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

Fall 2010
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). Everyone 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?

The Proving Grounds

DCPS has a reputation as one of the worst school systems in the nation. But it has not always been so troubled.

Washington, with its gleaming white facades and manicured parks, is home to a complicated mix of people and politics. Long a majority African American city, D.C. has only been self-governing since 1973, when a 100-year-long fight for home rule forced Congress to hold elections for the city’s mayor and city council. Congress still reviews all legislation passed by the council before it becomes law and retains authority over the District budget.

The vast public sector employment created by the federal government helped establish a significant black middle class that supported its public schools. Many African American parents and grandparents remember their schools as neighborhood institutions and gateways to success. But many of D.C.’s middle-class blacks have left for suburban counties in Maryland and Virginia. What remains is a city with stark divisions—some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the nation, and some of the poorest.

Most of D.C.’s public schools are intensely segregated—like the city’s neighborhoods. Though DCPS uses a traditional neighborhood boundary system, students from anywhere in the city may enter a lottery for available seats in any school after neighborhood enrollment is complete. At the elementary level, most schools reflect the demographics of their communities. But in the city’s more affluent western wards, white parents begin pulling their children out of DCPS before middle school, sending them to one of the city’s boutique charters or elite private schools. The availability of “out-of-boundary” slots increases, making middle and high schools in these neighborhoods the most integrated in the city. Every D.C. high school is majority students of color.

Many of the District’s African American and Latino children are from economically isolated and badly neglected communities. For decades, there have been too few resources and too much infighting to support those communities and help their children succeed. Rather than digging deep to address the social, economic, and educational issues involved, however, District leadership has focused on attracting young white professionals back to the urban core. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, construction cranes towered over the skyline as block after city block became home to yet another luxury condominium complex. These “urban pioneers”—mostly young, white professionals—have begun to staunch the city’s declining population numbers. As they’ve settled in, they’ve also become players in school politics.

The current wave of education reform began with Adrian Fenty, a young and energetic city council member, born and raised in D.C. Elected in 2000 at the age of 30, Fenty proved to be a charismatic and effective politician, and was reelected without opposition in 2004. In September 2006 he easily won the Democratic primary for mayor. In hugely Democratic D.C., the primary is, for all intents and purposes, the general election. It was only after his September victory that Fenty announced his plan to take over the District’s schools.

Day One:
Teachers Feel the Heat

The day after he took office in January 2007, Fenty introduced legislation to eliminate the city’s elected school board and consolidate control of the schools in the mayor’s office. The council passed the bill in April, and submitted it for congressional approval. Both the House and Senate approved the bill in May, and it was signed into law by then-President Bush on June 1. Twelve days later, Fenty held a press conference to introduce his new chancellor, Michelle Rhee.

Rhee had just three years of teaching experience, through Teach for America, and no experience running a school, let alone a school system. After dipping her toes in teaching, Rhee had gone on to found and lead the New Teacher Project, an organization that collaborates with school districts to recruit, train, and develop teachers for high-needs schools.

Rhee lost no time proclaiming what was wrong in D.C.: “I know what the obstacles are in these systems that are not conducive to effecting change,” Rhee said at the press conference.

The implications of her pronouncement were not lost on those who had been following the national education debate. Over the past decade, research funded by conservative foundations has systematically built a case for transforming teaching as a profession. It began with research connecting “high-quality” teachers to student academic gains. Therefore, pundits began to surmise, low-performing students must just have lazy or incompetent teachers. Once teachers were to blame, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to find the culprit—teachers’ unions and collectively bargained contracts that guarantee teachers due process before dismissal. The rhetorical attack on teachers has been shrill enough to stifle what the rest of the decade’s research has shown: that teachers generally get better with experience and support; that meaningful parent engagement, strong school leadership, and student-centered learning climates must also be present for schools to succeed; and that no single component by itself can carry a school and its students to their full potential.

Amidst the clamor of teacher bashing, some D.C. teachers experienced Rhee’s comments as a bull’s-eye drawn on their backs. “We were troubled by her remarks,” recalls Kerry Sylvia, a veteran teacher at the city’s Cardozo High School. It seemed clear that the “obstacles” that Rhee was referring to were district teachers.

Sweeping Change

In her first months, Rhee demonstrated the frenetic pace of activity that has become her trademark. In the southern heat and humidity of a D.C summer, Rhee crisscrossed the city, meeting with principals and cutting through the district’s legendary red tape. Warehouses full of textbooks were emancipated, classrooms stocked. Checks were cut, paint was slapped on, and creaky gears started turning. Many—including principals and parents—were impressed. By the time school started, there was a palpable feeling of forward motion.

At the same time, Rhee was meeting privately with officials from the Gates and Broad foundations, the California-based NewSchools Venture Fund, the American Enterprise Institute, and other key players in the school reform movement. Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Rhee were their new darlings.

That spring, Rhee began firing principals. Sixty-one principals and assistant principals were fired at the end of the school year. Next came the teachers. By July of 2008, according to some reports (neither DCPS nor the Washington Teachers’ Union will release actual numbers), Rhee had fired 250 teachers and 500 teachers aides, avoiding union due-process rules by utilizing the “highly qualified” certification requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In October, stymied by her inability to negotiate a contract with the union (she wanted, among other things, new provisions in the contract to make it easier for her to fire teachers), Rhee announced that she would implement a little-used procedure allowing principals to place teachers on a 90-day “improvement plan,” with the ability to fire them immediately after that.

All the Blame, Not Enough Support

It is worth noting that, as a so-called “education reformer,” Rhee has not focused on content or pedagogy. There have been no initiatives to improve teacher induction or strengthen instructional practice. The focus has remained on management and staffing, and the tone has been judgmental rather than supportive.

One of Rhee’s early priorities was to establish a new teacher evaluation system that would, in part, make it easier to fire teachers based on their students’ performance on standardized tests. It’s the latest Wall Street concept embraced by the reformers. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has proposed that federal funding be contingent upon states developing teacher evaluations directly linked to student test scores. Rhee hoped to set the standard.

Her “director of human capital strategy” took the lead in designing the new system, called IMPACT. It was launched in the 2009–10 school year and again put Rhee into the national spotlight.

IMPACT is a complicated web of more than 20 separate evaluation processes. For teachers unlucky enough to teach subjects and grade levels with test data, 50 percent of their evaluation is based on a patently preposterous calculation of their effect on student scores. Teachers also undergo five short observations by their principal or a “master teacher,” based on an extensive “teaching and learning framework” with dozens of indicators. One of the biggest concerns has been that IMPACT will snare some of the district’s best teachers in its web—those who refuse to teach to the tests or conform to a checklist of specific practices. The Washington Teachers’ Union was worried enough to demand a working group to monitor IMPACT’s implementation and results.

Meanwhile, after three years of contentious negotiation, the union and the chancellor announced agreement on a new contract in the spring of 2010. The contract attached bonus money to teacher evaluations and included a significant increase in salaries (ratification of the new contract was stalled briefly when it was revealed that the salary increases were being funded with $64.5 million in one-time grants from the Broad and Walton foundations, among others, and that the grants were predicated on Rhee continuing as chancellor).

Throughout contract negotiations and the roll out of the IMPACT system, Rhee continued to target career teachers, in action and words. In the spring and summer of 2009 the district hired more than 900 new teachers—three times the usual number of summer hires. Then, in October, Rhee announced that a newly discovered budget shortfall required that 266 teachers be laid off. Because the layoffs were budget related, principals were free to ignore the “last hired-first fired” rules in the union contract. According to the union, a substantial number of the laid-off teachers were older, more senior teachers, rather than those who had been hired the previous spring and summer. Students and parents protested as beloved teachers and counselors were yanked out of buildings.

The layoffs created a firestorm of protest as classes were disrupted just weeks into the school year. The crisis got hotter when Rhee’s budget shortfall could not be verified and to some appeared contrived. But the final straw for many teachers was when the chancellor, in an interview with Fast Company magazine, justified the layoffs by saying, “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school.” Rhee was excoriated for the remark, which proved to be a gross overstatement, but the ousted teachers remained on the curb.

It was just one more in a series of what veteran teachers saw not only as personal attacks, but also as an indication that Rhee had no understanding of the challenges that they and their students face each day.

“It creates a very individualized and isolating feeling in the school,” says Sylvia, whose school population includes almost 100 homeless teens. “Our kids come in with a host of real problems. . . . Teachers in the community need to be part of the process, not the object of it. . . . Feeling under attack all the time isn’t conducive to collaboration.”

