10/13/2010 01:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Michelle Rhee Resigns: What's Next for D.C. Schools?

The sudden resignation of Michelle Rhee actually makes perfect sense. It was inevitable, so why wait around? It's easy to imagine Ms. Rhee coming to that conclusion once she recognized that she and the next Mayor, Vincent Gray, would not be able to work together the way she did with the current Mayor, Adrian Fenty.

Michelle Rhee ResignsWhat happens next in Washington is the big story, although most of the attention will be on Ms. Rhee. She's a national figure, subject of much speculation. Will she go to California if Meg Whitman wins the gubernatorial race? What about New Jersey? Iowa? Funny how the Republicans love her to death now, even though she was chosen by an ardent Democrat and has been praised to the skies by President Obama.

At Learning Matters, we followed Ms. Rhee closely during the three plus years she's been in Washington, airing a total of 12 segments on PBS NewsHour about the changes she's made there. Scores and enrollment are up locally, but, make no mistake about it, she also has altered the national conversation about how teachers are paid and evaluated. No one can defend the current system, which bases everything on years in the classroom and number of graduate credits, as appropriate or rational. That approach is history, even though it may take years for it to be removed for good.

What is going to replace the old way is now the question. "How much of a teacher's pay should be based on student performance?" is now the question, not "should it be?" Yet to be determined is how a teacher's performance will be measured, while whether it will be measured is no longer open to debate. For this sea change, Michelle Rhee gets the lion's share of the credit (or the blame, if you're hanging on to the comfortable past).

But back to Washington, where I think her reforms could be undercut. She imposed a rating system, IMPACT, that many teachers hate, even though it is less subjective than the old way (in which the principal or assistant principal visited the class once or twice and wrote a report -- that was it!). Under IMPACT, each teacher is visited, observed and graded five times, with two of those observations made by people who don't work in the school. On a scale of one to four, a rating of one means goodbye, and a rating of two puts a teacher on notice.

But that system is susceptible to dilution and even subversion, if the new permanent Chancellor, whoever that may be, is not committed to it. We have student grade inflation in our classrooms, so it's easy to imagine it creeping into teacher evaluation. Remember that the under the current system, more than 95 percent of teachers -- nationally -- are given high ratings, even though most students barely score at a basic level. That could happen to IMPACT.

Michelle Rhee streamlined the D.C. school bureaucracy and closed nearly two dozen schools. Those changes will be hard to overturn. The next Mayor has pledged to review the dismissals of any teachers let go because of the economy, but it's unlikely that he will attempt to rehire those teachers Ms. Rhee dismissed for cause.

And the ground-breaking contract that was signed this spring, minimizing the power of seniority? While the press reported it as a five year contract, we should remember that it was retroactive for nearly three years, meaning that it has less than two years to run. In other words, negotiations for a new contract will begin next year, and I will bet dollars to doughnuts that the union leadership will attempt to water that down. If Ms. Rhee were staying, that contract's provisions would not be diluted. Now what happens next is anyone's guess, until we see just how strong Vincent Gray's commitment is. After all, he won with the strong support of the teachers union, and it could be payback time.

Stay tuned...


John Merrow's new book, Below C Level, is now available on Amazon.
He blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared.