Profile November 2008

The Lightning Rod

MICHELLE RHEE CHARGED IN as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools wielding BlackBerrys and data—and a giant axe. She has made a city with possibly the country’s worst public schools ground zero for education reform, and attracted a cadre of young zealots some critics call “Rhee-bots.” Now the changes that she insists schoolchildren need are colliding head-on with the political wants of adults.

The reform camp, of which Rhee is the new hero, is shot through with divisions. But its members share a few common characteristics, and perhaps the most important is a belief in the primacy of teachers. This sounds banal, but it’s actually quite controversial. Many people believe that teachers and the classroom are only one part of a vast web of relationships and environments that determine educational success. A high-profile proposal issued in June by the Economic Policy Institute and signed by a long list of boldfaced names recommended a laundry list of extracurricular efforts to boost student achievement.

Rhee’s name doesn’t appear among the signatures. In her opinion, external factors simply underline the need for better educators. And while she pays lip service to the realities of urban poverty outside school walls, she dismisses the impact that poverty and violence might have on achievement. “As a teacher in this system, you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring your children are successful despite obstacles,” she told me. “You can’t say, ‘My students didn’t get any breakfast today,’ or ‘No one put them to bed last night,’ or ‘Their electricity got cut off in the house, so they couldn’t do their homework.’” This sort of moral certitude is exactly what turns off many veteran teachers in Washington. Even if Rhee is right, she seems to be asking for superhuman efforts, consistently, for decades to come. Making missionary zeal a job requirement is a tough way to build morale, not to mention support, among the teachers who have to confront the D.C. ghetto every day.

Rhee and her reform allies’ response is to call for better teachers, and they want to work through Teach for America and other alternative programs to find them. This is another sticking point. Traditionally, a good teacher was considered to be someone who had trained in education schools, been certified by state boards, enlisted in unions, and committed to a lifetime career—elements tightly interwoven with any district’s political structure. Reformers criticize all those elements. One of Rhee’s favorite anecdotes, which she has recounted in practically every speech I’ve seen her give, contrasts the hard work, creativity, and popularity of a newbie teacher named “Mr. Wallace”—who just happens to be part of Teach for America—with a hardened older teacher across the hall, who stands at the door flicking the light switch and saying “I’m waiting, I’m waiting” to get her students’ attention. “Well, they’re waiting too,” Rhee invariably says. “They’re waiting for her to teach them something.” In Rhee’s world, the educational system divides between the Mr. Wallaces and everyone else, and it’s no coincidence that Mr. Wallace sounds an awful lot like Rhee herself.

Rhee advocates another controversial plank in the reformist agenda: merit pay. Vociferously opposed by the teachers unions—a National Education Association convention audience booed Barack Obama when he told them he supported it—merit pay scales a teacher’s salary based on student achievement. Proponents say this is the only way to make teachers want to improve their performance. Opponents say it will torpedo already low morale and drive a wedge through faculty solidarity, and that basing merit pay on student performance leaves out all sorts of nonquantifiable aspects of learning. Rhee is willing to risk it. “We have heroic figures out in the school district, people who work unbelievable hours,” she told me. “I want to not only recognize them but reward them. I want to pay them a lot more money”—more than $100,000, compared with the national average salary of $47,600. Rhee’s proposed contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union would allow current teachers to choose between tenure based on seniority combined with a lower salary and at-will employment combined with a higher, performance-based salary. The contract would place all new teachers in the latter category, and give all teachers a raise—but would effectively phase out tenure over time and make D.C. the first major school district to go to a completely merit-based pay structure. As this article went to press, negotiations were ongoing, but it was clear that Rhee faced an uphill battle. She had a backup in case the rank and file voted down the contract. During negotiations, additional plans were announced by the Office of the State Superintendent to tie teacher licensing to student achievement, sidestepping the union and effectively giving Rhee the power to fire underperforming teachers.

Behind the fighting lie basic questions: What makes a good teacher? And how do you recognize one? For Rhee and her fellow reformers, the answer is data. Lots of data. There may be many unquantifiables in teacher quality, but most of the traits that matter to reformers can be put into numbers. It’s an attitude born of Rhee’s experience in Teach for America, which regularly assesses its teachers’ effectiveness against in-house and state achievement levels. “TFA is a machine,” says Jennifer Kirmes, who taught for the program in Washington and now works in its Chicago office. “Everything is done with data and analysis. Everything you do reflects back on how your students are doing.” Rhee fully supports the accountability that underlies No Child Left Behind. Every week, she and her top staff members hold a “School Stat” meeting where they pore over data on everything from student performance to facilities’ work orders.

This year, Washington was one of the top choices for incoming TFA corps members, drawn largely by Rhee. As one D.C.-bound TFA teacher, Stephanie Neves, wrote on her blog, “We are here during some crazy times in DC. We are here for the revolution. DC ’08!”