Chris Bergfalk, a teacher at H.D. Cooke Elementary School, is convinced that the attacks on teachers spill over into the consciousness of parents as well. “You can feel it,” he says. “Parents come into the classroom thinking that teachers are the enemy. . . . It takes more than one meeting, sometimes, before the parents decide that you’re OK and basically competent. . . . I’ve never felt this level of suspicion and mistrust from my students’ parents.”

Crystal Sylvia, Kerry’s sister and a social worker at a struggling but improving elementary school, has a different way of putting it. “We get the message: If we were here, working in the schools before the chancellor arrived, we are part of the problem.”

In a fall 2009 survey of teachers conducted by DC VOICE, an education advocacy group, 80 percent of teachers, when asked whether they liked the way the school system was run, said “no.” Many of those said their chief complaint was the lack of respect and the blame cast upon teachers. It is difficult to imagine any CEO who has so severely alienated her own workforce being dubbed a “remarkable visionary” in the national press.

But Rhee wasn’t done. On July 23, 2010, she announced 165 additional teacher firings. Of those, 76 were dismissed as a result of poor evaluations under IMPACT. And, as feared, some of the fired teachers were among the most experienced, dynamic, and beloved educators in the system. Rhee boasted that more than 700 additional teachers had been judged “minimally effective” through IMPACT, and that a significant number of them would no doubt be fired after the next school year. The union’s working group had not even met.

Even before the most recent dismissals, Rhee’s transformation of the D.C. teacher workforce has been significant. Almost 40 percent of the teachers now working in DCPS entered the workforce since the chancellor arrived. In the recently completed school year, 120 of those teachers were placed through Teach for America—virtually guaranteeing continued high teacher turnover in district classrooms.

The Living Room Approach to Community Engagement

Chancellor Rhee’s approach to parents and communities has been nearly as tone deaf as her dealings with teachers. “She creates lots of opportunities for people to learn what’s going on,” reflects Jill Weiler, a DCPS parent and community organizer. “I think she really does listen. But it doesn’t seem to influence her.” For example, in December 2007, Rhee announced the closing or consolidation of two dozen schools. Parents, teachers, and students were frustrated at Rhee’s failure to inform, much less involve the impacted communities before the announcement. As required by district rules, Rhee subsequently held a series of community hearings at the affected schools, but made few changes to the plan.

Then, in April 2008, Rhee announced that as many as 10 high schools would undergo federally mandated “restructuring,” and that several would be placed under external management. Rhee promised school communities a voice in selecting from among six “partner” organizations she had chosen. But at Anacostia High School, the parents’ choice of outside partner was rejected. Instead, Rhee chose Friendship Public Charter School—a charter management organization with five D.C. charter schools—to take over operations at Anacostia. Marvin Tucker, a DCPS parent and assistant football coach at Anacostia, was frustrated by the process: “DCPS doesn’t want parent participation. Neither does Friendship.” The new management group fired 85 percent of Anacostia’s teachers and disbanded the school’s Local School Restructuring Team (LSRT)—a DCPS advisory council of teachers and parents at each school.

Rhee isn’t deaf to all voices. Her inconsistency exploded into the media in December 2009 when she announced the replacement of the principal at Hardy Middle School—one of the top performing schools in the city, and also one of the most racially mixed. Hardy’s art-centered curriculum draws students from across the city to fill seats not taken by students from the surrounding affluent Georgetown community. When a $48 million renovation at the school was completed in 2009, it became at least a more physically attractive option for neighborhood parents. But apparently there was still concern. After the chancellor abruptly announced that she was removing the popular (and by all measures, successful) principal, it was revealed that she had met in a private living room with a dozen Georgetown parents. The group had complained that they didn’t feel “welcome” at Hardy.

The announcement set off a firestorm at Hardy, where teachers and parents—even the school’s LSRT—had not been consulted or informed of the chancellor’s decision. At a subsequent community meeting at the school, emotions were raw. The racial implications of the move were unavoidable, as Rhee tried to explain why she had met privately with a small group of white parents but failed to discuss the move with the school’s mostly African American parent leadership. Jeffrey Watson, a parent of two Hardy students, charged that Georgetown neighborhood parents stayed away because they were not comfortable with the racial composition of the school, reported the Washington Post. “Don’t play games with people in here. We’re not stupid,” Watson said at the school hearing. “Rather than having private meetings with them, tell them to walk on over.” Despite impassioned pleas from teachers, parents, and students to reinstate the principal, Rhee refused to budge.

