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Why I'm Proud of Student Achievement in Washington, D.C. (and Why We Need National Reforms)

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When I became chancellor of the District of Columbia's public school system in 2007, the central district office had no filing system and stacks of personnel papers were strewn in random piles and of no use to anyone. An out-of-the-way warehouse contained badly needed textbooks and supplies that never got distributed to children. In past years, the schools were in such disarray that the district couldn't open the schools on time for the beginning of the year.

Simply put, the system was broken and in need of serious repair. Today, things are working better, as judged by test scores, graduation rates and school enrollment figures.

One of the first things I did was overhaul the school district's central office. It had stopped working for principals and teachers and, in fact, stood in the way of the progress they were trying to make with kids. I got a lot of criticism for being insensitive about laying people off. But, while not easy, putting in place a highly functioning central office was the right thing to do to support children. The changes freed up money that was needed in classrooms.

Now about that warehouse. When I first saw this place, full of forgotten textbooks, furniture and supplies, I got so upset. I had been in so many schools where teachers used their own pocket money to buy classroom supplies. The fact that these resources were stacked up and collecting dust was such a waste.

There's a lot of talk right now about whether D.C. students achieved real gains on district and federal tests during the three-and-a-half years I was chancellor. I know they did. Virtually every subgroup of students performed better on the district tests last year than in 2007. Black and low-income students at the secondary level have experienced double-digit gains in reading and math since 2007. Such strides are essential to narrowing achievement gaps that exist between poor minorities and their white, wealthier peers.

USA Today recently reported on testing irregularities at some district schools. We called for an independent investigation that found no cheating occurred. Because of the importance of these tests, current chancellor Kaya Henderson recently made the wise choice of reviewing the matter further. I look forward to seeing the results of the new inquiry. We have to ensure our tests accurately reflect what our students have learned.

D.C. students also made strides on the National Assessment of Educational Progress when I was chancellor. There have never been allegations of cheating on this federal exam, often referred to as the gold standard in testing. In 2009, the District of Columbia was the only major urban school district to show significant reading and math gains at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels.

From 2007 to 2009, every measured subgroup of students made progress on the eighth-grade NAEP reading test. Similarly, every measured subgroup made gains on the fourth-grade math test. In some instances, gains came after a period without them. Consider DC Public School's overall eighth-grade reading scores, which rose from 2007 to 2009 but were flat from 2005 to 2007.

Rising test scores are a critical measure of school progress, but they aren't the only metrics we can use. High school graduation rates have climbed to 72 percent in 2009, not as high as we would like, but a gain from 68 percent in 2007.

Harvard researcher Paul Peterson also noted this week in the publication Education Next that student absenteeism declined from 2007 to 2009, as did teacher absences. Peterson reported that the days during which 98 percent or more of the teachers were at school rose from about 67 percent to 85 percent. Teacher attendance is critical to student learning. High-poverty schools are often plagued by poor teacher attendance, and research has shown that has a negative effect on student learning, particularly in math.

I know some of my decisions were unpopular and generated what some might call bad press. I should have done a better job communicating the rationale behind some of these decisions, but making real change requires decisive action. Let's examine my decision to close 23 schools where enrollment numbers were low, as was academic performance levels. In the end, the kids got to go to better schools that were still in their neighborhoods. The schools that stayed open retained high-quality teachers, were renovated and got additional resources.

Let's talk some more about resources. Some of the criticism I've heard about my tenure in D.C. is that I axed art programs and only focused on reading and math, the subjects tested under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Let's be clear. As the mother of two school-age girls, and a former teacher, I believe art, music and physical education are important components of the school day. The truth is that because of the hard decisions we made with school closures we were able to ensure that every school had a gym, art and music teacher, a librarian, a nurse and a counselor or social worker-- something that wasn't available to all D.C. students before 2007.

Another change that is having a great effect on D.C. schools is the new collective bargaining agreement we negotiated with the Washington Teachers Union. The contract was a radical departure from what previously existed. It dramatically boosted teacher pay, treating our educators like the professionals they are. For teachers who opt in to a system in which their pay is linked to the quality of their work, not just time spent on the job, compensation can reach around $140,000. It's no less than what a great teacher deserves.

Linked to the contract is a brand-new evaluation system that requires teachers to be evaluated on the job several times a year by peers, known as master educators, and principals. Teachers get important feedback that helps them improve at the essential work they do. Teachers who don't improve can now be removed from the classroom -- something that was incredibly difficult to do before. Firing a teacher is not something a principal should do lightly, but the risks associated with leaving an ineffective teacher in a classroom are serious.

There is no school-based factor that is as important as the quality of a teacher when it comes to student learning. That's why we worked hard to recruit and retain excellent teachers who were committed to working in a district such as ours. A lot of attention was paid to our decision to remove ineffective teachers from schools, but it's also important to note that we sought out and hired hundreds of top-notch educators who wanted to help transform D.C. schools.

Parents are perhaps the best judges of whether our schools have improved. What I overwhelmingly heard, as I visited with families around the district, was that they liked the reforms. Enrollment records suggest they were speaking candidly. After nearly four decades of declining enrollment, D.C. public schools saw student numbers increase in the last year of my tenure. Parents are still speaking with their feet -- only now they are walking their children to, not away from, D.C. public schools.

Leaving DCPS last fall was difficult, but I know district schools are in great hands with Kaya Henderson. I am excited about taking the experience I gained as chancellor and trying to help education leaders and policymakers around the country.

As CEO and founder of StudentsFirst, a new nonprofit that aims to put kids' interests ahead of others in these critical school reform debates, I am working to overturn policies that stand in the way of positive change. One such is example is the practice of laying off teachers based on seniority rather than by how effective they are at helping kids progress. Nationally, right now, an estimated 160,000 teachers are at risk of layoffs due to the financial crisis. That's terrible, but what's worse is how those layoffs will take place unless we fight for change. Our kids deserve no less, and I will continue to work on their behalf.

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