Why Michelle Rhee's Education 'Brand' Failed in D.C.

By Natalie Hopkinson
The urban education reform movement just got a much-needed reality check as D.C. Democratic primary voters fired Mayor Adrian Fenty, and effectively along with him one of the movement's biggest superstars, District schools chief Michelle Rhee. Chancellor Rhee was as a key, polarizing figure in Fenty's reelection campaign, which ended when he was defeated in the Tuesday primary by his challenger, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray.

Rhee brazenly politicized her job as Schools Chancellor in a way that may be unprecedented for education bureaucrats. Back in the spring, the charitable arm of Wal-Mart and other corporate foundations threatened to yank millions they had donated to break the teacher's union if Rhee was not retained. Then Rhee not so subtly hinted to a reporter that she would not work for Gray. Finally, the weekend before the election, Rhee hit the campaign trail along with Fenty to round up votes in the wealthiest ward in Washington.

D.C. voters responded with a resounding rejection of her, her boss and their education policies. (Gray, who has no Republican challenger in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, has not said if he would retain Rhee.)

Some are already blaming racial identity politics and the ghosts of Marion Barry for the resounding defeat of education's Great Hope at the polls. But if education reformers think the election is the problem, they are missing some major lessons in an often racially charged battle for urban school reform. A majority of black voters cited Rhee as a reason to fire her boss, while a majority of white voters cited Rhee as a reason to vote for Fenty. But the stink swirling around education reform in D.C. goes beyond race. The hundreds of millions of corporate dollars used to break the D.C. teachers' union have dangerous strings attached.

There is pushback against the movement to treat public institutions and the precious people in them like factories. And when the impacted public is treated as an obstacle and not a partner to urban reform, it gives the whole effort colonial and paternalistic smell.

Since Fenty appointed Rhee as schools chancellor in 2007, reformers have been closely watching the once-obscure Teach For America alumna's quick rise from educational entrepreneur to Time magazine covergirl and the adored subject of squabbling by Barack Obama and John McCain during the 2008 presidential debates.

This Spring, Rhee negotiated among the most revolutionary teacher's contracts in the country, which essentially broke the union, loosening tenure protections in exchange for the potential for teachers to make more money and earn performance bonuses. D.C. is being hailed as a model in urban education reform, and there are plans to replicate this model; The Obama Administration is putting more than a billion dollars behind a "performance-based" rewards system similar to the one being tested in D.C.

D.C.'s high-profile status as nation's capital means that for decades, our kids have been the subjects of virtually every passing education fad and experiment--like lab rats. But usually the meddling comes from Congress.  D.C. is the only city where Congress pays private school tuition. About 40 percent of public school kids go to charter schools, also thanks to Congress. All of this "experimentation" and "competition" has destabilized the system so badly that the most competent D.C. school administrators rarely know how many kids are enrolled in public or charter schools on a given day.

It is common for D.C. teachers to be fired in the middle of the school year to reflect shifting enrollment as families toggle across the D.C., suburban Maryland and Virginia borders "shopping" for the best educational deal. Public, private or charter schools are marketed like gym memberships. D.C. parents scout new educational opportunities with more angst than a pre-Miami LeBron James.

As a former DCPS PTA mom, I am among the many DC voters who had grown weary of the endless churning in the system. The D.C. public school my child won an out-of boundary "lottery" to attend in the early 2000s had passionate teachers and dedicated families, but inept administration and a dangerously neglected building forced us to leave after three years. We enrolled in a private school just as Rhee came into office in 2007 when the school board was abolished and the mayor was given control of the schools. But we've been shopping for a reason to come back into the system ever since.

So I'd backed Rhee--even when she shut down our neighborhood school. I supported her when she broke the local teacher's union that seemed to care more about saving jobs than saving kids. I balked, but ultimately swallowed and accepted it even when we learned that the private donations raised to fund the teacher's contract could be taken away if kids don't improve their test scores or Rhee left the job.

As many were still reeling from the multimillion dollar stakes of the testing kids and the people who teach them, Rhee infuriated the D.C. electorate by piling on to threats by the Walton Family Foundation (of Wal-Mart), the Robertson Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Broad Foundation, who vowed to snatch funding if she doesn't stay on the job. While Gray has not said if he would retain Rhee, Rhee has already made that decision for him by telling a Post reporter she would not work for Gray.

Days after tethering her fate to that of Adrian Fenty, Rhee gave a speech to the Aspen Ideas Festival donors that raised a lot of eyebrows among people I spoke to when I arrived there for the festival. In the video of the July 3 speech, Rhee notes that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty unflinchingly supported everything she did without exception. Then she explained her strategy for raising the money to approve the teacher's contract.

