the classroom are better positioned to get better results. After all, the fastest growth in scores that we have seen was under former Chancellor Rudy Crew, a well-regarded educator, more than a decade ago. Scores continued to rise under his successor, Harold Levy, who was not an educator, but was forced by the independent Board of Education that ran the schools then to retain Judith Rizzo, Crew's instructional chief.
Dr. Crew was fond of visiting schools and hugging the children, something that seems impossibly tender today in the button-down world of Mr. Klein and Ms. Rhee.
And that's why the next chancellor must possess the one thing needed to make the demoralized New York system work again -- heart. So Michelle Rhee, stay far, far away from my door!