A Fine Line Between Punitive and Progress

Michelle Rhe,Chancellor of the Washington Public Schools, has been under fire for her strict policies and strong command. Now she is stepping down. Below is an article from the New York times detailing her career.

The New York Times thinks this is a huge loss for Washington. What do you think?

Courtesy of the New York Times~

Michelle A. Rhee served as chancellor of the public school system in Washington D.C., which, when she was named to the post 2007, was arguably the nation’s most dysfunctional. Her clashes with the teachers union made her a polarizing symbol in a nationwide debate over school reform.

In October, city officials said that Ms. Rhee would be stepping down. Her position had been in doubt since the September Democratic mayoral primary, in which her approach was an issue that divided the city largely on racial lines. Mayor Adrian Fenty‘s strong support of the chancellor was a factor in his loss to Vincent C. Gray, the chairman of the City Council.

In the years before Ms. Rhee took over the district, almost all the teachers had high performance ratings and almost none were fired, but students, on average, had low achievement levels.

As chancellor, she focused on controlling how teachers in the district are managed, paid and, if necessary, fired. In shaking up the system, she created untold enemies, improved test scores and — more than almost anyone else — dared to talk openly about the need to replace ineffective teachers.

In July 2010, Ms. Rhee, citing the budget, fired 241 teachers, or 5 percent of the district’s total. All but a few of those dismissed had received the lowest rating under a new evaluation system that for the first time held them accountable for their students’ standardized test scores.

The Washington Teachers’ Union challenged the firings. The union has taken issue with the evaluation system Ms. Rhee used, saying that it was designed more for punishing teachers than helping them improve.

July’s dismissals were not the chancellor’s first. In the 2007-8 school year, according to a district spokesman, 79 teachers were fired for poor performance, and in 2008-9, 96.

In the month prior to the 2010 firings, the teachers’ union and the District Council approved a contract that weakened teachers’ seniority protection, in return for 20 percent raises and bonuses of $20,000 to $30,000 for teachers who meet certain standards, including rising test scores.

Fresh out of college, Ms. Rhee joined Teach for America, the fast-track teacher training program, landing at Harlem Park Community School in Baltimore. The public school ranked near the bottom in city reading and math scores, and as a new teacher, Ms. Rhee got a classroom of 35 children achieving the worst and behaving the worst.

“They ran right over me,” recalled Ms. Rhee, who is graduate of Cornell University with a master’s from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She ended that first year “convinced that I was not going to let 8-year-olds ruin my life.”

The next fall she combined classes with another teacher, and together they taught the same children for two years. By the end of the second year, she said, the class that had been testing in the 13th percentile was on grade level, with some children soaring to the 90th percentile.

In 1997, at 27, Ms. Rhee founded and ran the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group in New York City. The project trains midcareer professionals to become classroom teachers. Since its founding, it has trained and supplied 23,000 teachers to urban districts nationwide. It recruits and hires teachers to work in four of the eight largest school systems: New York City, Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia.

Her appointment to chancellor in 2007 was the first act of Washington’s new mayor, Adrian M. Fenty, upon his formal takeover of the public schools, and the criticism was quick in coming. Some school officials, City Council members and parents complained that in naming Ms. Rhee, Mr. Fenty had failed to consult enough with parents and teachers. But other criticism focused on Ms. Rhee herself.

Ms. Rhee, a Korean-American, is the first schools chief in 40 years who is not black. In Washington, 95 percent of the district’s public school students are black. And Ms. Rhee had never run a school or a school system before.

However, Ms. Rhee enjoyed unwavering support from Mayor Fenty for her aggressive moves to overhaul the city’s schools, and as a result she became the national face of school reform efforts. Her efforts have been lauded by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

In Washington, Ms. Rhee and Mr. Fenty courted private capital to help drive their mission. In the short run, this strategy seemed shrewd, especially as the city’s budget constricted. It was a risky gambit, however, because it is now unclear whether the money will stay in place after Ms. Rhee leaves her post.

In the spring of 2010, several corporate donors, including the charitable arm of Wal-Mart, indicated that they would withdraw millions of dollars they had donated if Ms. Rhee was not retained.

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