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Proving Grounds • School “Rheeform” in Washington, D.C.

By Leigh Dingerson

Washington, D.C., is leading the transformation of urban public education across the country—at least according to Time magazine, which featured D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee on its cover, wearing black and holding a broom. Or perhaps you read it in Newsweek or heard it from Oprah, who named Rhee to her “power list” of “remarkable visionaries.”

But there’s nothing remarkably visionary going on in Washington. The model of school reform that’s being implemented here is popping up around the country, heavily promoted by the same network of conservative think tanks and philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton Family Foundation that has been driving the school reform debate for the past decade. It is reform based on the corporate practices of Wall Street, not on education research or theory. Indications so far are that, on top of the upheaval and distress Rhee leaves in her wake, the persistent racial gaps that plague D.C. student outcomes are only increasing.

Chancellor Rhee helicoptered into Washington in 2007 promising to change the culture of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Many cheered. But we weren’t counting on the new culture coming straight out of Goldman Sachs. Suddenly, decisions were being made at the top and carried out with atomic force. Parents have been treated like consumers—informed about options and outcomes but denied a seat at the table. The district’s teachers have been insulted in the national media, fired or laid off in record numbers, and replaced by less credentialed and less experienced newcomers. The model views teachers as a delivery system, not as professionals. High turnover is not just the result—it’s the goal. Principals, too, are isolated and expendable. The district lauds the educational mavericks—principals whose “crusades” are described as “relentless” and “methodical”—those who see themselves as an army of one. We are becoming a district where the frontline workers are demoralized, people are looking out for themselves, and trust is all but gone.

Chancellor Rhee is the army of one at the top of the district’s lurching reform. An articulate and supremely confident 39-year-old, Rhee is, for now, the movement’s national poster child. Pundits debate her occasionally tactless comments in the media, but there has been little analysis of the reform model itself and how its “my way or the highway” culture affects students, parents, and teachers. Adopting the rhetoric for just one moment, in a cost-benefit analysis, are D.C. students gaining the benefits, or are we all paying the price?



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