THE BLOG

With Michelle Rhee Out, Is DC School Reform In Retreat?

10/19/2010 05:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The short answer is probably yes, but it is too early to tell. However, there can be no doubt that the teacher accountability reforms championed by Rhee are under enormous pressure.

Wednesday's press conference where Rhee announced her resignation after 3.5 years as Washington's education czar was surreal. Flanked by outgoing mayor Adrian Fenty and mayor-in-waiting city council chairman and Rhee skeptic Vincent Gray, a smiling Rhee declared, "the way to keep reform going [in DC] is for this reformer to step aside." Rhee's interim successor will be her deputy Kaya Henderson.

In their remarks Fenty and Gray professed commitment to educational excellence. Fenty, whose bid for a second term vanished with his loss to Gray in last month's Democratic primary, was unrepentant about bringing in Rhee. "Back in June 2007 we hired the best person to head our schools," he said, "and she has exceeded all my expectations."

Fenty praised Rhee for bringing excitement and change to the failing DC schools and becoming a national beacon for education reform. Because of Rhee, said Fenty, "the outlook for DC schools has never been brighter."

Rhee described her departure as heartbreaking, but then graciously added, "it is essential that I leave," so that incoming mayor Gray can choose his educational own team. Gray defeated Fenty largely because of community opposition to the aggressive Rhee reforms, which closed underused schools, modernized others, slashed a bloated administrative staff, and dismissed over 200 teachers deemed to be incompetent. The American Federation of Teachers spent $1 million backing Gray's candidacy.

From my perspective as a substitute teacher in DC schools, I'm convinced that school reform in the nation's capital is linked to the controversial Impact system of teacher evaluations that is the centerpiece of Rhee's program. Opposed by the teachers union, if Gray and the chancellor he designates keep Impact reform is on. If Impact goes, reform will have been significantly weakened.

In unveiling the 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 employing 4,000 educators.

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 are also linked each school's performance in standardized achievement tests.

The teacher evaluations occur during five 30-minute classroom observations scattered through the school year, three from principals and two by master educators.

This past summer, in addition to a 20 percent raise that brings average teacher salaries to over $70,000, every DC teacher received his or her 2009/10 Impact number.

Teachers ranked "highly effective," receive a 4 and are eligible for bonuses of over $20,000. Effective teachers have 3s, while minimally effective 2s are on notice that they must improve. The several hundred teachers who received 1s are subject to dismissal.

Will the Washington Teachers Union attempt to overturn Impact and prevent the "1s" from being dismissed? That will determine whether reform is ongoing, or dead in the water.

Prior to Fenty's loss in the primary, Rhee's reforms had won outspoken support from President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and investor Warren Buffett, a graduate of Washington's Wilson High School.