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Education Monday: The New Schools Chief

Mayor Adrian Fenty's appointment of Michelle Rhee to run the D.C. school system is classic Fenty: The move is brash, energizing, exciting, creative, naive, impulsive, insufficiently vetted, and brimming with potential--for both success and failure.

Fenty has been upfront about the fact that he wants to blow up the school system and start over. Throughout his campaign and into his mayoralty, he has made it clear that he has little respect for the people who run the schools and next to no respect for what the city's schools produce.

"The problems just persist year after year and nobody loses their job," Fenty told me in an interview a few weeks ago. And the mayor had zero patience for Superintendent Clifford Janey's pokey pace of reform: Janey "has thrown out some good ideas," Fenty said, "but you don't get credit for good ideas if you don't implement them."

It didn't help that Janey didn't bother to respond to Mayor Blackberry's emails. (In contrast, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who doesn't even work in the same city as Fenty, responded to Fenty's emails instantly and with great interest in the District's school system.)

So, has Fenty now brought in someone who can dynamite the place and build something new, or has he found a reformer who will work with what she has and somehow make it better, or has he simply set Rhee up to flop?

At first glance--and I've never met Rhee and know only what I've been able to read about her--Fenty would have been hard-pressed to create a profile of a candidate more likely to be eaten alive by this school system. In a system where many managers take a certain pride in outlasting and even ignoring the parade of superintendents who have passed through over the last few decades, Fenty has turned to a 37-year-old (youngest ever), Korean-American (first non-black to run the system in more than 40 years), inexperienced (she's never run a school before, let alone a school system), vagabond (she's lived in Baltimore, Boston, New York, Toledo, Denver, and now Washington), out-of-towner (in a system where people frequently list "native Washingtonian" as their first and foremost credential) who has zero political capital in a city where politicians have long treated the schools as employment hall, contracting playground and dumping ground.

When Janey (remember him?) came to town three summers ago to save the day, the new superintendent of schools was hailed by the pols who hired him as the man with "the right skills, the vision, the sense of urgency and the understanding of what it will take," as then-school board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz put it.

A few weeks later, when Janey visited us here at the Post, editorial columnist Colby King asked the new schools chief who was going to be in his posse. Janey's face assumed an utterly blank look. He had no idea what King was talking about. King explained that no one could possibly hope to survive the snake pit to DC schools headquarters without bringing along some terrific sidekicks who were totally on his team and who knew how to make things work. Janey had apparently given this notion zero thought.

Rhee is already one step ahead on that count. She immediately appointed a #2, Kaya Henderson, a D.C. native who was Rhee's deputy at the New Teacher Project, the non-profit from which both are coming. Henderson, well-known in local education circles, has been involved in city school politics, having worked on the elections of two of the more reform-minded school board members in recent history--now-deputy mayor Victor Reinoso and ex-board member Julie Mikuta.

But how will a bunch of thirty-somethings win anything like acceptance from a much older administrative staff and principal and teacher corps? There's already tremendous resentment in many D.C. school buildings by older teachers against the fleet of idealistic young Teach for America recruits who have been brought into the system--generally with excellent effect--since Superintendent Paul Vance broke the iron grip that the teachers union and older teachers held on all too many school buildings in town. Now, a new chancellor and deputy chancellor, both with strong ties to Teach for America and the idealistic energy it represents, comes bursting into town--that will be interesting to watch.

Rhee's organization has made its mark by taking a strong stand against teachers unions and their seniority rules, which the New Teacher Project argues keeps high-quality new teachers from wanting to work in inner-city schools. And in her group's other major research work, Rhee very accurately focused on the way in which lousy teachers get shuffled around and dumped on principals who are powerless to protect their buildings and children. That is indeed one of the most important reasons why D.C. schools are as ineffective as they are.

"It's hard to make the argument that we should hold principals accountable if they don't have (control) over what their staff looks like," Rhee told the Associated Press last year.