"These people are lined up to support this contract, but only if it is the most revolutionary contract in the country," she told the crowd. "If I only did what they did in Chicago or in New York, these people are not gonna pay for that...

"So if you look where the philanthropic dollars are going in this contract, you are looking at the pay-for-performance system."

Later, she explained how she planned to spend that money by applying business principles to the classroom, citing a study by an economist named Eric Hanushek. She said if the U.S. fired 6-10 percent of the worst teachers in the country and replaced them "not even with the best, but with average teachers," U.S. schools would move from 21, 25 and 26th in math to the top 5.

"Now let me just say, to all of you business people..." Rhee continued.

"Wait wait wait," the moderator, Harvard University's David Gergen, interrupted. "...Do you believe this?"

Rhee replied: "Yes, I actually do. If someone told you as a business, that if you removed the bottom 6 percent of your performers, that you would move from 25th in the market to top-5, you would do it in a heartbeat. You would not even think twice about it. But we have an incredibly hard time in this in this country. We like teachers. It is an incredibly noble position in this country.  But we have to look at the reality...

"That seems like an incredibly easy thing for us to begin to tackle," she said.

Right, easy--if you are selling computer operating systems! But can the teaching of human beings be reduced to 1s and 0s? Like in any other profession, more experience helps you get better at it, although the smartest academics studying the issue don't agree on how much.  But not three weeks after Rhee's Aspen speech, that is exactly what she did. She wrapped up testing of a controversial teaching assessment her office created, and fired 4 percent of the work force, and put another 737 of her 4,000 teachers on notice that their performance was "minimally effective."

Rhee's makeover of the D.C. teaching force is also racially fraught. Many of the young teachers Rhee is hiring, drawn from the ranks of Teach for America in many cases, bring a new energy and life into the schools. But TFA teachers and alumni tend to be mostly white, recruited from around the country, and rarely stay longer than three years. They get a now-trendy notch on their resume and move on. A recent study by a researcher at the University of Texas-Austin and California State University shows a mixed impact on vulnerable kids, many of whom have abandonment issues.

On the other hand, more of the veteran DC teachers are black. Many of them are dedicated educators who have held things together under unimaginable circumstances, earning them cultural capital in the communities they've served for generations. But other of the DC teaching vets, made cynical about the crushing challenges facing some DC communities, treat their jobs like babysitters punching a clock.

So at worst you have clock-punchers versus cultural tourists. Rhee is exchanging one mixed-bag for another mixed-bag, giving benefit of the doubt to inexperienced white teachers. This may be one reason why parental support for Rhee and Fenty falls along racial lines. Among white Democrats, 68 percent said Rhee is a reason to support Fenty. Fifty-four percent of black Democrats cite her as a reason to vote against the mayor, according to a Washington Post poll. In an earlier August poll by Clarus Research, Rhee got her most unfavorable ratings from black women, only 15 percent of whom viewed her favorably.

In a city whose large black middle class was built on a legacy of generations of black women public school educators reaching back to Anna J. Cooper at the turn of the 20th century, the perceived disrespect toward veteran teachers is not going over well. For many D.C. voters, if the choice is between the black veteran teachers with roots in the community and the Teach for America cultural tourists, they are going with the vets.

As the Obama administration moves forward with plans to replicate this corporate education model, it should take note. If you can't be bothered to include the indigenous public in your plans, you are essentially swooping into town to "fix" the "Other" like the Peace Corps, to which Teach for America has frequently compared itself.

Rhee's reforms are a gamble like all previous gambles in urban education reform. But the level of influence from "philanthrocapitalist" sources in her gamble--that may be new. As state, local and federal governments become increasingly strapped for cash (as D.C. is) this has serious consequences. How "public" is it when Wal-Mart can blackmail D.C. voters?

The real battle for urban education reform has never been about what happens in the classroom. Since the days when desegregation and the rise of the suburb led to a white, then black middle class abandonment of urban schools, it has mostly been about perception. So Rhee's MBA slogans that went over so well with the Aspen crowd are also good PR for parents of all races. As gentrification brings in more middle class families and bumps up the D.C. tax base, many parents see Rhee as a dramatic and compelling narrative to justify their reverse migration back into urban public schools. 

She's good for the D.C. Public School "brand." So far, D.C. voters just aren't buying it. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/09/why-michelle-rhees-education-brand-failed-in-dc/63014/