When Adrian Fenty lost the mayoral primary in DC, it was clear that Michelle Rhee's days were numbered. I was working late when the news of her resignation broke--a flood of Facebook posts and chats appeared from distraught friends who are teachers, former AmeriCorps volunteers, and Teach For America alumni. The news wasn't surprising, but still raised unease as to who would be the next face of education reform in America.
I had the pleasure of working with Rhee's staff when my nonprofit, The Generation Project, launched to DCPS in fall 2009. The Generation Project empowers donors to create a personal difference for low-income K-12 students and, in turn, we offer free opportunities that educators can immediately access. With national attention on Rhee and DC, numerous donors earmarked their gifts for DCPS.
The other co-founder of The Generation Project and I are both Teach For America alumni. The Chancellor stacked her staff with alumni of the program and, as such, support for The Generation Project came quickly. The central office was even more helpful than anticipated -- they identified and cultivated 13 schools that would put our donors' gifts to good use. Rhee's office conducted outreach on our behalf, followed up with schools at least twice, and even made some direct calls to principals. Of our four original cities, we had the most support from her district and spent the most staff time on outreach in DC. In the end, however, DC had the lowest teacher usage rate of any city where we were operating (including Chicago, Detroit, and New York City).
This outcome can be attributed to numerous factors. The tenure fight, school closings, and principal firings were, I'm sure, weighing heavily on some administrators. I can imagine that sharing word with teachers of The Generation Project's launch was not many principals' top priority.
Even given the climate, I was still very confused as to why it was so difficult to share FREE opportunities in the district that was inspiring reform efforts across the country. Something was awry.
For many living in the District, and specifically for those connected to DCPS, Rhee appeared to care more about cleaning house than supporting children. If you follow education, you know about the broom. You may have heard that she fired her own children's principal and many of us saw how she fired principals in "Waiting for 'Superman.' "
Maybe DC needed a hatchet lady. Student achievement is up. Low-performing schools shouldn't be allowed to fail students year after year. And those gripped by "Waiting for 'Superman' " will remember Rhee claiming that this would be her only superintendency -- giving her the freedom to act quickly and aggressively. But to what end?
Nationally, Rhee was an education superstar. But in DC she was polarizing. I believe one of the biggest reasons The Generation Project didn't gain more traction in DC last year is because the communication we shared with schools came directly from Rhee's office. Principals already spurned by her lack of empathy and tact didn't listen as closely to the offer for free opportunities as those in Chicago, Detroit, and New York City. On the whole this might not seem like a big deal. But these were completely free opportunities claimed by teachers in other cities that could have gone to support the education of students in DC.
I deeply respect and admire Rhee's tenacity and dedication to children. But I was disappointed by her approach. Her reforms were never going to be sustainable without support throughout her ranks. Providing access to a brighter future for kids is the responsibility of school systems. It seems Rhee forgot that parents and educators comprise the system. When they are made to feel disposable, lasting reform will never happen. This was Rhee's downfall and it affected more than her success or failure; it impacted our work and the efforts of the broader community.
The national sentiment about her resignation is different than the opinion of many in the District. I always supported Rhee and I know people, as hyperbolic as it may sound, who thought Rhee was the "Superman" of our generation. Because Rhee didn't lead in a way that was respectful of students, families, and educators, though, there is a real, entrenched backlash. Perhaps Rhee's successor would be well-advised to remember this by channeling the motto of her peers at the KIPP charter schools: "Work Hard, Be Nice." Rhee worked hard, and it showed, but in education, being nice is half the game.
I look forward to supporting Kaya Henderson as she works to build on Rhee's critical reforms and hope, if selfishly, that she'll walk softly so The Generation Project and organizations like ours can reach more students in the District.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more