Illustration: Randall Enos
But theres nothing remarkably visionary going on in Washington. The model of school reform thats 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 werent 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 consumersinformed about options and outcomes but denied a seat at the table. The districts 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 resultits the goal. Principals, too, are isolated and expendable. The district lauds the educational mavericksprincipals whose crusades are described as relentless and methodicalthose 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 districts lurching reform. An articulate and supremely confident 39-year-old, Rhee is, for now, the movements 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?