Talk to any good principal in the city and you will hear horror stories about getting awful, disaffected, morale-poisoning teachers assigned to them at the last minute or even mid-year. Some D.C. principals will even go to the extreme of hiding the fact that they have teaching vacancies so as to avoid having central headquarters dump some personnel surprise on a class of unsuspecting children in the middle of the year.

If Rhee knows how to dismantle the bureaucratic apparatus that results in that situation, that would be an encouraging start. Certainly she will have the mayor's support for any dramatic moves. Fenty got positively excited when he told me about how Chicago dealt with its worst-performing schools. Unlike the District, which announced a total "transformation" of its worst schools back in the 90s and then made only superficial changes in those buildings, Chicago shut down its toughest cases for a full year before reopening them with all-new staffs and systems.

Expect this administration to be much friendlier to charter schools than have been the last few D.C. superintendents. Rhee is well-liked and close to some of the best-known advocates in the charter movement, which of course considers Washington its most important testing ground. The new chancellor can be expected to work hard to smooth out the tense relationship that has kept many charters in substandard or inappropriate buildings because the public school administration has fought hard to prevent charters from getting into the system's many unused or underused facilities.

Is Rhee open to extreme change? As a young teacher in Baltimore, she worked with an early, failed experiment in for-profit schooling, the Tesseract company, now out of business.

This promises to be a fascinating ride.

By Marc Fisher |  June 18, 2007; 7:31 AM ET
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Comments

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I'm troubled by the Post's treatment of "principals who are powerless to protect their buildings and children." This depicts principals as victims when many are complicit in the dysfunction that harms children. Marc Fisher used this formulation today, as did Jay Matthews in his column and the reporters who produced last week's two part series on DCPS problems.

This past November, my second grade son was roughed up and verbally abused by a bus monitor. The assistant principal at his school sat in the DCPS investigator's interview of my son after the incident. The investigator called me the next day to tell me that as soon as my wife, son, and I left the room, the assistant principal quickly told her that the school had no liability for my son's assault because the bus monitor was a PTA employee and not a DCPS employee. The investigator told me to file a formal police report because the assistant principal had undermined their investigation.

This was the same assistant principal who stood before parents on the first day of school and announced that all the bathrooms and water fountains in the school were working. Six weeks later, our seven year-old son said he had not been able to wash his hands in the bathroom all year because the sink did not work.

Principals still have substantial power in this system. They also need to be held to account.

Posted by: Betrayed Parent in DC | June 18, 2007 9:01 AM

I hope Ms. Rhee can make a go of it. I'm very proud of the new superintendent we have in Prince George's County. Dr. Deasy was also hired without experience in such a large a school system and he is doing great things!

Posted by: Largo | June 18, 2007 9:27 AM

I hope Rhee is very successful. Of course, there will be many people who will not like her simply because she is Asian and not black.

Posted by: Time for change | June 18, 2007 10:05 AM

The District is no place for an "educational experiment". The price of failure is too great. It is my hope that the District Council do their due diligence to calm to concern of those of us residents that believe that serving the city means more than towing the popular line of reform. Some of us have seen this cycle over and over again.

Posted by: proballdc | June 18, 2007 10:13 AM

Rhee might have the qualities to succeed, but let's not focus merely on bad teachers. There are plenty of them in DCPS. But, what about the parents? Lack of parental interest in their child and setting the foundation at home that values education. This is not the schools problem to fix, but unless it is fixed the schools will never completely succeed. The job of social leadership is for the Mayor and Council, not Rhee.

Posted by: korm | June 18, 2007 10:37 AM

After looking at hiring pitfalls I'm not sure that everybody losing their job is a productive strategy as it will throw the system back on this non-process that looks very hard to change.

What percentage of DC teachers are new hires in a given year?

Certainly hiring the best is a good strategy, but it would seem that the most successful new administrator would be focused on getting the resources in-place functioning at a higher level as well.

