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A Bittersweet DC Farewell for Michelle Rhee

11/03/2010 02:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was a glorious affair at the Kennedy Center Monday night when 662 of the best public school teachers in Washington, DC were recognized for their achievements. College professor and vice-presidential wife Jill Biden, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and Meet the Press moderator David Gregory were among the luminaries paying tribute to teachers rated "highly effective" under the contentious evaluation system established by now former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Entitled "Standing Ovation for D.C. Teachers," the long-scheduled event also became a farewell for the 40-year-old Rhee, the crusading educator featured prominently in the Waiting for 'Superman' documentary of reformers and failing urban schools. After three plus years leading the DC schools -- closing underpopulated schools, dismissing over 100 teachers, slimming a bloated bureaucracy -- Rhee resigned after her patron, outgoing DC mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his bid for re-election in the September Democratic party primary.

In her remarks, Rhee paid tribute to teachers and repeated her now familiar refrain that the best teachers change lives and they should not only be recognized but paid more money. The teachers in the audience are eligible for bonuses ranging from $3,000 to over $20,000.

Rhee has said her proudest achievement in DC is a teachers contract that devolves critical decision making to individual schools, allowing principals to determine who should be hired, and if necessary, fired. This, combined with pay for performance, is anathema to teachers' unions, which have opposed Rhee's measures, particularly the Impact evaluation system that has rated on a scale of one to four each of the District's 4,000 educators.

The highly effective "fours" were the ones in the Kennedy Center audience. Doubts about Impact even from its winners may account for the fact that when the host asked that Rhee be given a standing ovation, only half the audience stood up.

Despite reassuring words from Rhee, her interim successor Kaya Henderson, Fenty, and mayor-elect Vincent Gray that DC school reform will continue, real doubts remain.

Education writer and Rhee biographer Richard Whitmire identifies several markers that will determine if Rhee's radical reforms continue. He puts retention of Impact at the top of the list and warns of trouble ahead if Gray appoints a panel of experts to evaluate and improve the system.

A second red flag, says Whitmire, would be the departure of Jason Kamras, a 2005 Teacher of the Year and Teach for America alumnus, who designed the Impact system.

Also problematic will be the fate of 737 teachers who were rated minimally effective in the evaluations. They have been put on notice that they have one year to improve or they face dismissal.

Impact links teacher pay and tenure to a set of performance criteria designed to measure teacher effectiveness. Teachers are judged annually in nine categories that include 22 different measures ranging from time management, to classroom presence, to clarity of instruction.

The evaluations, carried out five times during the school year, are also linked to each schools performance in standardized tests.

In unveiling the Impact system a year ago, Rhee boldly promised to have a highly effective teacher in every Washington, DC classroom by 2012. The DC system serves 44,000 pupils in 123 schools. Public charter schools are now well entrenched and comprise about 40 percent of all DC students.

The teachers contract that Rhee and Fenty praise was approved by 80 percent of the city's public school teachers. Despite that lopsided vote, the union, a major donor to Gray's successful mayoral campaign, says Impact is flawed and unfair. The contract also included a 20 percent raise that brings average DC teacher salaries to over $70,000.

Are Rhee's achievements and the contract she negotiated with the union a model for other failing urban schools? It's far too early to say.