The problem is that those immediately affected by Rhee’s reforms—teachers and parents—can be less enamored of her get-tough posture. Many felt particularly put out earlier this year when Rhee refused to release a draft of her 2008–2009 budget in advance of a community budget hearing and her submitting it to the mayor—a position several residents said violated city law, and they filed a lawsuit to fight it. (The Fenty administration claimed that its takeover of the schools obviated the law, but a judge required the administration to provide a draft copy of the budget to the plaintiffs. Another judge later ruled for the Fenty administration; the plaintiffs have appealed.) To be fair, Rhee did meet several times with parents and once with activists to discuss school closings, but “most of us felt it was mostly for show,” Marc Borbely, who attended the activist meeting and later led the budget-lawsuit effort, told me. “The things we said were mostly disregarded. When it comes to real decision-making, her philosophy is, ‘I’ll get input, but there are no partners here.’”

Rhee sees herself not as a politician but as a technocrat; a decider, not a negotiator. “Does that mean every decision is going to be right? No,” she said to me in a measured pace that sounded well-practiced. “Have I made some wrong decisions? Yeah. But the bottom line is, the reason I can sleep at night, really soundly every night, is because I know that even if I didn’t make the right call, I made it because I believed at that moment that it was the best thing for kids.”

Listening to Rhee, it’s hard to disagree. But even if she speaks cavalierly about eschewing city politics, that doesn’t make city politics go away. Complaints are bubbling up to the city council. In one particularly testy exchange at an all-day meeting in April, Marion Barry, now the representative for the city’s poorest ward, lectured Rhee on the political realities of her job. “Whether or not you and the mayor want to take it out of the political arena, you cannot, because education all over America has political implications,” he told her. “Parents are also voters.”

Rhee would have none of it. “I think part of the problem of how the district has been run in the past is that decisions have been made for political reasons, and based on what was going to placate and satisfy adults instead of what was in the best interests of children.”

“Let me be succinct, because my time is running out,” Barry retorted. “Talk to other people on this, because I think you’re absolutely wrong … I know you want to do it the right way, but I think that’s causing us more problems than we need to have.”

The comment was a warning, but it was also a reflection of the very political nature of education in the American inner city, and particularly in Washington. In a city largely excluded from national politics, it makes sense that residents would feel particularly slighted by an outsider, installed without their input, who is happy to bypass the few forums left where poor and working-class parents can engage with the political system—the parent-teacher associations, the ward-level education committees, and other unofficial bodies that long wielded influence against the elected school board and suddenly find themselves powerless against a mayorally appointed chancellor. “I’m sympathetic with the need to act decisively and quickly, but at the same time, what does that do to one of our last democratic institutions?” asks Celia Oyler, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. To a reformer, that sounds like a classic plea for putting grown-ups’ interests first.

Arguably, mayoral control has clarified political accountability, by making Fenty, rather than assorted school-board members and ancillary committees, ultimately responsible for fixing the schools. Mayoral control is now the source of Rhee’s power—Fenty is overwhelmingly popular, in part thanks to Rhee’s work—but it is also another potential weakness. “Fenty has a set term, and he’s on board with her,” Sara Mead, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, says. “The downside of having the mayor in charge is that you tie your fate to the mayor.”

And cracks in that shield are already beginning to show. Though the city council gave Fenty control of the schools and later endorsed Rhee’s job cuts, its members have been pushing bills to allow more council oversight of school operations and to reapportion power between Rhee and the state superintendent. Most recently, Barry and the council chair, Vincent Gray, delayed approval of millions of dollars in school-renovation funds. And it could get worse. “For legislators, when they see reform coming, there is a tendency to overregulate,” says former city councilman Kevin Chavous. “It’s a huge challenge. It has the potential to be lethal to all reform efforts.”

Rhee is confronting the great divide over American public-education reform—not between left and right but between two philosophies about education. To Rhee and her fellow reformers, schools can, by themselves, produce successful students. To her opponents (and they include liberals and conservatives), schools are not enough, however “successful” their students. They are an important, but hardly the only, means with which children are inculcated with the skills and mores of their community.

The divide means that Rhee’s challenge is not just to reform one of the worst school systems in the country and, in effect, prove whether or not inner-city schools can be revived at all. It is to answer a basic question about the nature of urban governance, a question about two visions of big-city management. In one, city politics is a vibrant, messy, democratic exercise, in which both the process and the results have value. In the other, city politics is only a prelude, the way to install a technocratic elite that can carry out reforms in relative isolation from the give-and-take of city life. Rhee’s tenure will answer whether these two positions are mutually exclusive—and, if they are, whether public-school reform is even possible.

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Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and the author of the forthcoming book A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination.

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