Posted by: EdMom | June 18, 2007 11:03 AM

My best wishes to Rhee and her staff. There are lots of good ideas in contemporary approaches to school reform, and many of them have shown promise in the schools where they've been tried. But, as always, implementation is key. No idea will work if the people responsible for putting it into practice aren't able or willing to do so. Informing, persuading, and supporting them will be essential for a long time to come and at a very local level--that is, the classroom. But I believe most teachers want their students to succeed. If Rhee can't ignite their interest and provide both appropriate guidance and adequate resources, she may be able to change the system in ways that have eluded her predecessors. Many of the children in the DC school system have at least one strike against them before they walk in the door. They deserve the best we can give them.

Posted by: THS | June 18, 2007 1:37 PM

As an alumni and now a parent in the PG County system for nearly 20 years.....I must say this is a touchy subject for me.
I have been advocating for my children in this broken system for too long. Every and I mean EVERY superintendent we have had(including Deasy), I have made contact with and confronted on some level or another regarding the inadequacies of the system. My take is there are too many lazy, non concerned and disgruntled employees hanging around. Secondly, the parents are a definite problem. Too many of them send their children on a day to day basis to school for the school to be the savior of all. Too much time is spent on spcial ills when the school is meant for an institution of learning not social services. The principals that I have dealt with are indeed bound by teacher unions and don't have a say in a lot that they should have to improve school performance. NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND is a joke. PG county parents ought to be ashamed of themselves because it is our fault that the system is like it is. We don't stand together foe anything! As my husband and I attend PTA meeting and leadership meeting after another we are astonished at the lack of participation in something that is so vitally important!
I hope Rhee does well for the sake of the children, but just like PCPS, she has a lot of work ahead of her, it will be long roads ahead and without parental support she can forget it!

Posted by: Sonja | June 19, 2007 7:18 AM

As an alumni and now a parent in the PG County system for nearly 20 years.....I must say this is a touchy subject for me.
I have been advocating for my children in this broken system for too long. Every and I mean EVERY superintendent we have had(including Deasy), I have made contact with and confronted on some level or another regarding the inadequacies of the system. My take is there are too many lazy, non concerned and disgruntled employees hanging around. Secondly, the parents are a definite problem. Too many of them send their children on a day to day basis to school for the school to be the savior of all. Too much time is spent on social ills when the school is meant for an institution of learning not social services. The principals that I have dealt with are indeed bound by teacher unions and don't have a say in a lot that they should have to improve school performance. NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND is a joke. PG county parents ought to be ashamed of themselves because it is our fault that the system is like it is. We don't stand together foe anything! As my husband and I attend PTA meeting and leadership meeting after another we are astonished at the lack of participation in something that is so vitally important!
I hope Rhee does well for the sake of the children, but just like PCPS, she has a lot of work ahead of her, it will be long roads ahead and without parental support she can forget it!

Posted by: Sonja | June 19, 2007 7:18 AM

Teacher UNIONS in Prince George's County, Sonya?
If only they had that power.
They can't STRIKE!

Posted by: Ted | June 19, 2007 10:36 PM

I'm a DCPS employee who just finished my second year of work in the system. It has upset me from the beginning that I work much harder than many of my coworkers, yet get paid far less because the only criteria for compensation is tenure. Last Friday on my last day of school before the summer, I was informed as I was walking out the door that my position had been excessed because of budget issues. Not only is the compensation an issue, but now my job security is as well. Other young teachers who work hard are rewarded by being indiscriminately shipped out of their school, while some older teachers with poor work ethic are able to keep their positions and their nice salary. I completely agree with the idea that principals should have a voice in which employees they would like to work with, instead of somebody at Human Resources making decisions that will ultimately hurt the students.