Her decisions at Hardy and elsewhere are clear nods to the District’s changing demographics. Since 2000—with the proliferation of luxury condominiums and the boom in the housing market—the District has gained 16,000 residents. The city’s white population has increased from 30 percent to 40 percent of the total, and the African American population has decreased from 60 percent to 54 percent. Per capita income (adjusted for inflation) has increased from $28,659 to more than $41,000.

The effort to bring middle-class whites back to the city’s public schools may be a laudable one, Rhee’s process notwithstanding. But for the district’s high-profile reform efforts, there is another advantage, whether the chancellor intends it or not.

D.C.’s Education Miracle a Chimera?

Despite glowing reports from the adoring media, D.C.’s education miracle is a chimera at best. There have been dramatic drops in standardized assessment scores, and, on closer analysis, the highly touted increases in D.C. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are a reflection of the changing demographics of the schools, not the result of any real improvement in the quality of education provided to D.C.’s poorest and neediest students.

Bergfalk has taught in the district for seven years, and was a finalist for D.C. Teacher of the Year in 2010. As a teacher, he is focused and energetic.He is also deeply skeptical. In March 2009, the district announced that the new NAEP scores showed dramatic student increases and progress in closing D.C.’s persistent achievement gap. Bergfalk decided to check it out for himself. Using NAEP’s own interactive website, Bergfalk deconstructed the data.

“These test scores are not the result of an increase in student achievement. Instead, they are a result of a change in who was tested,” says Bergfalk. He found that for the 4th-grade test, the percentage of African American kids in DCPS (the lowest scoring racial/ethnic group in D.C.) taking the test dropped from 67 percent of test takers to 53 percent of test takers between 2007 and 2009, while the percentage of Hispanic students (with average test scores 12 points higher) rose from 6 percent to 9 percent of test takers, and white students rose from 6 percent to 7 percent of test takers. Where aggregate scores appear to show improvement among DCPS students, the disaggregated data tell a different story. The district continues to have one of the highest achievement gaps among major U.S. cities.

Bergfalk found the same pattern on the 8th-grade NAEP reading test. The percentage of African American kids in DCPS taking the test dropped from 59 percent of test takers to 43 percent of test takers, which is why there was a statistically significant four-point increase overall from 2007 to 2009, but no statistically significant increase for any racial/ethnic subgroup. The overall increase, like that on the 4th-grade test, was again the result of a change in demographics rather than an increase in student achievement.

When DCPS released the results of local assessments in July 2010, the district touted what it called “unparalleled progress” in secondary school results. But at the elementary level, scores took a hit—in some schools dropping by more than 30 percent the past two years. Students in half of all D.C. public schools performed worse in the 2010 assessments than they did in 2009.

The Price of Autocratic Reform

In a Feb. 1, 2010, article, the Washington Post reported that approval ratings for Mayor Fenty and his schools chief had dropped precipitously. The poll showed Chancellor Rhee’s approval rating had sunk from 59 percent of residents in January 2008 to 43 percent in early 2010.

The numbers are crucial for Fenty: The mayor is up for reelection this fall, and the race is being cast as hinging on public support for his school reform agenda. Fenty’s challenger, Vincent Gray, the current chair of the city council, has been a critic of Rhee’s leadership: “We need a mayor who understands that the best way to achieve real and lasting school reform is to involve the community. The best way to help every community in the district is to engage teachers, engage parents, engage principals, and engage students in the decision-making.”

Mary Filardo, director of the 21st Century School Fund, agrees. “School change should be about students, families, and communities taking ownership of their schools. “Although there is the illusion that parents may have more access—that Michelle Rhee will answer their emails—there is meager civic life around the public schools.”

Cathy Reilly, who leads the Senior High School Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators, notes: “It’s not an empowering model. . . . The players in the system—parents, teachers, and principals—are supposed to understand that things are being ‘fixed’ and to get with the program, or get out.”

For many parents and teachers, the problem with Rhee’s approach was best summed up by Diane Ravitch, former undersecretary at the Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush. Ravitch, speaking at a reception in D.C. last spring, was asked what she thought of D.C. school reform. Ravitch responded with the timeless adage, “It’s difficult to win a war when you’re firing on your own troops.”