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Michelle Rhee Bids Farewell to D.C.

The controversial D.C. Schools Chancellor left office today. A look at her legacy and impact.

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Today is Michelle Rhee's last day as D.C. Public Schools chancellor. And, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie formally offered Rhee the job of New Jersey's education commissioner, several Washington media outlets are taking stock of her three-and-a-half years on the job.


The Washington Post noted that whereas Rhee definitely "improved a school system that was among the nation's worst," her remedies didn't always have the desired effect.

Elementary reading and math scores dipped in 2010 after two years of gains. Testing data also show that efforts to narrow the achievement gap separating white and African American students stalled this year. Many schools remain deeply troubled; 12 percent of sophomores at Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington are proficient in math, 17 percent in reading. At Johnson Middle School in Southeast, 14 percent of the students are proficient in reading and 14 percent in math.

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The DCist blog, meanwhile, credited Rhee with putting education reform front-and-center in District politics, assuring that it will be a critical issue for several election cycles to come.

Sure, we've long known that the city's public schools sucked, and plenty of other people have come along with lofty ambitions of turning them around. But it was Rhee and Fenty who hammered the point home that reforming the city's schools wasn't just necessary -- it was a vital component of the District's future. Without better schools, they argued, any future hopes of economic development, lower crime and a less starkly divided populace just wouldn't come to pass.

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Over at Inside Higher Ed, Santa Clara University Professor Marc Bousquet suggests that Barack Obama look to Rhee, whom he's ideologically aligned with, as a caveat for his road ahead. He cautions the President to take a longer survey of the battlefield ahead of him and to eschew Rhee's outlaw approach, which includes heavy involvement from foundations and outside investors from the private sector:

The lesson for President Obama is pretty clear: Listen to parents who actually have kids in public schools. The D.C. parents aren't unusual in siding with their teachers against the billionaire foundations and education profiteers. Last spring in Los Angeles, given a choice between schools run by charter corporations or by district teachers, 87 percent of parents backed schools run by unionized teachers.

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In typical Rhee fashion, she didn't go quietly. She appeared on CNN's new primetime show Parker/Spitzer this week (see video above) and put teachers in D.C. on notice yesterday during a speech at the College Board's annual meeting. She warned them—as well as the schools that train them—that her IMPACT teacher evaluation would cut through the mystery and rightly label each of them as highly effective, minimally effective, or ineffective.

If you are producing ineffective teachers, we are going to send them back to you. It should be your responsibility to do the professional development and put the money in to get them to where we need them to be.

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But, as veteran Washington Post Education Reporter and Rhee critic Valerie Strauss says, teachers have already found ways to game the IMPACT system, which requires teachers to display ability with 10 teaching elements during five 30-minute observations by principals and master teachers.

Some teachers, fearing that their professional careers were being based on an unfair system, got someone in the front office to alert them to when the principal or master teacher was to show up, according to interviews with a number of teachers who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Then they would send difficult kids out of the classroom, and, in some cases, pull out a specially prepared lesson plan tailored to meet IMPACT requirements.
Meanwhile, some teachers never got five evaluations, apparently because a number of master teachers hired to do the jobs quit, according to sources in the school system.
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It's safe to say that just because her tenure is ending, Michelle Rhee's legacy and lasting impact on the D.C. school system and national education reform will continue to be debated. Her efforts to trim fat from her central office, close schools with low enrollments, and bring in a new generation of excited young teachers are laudable.
Ultimately, she changed the conversation and, in the process, got more than her fair share on ink from the media (as well as this website and this blogger, in particular). If Superman merely pointed to problems and then allowed us to figure out how to solve them, Michelle Rhee might have been who we were waiting for.
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