What I've Learned

By Rhee, Michelle | Newsweek, December 13, 2010 | Go to article overview

What I've Learned


Rhee, Michelle, Newsweek


Byline: Michelle Rhee

We can't keep politics out of school reform. Why I'm launching a national movement to transform education.

After my boss, Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his primary in September, I was stunned. I had never imagined he wouldn't win the contest, given the progress that was visible throughout the city--the new recreation centers, the turnaround of once struggling neighborhoods, and, yes, the improvements in the schools. Three and a half years ago, when I first met with Fenty about becoming chancellor of the D.C. public-school system, I had warned him that he wouldn't want to hire me. If we did the job right for the city's children, I told him, it would upset the status quo--I was sure I would be a political problem. But Fenty was adamant. He said he would back me--and my changes--100 percent. He never wavered, and I convinced myself the public would see the progress and want it to continue. But now I have no doubt this cost him the election.

The timing couldn't have been more ironic. The new movie Waiting for Superman--which aimed to generate public passion for school reform the way An Inconvenient Truth had for climate change--premiered in Washington the night after the election. The film championed the progress Fenty and I had been making in the District, and lamented the roadblocks we'd faced from the teachers' union. In the pro-reform crowd, you could feel the shock that voters had just rejected this mayor and, to some extent, the reforms in their schools.

When I started as chancellor in 2007, I never had any illusions about how tough it would be to turn around a failing system like D.C.'s; the city had gone through seven chancellors in the 10 years before me. While I had to make many structural changes--overhauling the system for evaluating teachers and principals, adopting new reading and math programs, making sure textbooks got delivered on time--I believed the hardest thing would be changing the culture. We had to raise the expectations that people had about what was possible for our kids.

I quickly announced a plan to close almost two dozen schools, which provoked community outrage. We cut the central office administration in half. And I also proposed a new contract for teachers that would increase their salaries dramatically if they abandoned the tenure system and agreed to be paid based on their effectiveness.

Though all of these actions caused turmoil in the district, they were long overdue and reaped benefits quickly. In my first two years in office, the D.C. schools went from being the worst performing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress examination, the national test, to leading the nation in gains at both the fourth and eighth grade in reading as well as math. By this school year we reversed a trend of declining enrollment and increased the number of families choosing District schools for the first time in 41 years.

Because of results like these, I have no regrets about moving so fast. So much needed to be fixed, and there were times when I know it must have felt overwhelming to the teachers because we were trying to fix everything at once. But from my point of view, waiting meant that another year was going by when kids were not getting the education they deserved.

I know people say I wasn't good enough at building consensus, but I don't think consensus can be the goal. Take, for example, one of our early boiling points: school closures. We held dozens of community meetings about the issue. But would people really have been happier with the results if we had done it more slowly? I talked to someone from another district that spent a year and a half defining the criteria that outlined which schools would close. But when the results were announced, everyone went nuts. They had seen the criteria. What did they think was going to happen? That's when I realized there is no good way to close a school. …

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