Posted by: John | June 22, 2007 1:08 AM

Welcome Chancellor Rhee,
I am hoping that your tenure as Chancellor for DCPS is successful. However your honeymoon is over--As you know most of our schools are in desperate straits. We do have some exemplary schools that we need to duplicate, copy, and reproduce. How hard would it be to replicate those exemplars schools that exist in DCPS? Extremely Difficult! --Can it be done? Absolutely! How long will it take? Years! Students, teachers, and principals alike are subject to "crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet" in order to save face for the daunting reality of not making AYP. Let's face it there are schools that need many more people than the budget allows in order to function at a capacity whereby all students are learning and thinking. We have enough curriculum lets commit by getting people that can make any curriculum work so that students are successful. Let us stand united and humble ourselves and go after best practices that the district already owns. There are programs that are working, what are they, where are they, and whose running them? Lets connect those people and resources and get the Professional Development moving in the summer months. There are far to many unnecessary things teachers, principals and students have to do for DCPS that "sag and are heavy loads." Transparency? In DCPS? Chancellor Rhee, I will pray for you daily and I pray that your hopes and dreams for DCPS are...

Posted by: G.S. | June 23, 2007 10:47 AM

Welcome Chancellor Rhee,
I am hoping that your tenure as Chancellor for DCPS is successful. However your honeymoon is over--As you know most of our schools are in desperate straits. We do have some exemplary schools that we need to duplicate, copy, and reproduce. How hard would it be to replicate those exemplars schools that exist in DCPS? Extremely Difficult! --Can it be done? Absolutely! How long will it take? Years! Students, teachers, and principals alike are subject to "crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet" in order to save face for the daunting reality of not making AYP. Let's face it there are schools that need many more people than the budget allows in order to function at a capacity whereby all students are learning and thinking. We have enough curriculum lets commit by getting people that can make any curriculum work so that students are successful. Let us stand united and humble ourselves and go after best practices that the district already owns. There are programs that are working, what are they, where are they, and whose running them? Lets connect those people and resources and get the Professional Development moving in the summer months. There are far to many unnecessary things teachers, principals and students have to do for DCPS that "sag and are heavy loads." Transparency? In DCPS? Chancellor Rhee, I will pray for you daily and I pray that your hopes and dreams for DCPS are...

Posted by: G.S. | June 23, 2007 10:47 AM

I welcome the new chancellor. As she begins work, I pray that near the top of her to-do list are the large number of elementary and middle schools that have no "specials," i.e. art, music, and, yes, even physical education. Also, a dirty little secret in DCPS are the large number of schools that use teacher's aides as substitute teachers for months or even an entire school year. Of course, these aides do not have four-year degrees. Fixing these items would make a world of difference in the lives of so many of the District's children, children who are stressed out and under appreciated at home and school.

Posted by: A.W. | June 23, 2007 7:57 PM

As a former teacher/counselor in DCPS for more than 20 years (and now working in a small rural county in West Virginia), I see many many problems that need to be solved. First, Fenty needs to secure funds from Congress to repair the dilapidated buildings that sap the enthusiasm from the staff and the students alike. At my last school (C.W. Harris) the air conditioning dripped constantly creating mold in the carpet that smelled so bad we had to move the prekindergarteners upstairs to a fourth grade room. We lost materials, supplies, toys etc. as well as time in this move.

Second, teachers need smaller classes: I had 25 prekindergarteners with just a part time aide. My aide was used primarily to help the principal in the office and I rarely saw her. I was sent to "save" the class and was the fifth teacher that year (I arrived on December 15th). If fact, in 20 years I was assigned to 13 schools. This was not due to the fact that I was incompetent (I consistently had oustanding ratings) but due to declining enrollment that necessitated constantly moving teachers around.

As a union member, I did support the union on many things. However, it DID
PROTECT INCOMPETENT TEACHERS. My third suggestion is the the new Chancellor will need to work closely with the union to either relieve these teachers of their positions or retrain them. The evaluation process is a farce. From my observation, most principals "protect" the teachers who "support" them in THEIR INCOMPETENCE. Hence, fire the majority of administrators and hire CEOs and managers who can get things done.

Finally, many say that money is not the answer. But it sure can help. Too much is spent for administration and Central Office staff. Put the money in the schools, pay the parents (or reward them in some way) for bringing their kids to school and participating in their child's education. It will take a lot to fix what's wrong in DCPS but I believe that DC schools should be the model for the nation. Good luck, Ms. Rhee!!


Posted by: melissa lee | June 23, 2007 8:46 PM

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