Can Big City Superintendents Fix the Schools?

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When Adrian Fenty was elected as the mayor of Washington DC, he worked relentlessly to gain control of the DC school board. After all, the DC public schools cost so much more than your average public school and they were among the nation’s worst performers. In 2007 he appointed Michelle Rhee as the Public School Chancellor, who immediately took some of the toughest actions one could imagine to turn around the schools, including mass principal and teacher firings, numerous school closures, strict accountability measures, and strong outreach to recruit new energetic teachers and lots more foundation funding for her school (and really district) “turnaround” efforts.

Above are just some of the magazine cover and lead article pictures of Michelle Rhee. These images speak volumes about attitudes on education reform, and perhaps some of the motivations of education reformers. Not all of it is pretty. They speak to the excitement about the possibilities for change—that’s good. They say something about the urgency for reform—that is, too. But they also point to the view that kids are waiting for a “Superman” (as Geoffrey Canada has put). Some people are motivated by the need to be a warrior or savior of kids, and specially of kids who are disadvantaged. That can be good, but it can also be really self-righteous, easily pigeon-holed and needlessly divisive. It can also lead to a fawning view among fellow-travelers (see this Charlie Rose interview from 2008 and note Rose’s questions and attitude).

Like every other education reform analyst and advocate across the country, I’ve been fascinated to watch Michelle Rhee’s work in DC. (Full disclosure: the organization I run, Pioneer Institute, hosted Rhee at our June 2008 Better Government Competition Awards Dinner. BTW, she is an outstanding speaker.) Her energy and focus are off the charts, but I have to admit that I always thought that if she could not do it, then the hope that a “Super” Superintendent could fix problematic districts was wrong-headed.

Anybody who cares about education and the DC school experiment has been watching the recently decided DC Mayoral race with equal fascination. The election was a proxy for: What do the parents of kids in the schools think? What political clout do the unions still have? Certainly, Mayor Adrian Fenty, throughout this campaign, has been criticized for being aloof, for not seeking real connections with the citizenry, but I have to admit that I find those arguments a little trifling at the edges.

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute summarized the situation nicely:

D.C. city-council chairman Vincent Gray beat incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty 56 percent to 42 percent in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Fenty, who swept to a massive citywide victory in 2006, fared well with white voters but cratered in the black community. He lost the city’s black Democrats, even though the Washington Post reported in August that 67 percent of registered Dems thought the mayor had “brought needed change” to the city.

Will Rhee remain? Who knows, but I am willing to bet that anyone writing on the DC elections and its impact feels like s/he is writing something of an obituary for Michelle Rhee as the DC Public School Chancellor. If she remains, she will be hampered and likely most of the reforms will either be undone, or the gains made will revert to the mean.

Lots of money from the public sector and private foundations has been poured into this experiment. I hope that people will draw the right lessons, with the principal one being what Jay Greene wrote last week:

Yesterday’s defeat of Adrian Fenty in DC and the likely ouster of heroic school reform superintendent, Michelle Rhee, should remind all of us of the very real limits of the heroic reformer theory of school reform. That theory holds that we just need to place the right people in positions of power in the school system and then support their heroic efforts with supplemental funding and political support.
The main problem with maintaining centralized government control over schooling and just changing who controls that centralized system is that the forces of the status quo have enormous incentives and even stronger ability to recapture control even if they temporarily lose it.

For my money, whatever happens to her in the wake of Mayor Gray’s election, I prefer images of Michelle Rhee that reflect the strong-willed but incredibly optimistic person she is, not the Joan of Arc or Broom-’em-out images we’ve seen the past few years.

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