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Education Reform Soldiers on Without Michelle Rhee (For Now)

While Rhee will resign her post as chancellor of D.C. public school, we certainly haven't heard the last of her.

What happens to a movement when it loses one of its most public faces? What would happen to the climate change movement, if Al Gore, Bill McKibben, or James Hanson suddenly lost their bully pulpit? Would someone else rise to fill their place? Could they continue to be relevant while sitting on the sidelines?

The education reform movement is about to find out, as Michelle Rhee, the quick-moving, fast-talking, much celebrated, D.C. schools chancellor announced her resignation today, effective at month's end. In an email to parents, she said that reform in D.C. would continue on without her.

In short, [Presumptive Mayor Vincent Gray and I] have agreed—together—that the best way to keep the reforms going is for me to step aside so that he may appoint a schools chancellor who shares his vision and can keep the progress going. ... Chairman Gray is committed to continued and uninterrupted reform.
It's hard to imagine the pace that Rhee set being continued—though the new face of D.C. school reform will likely be more politically skilled and less threatening to the city's African-American community. Rhee had established D.C. as the skunkworks for the rest of the country—a venue where new, pioneering policies could be tried out (and perhaps, if she'd stayed on, tweaked and fine-tuned) before being adopted by other districts in other cities.
Just as her reign, her legacy in D.C. remains an area of controversy. Two Washington Post education reporters who followed her closely over the last three years have vastly different views of her tenure. According to Valerie Strauss, "real change necessary for a successful school—great curriculum, great development for teachers, children who come to school ready to learn—was never seriously addressed in the Rhee administration." On the other hand, Jay Mathews, who acknowledged that Rhee acted hastily at times, writes that "those D.C. residents who had long ago given up hope of any relief from the apathy and inertia that has long held back the city schools saw her as a big improvement, even when she stumbled." A poll on the paper's website asking readers to grade Rhee has her earning 52 percent As—though roughly 10 percent of respondents give her an F.
To those who watched Waiting for "Superman," Rhee is the straight-shooter to Geoffrey Canada's hopeful paternalist. Her most memorable contribution is being annoyed after meeting with teachers' union members and forcefully stating that she doesn't think kids in D.C. are getting a bad education, she knows it.
Before this becomes a eulogy for the education reform movement or Rhee's involvement in it, I want to note that Rhee will likely be in another high profile position sometime in the next few months. ("Will she go to California if Meg Whitman wins the gubernatorial race? What about New Jersey? Iowa?," asks PBS' NewsHour correspondent John Merrow, noting that she's a darling of both Republicans and Democrats.) In the meantime, like Sarah Palin did shortly after losing her guaranteed spot in the media cycle, the soon-to-be ex-chancellor has joined Twitter, created a Facebook page, and launched a personal website.
Her second tweet suggests she could devote herself to recruiting new reformers:
Do you have an innovative idea for #education reform? Tell me,
Or in the parlance of a past generation: "Michelle Rhee wants you!"
Photo (cc) via Flickr user erin m.\n

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