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Did the White House Abandon Michelle Rhee, Education's Superwoman?

4 years ago
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Two days before the resignation on Wednesday of D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, President Obama took a little-noticed meeting with the young students featured in the hugely hyped documentary "Waiting for Superman."

For the reform-minded president, it was, perhaps, tacit approval of the film's message: the documentary lays much of the blame for the country's failing and underperforming schools squarely on teachers, and calls for an overhaul of how educators are paid and evaluated. Teacher pay and evaluation -- as well as turning around low-performing schools -- are, in fact, core tenets of the administration's Race to the Top initiative.

In Rhee, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had a near perfect partner right in their own backyard. Appointed by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007, Rhee came in to clean up the District's deeply troubled school system and did so aggressively, firing more than 500 teachers. She also closed 23 schools, fired 63 principals and assistant principals, and decreased the central office payroll by 122 employees. A veteran of the Teach for America program, Rhee established the New Teacher Program, and was considered one of the leading lights of the education reform movement.

If Rhee (and Fenty's) take-no-prisoners approach to the District's schools led to higher student test scores, it also generated a considerable amount of controversy and outcry -- especially from the teachers' unions. Rhee often found herself at odds with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Fenty's oversight of Rhee's bare-knuckles style won him no accolades in low-income areas of the city, where efforts to gut the schools of longtime teachers were deemed drastic and out of touch with community needs.

Related: Five Reasons Michelle Rhee's Departure Does Not Spell Disaster for D.C. Schools

When this year's Democratic primary rolled around, teachers' unions spent an estimated $1 million to defeat Fenty and hand the nomination (and presumably the mayor's office) to City Councilman Vince Gray. Fenty -- who suffered from anemic and somewhat tone-deaf messaging -- had endorsed Obama early on in his race for president and made no secret of his desire for the president to offer his endorsement in turn. In heavily Democratic Washington, Obama's support could have been the lifeline Fenty needed to stay in office. But as Fenty and his team -- including Rhee -- sank in the polls, the White House remained mum. On primary day, Fenty lost, and it was a foregone conclusion that Rhee would follow him.

A few hours after Rhee announced her resignation, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs brushed aside questions about whether the president regretted staying out of Fenty's battle for re-election. "I don't think the president has any regrets about not getting involved in a mayoral race," he told Politics Daily. "The important work of Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan and others has to continue, regardless of the outcome of elections."

Staying out of the mayoral race, says Andrew Rotherham, partner at Bellwether Education, a non-profit seeking to improve educational outcomes for low-income students, was "a pretty deliberate move" on the part of the Obama administration. "There was a calculation that they wouldn't get involved in the race," regardless of whether the future of reformers like Rhee and Fenty was on the table.

Explains Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank, "If you put your weight behind a race -- and specifically say it's for part of an agenda -- and lose, then you do damage to your national agenda."

And, adds Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, "Usually you don't lose an election over just one issue." Wise ascribes Fenty's loss to a host of factors -- and not just Rhee's tough-love tactics. As such, the White House's silence on the race, he asserts, isn't a bellwether for how hard the administration might continue to tackle school reform. "I'm still bullish on reform," he said.

If the White House should be concerned about anything in the wake of Fenty's loss and Rhee's departure, says Wise, it's "not the reform but how it's being communicated." Public dissatisfaction with the steps Rhee took to clean up the D.C schools, Wise explains, "shows the need to get out there and explain what it is you're trying to do and why." He adds, "When there is a lot of misunderstanding or confusion, the best thing you can do is look people in the eye." For a White House that is no stranger to public dissatisfaction with its reform policies, Fenty's example might be a playbook for What Not To Do in advance of the 2012 presidential elections.

As for Washington -- and the students left waiting for superman -- says Rotherham, "People who thought Vince Gray would fire Michelle [Rhee] and bring in some hack -- Vince Gray didn't get to where he was by being stupid. This stuff plays out in more subtle ways. And look: he may yet surprise us. He may find a way to continue to push for aggressive reform. I'm personally not optimistic, but you can't say that's not a potentially viable outcome."

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12 Comments

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God's Children

I am saddened by the news of the departure of Rhee, why does she have to go? She's stepped on a lot of toes that had expensive, Union backed shoes. Better move on than fired. Some lucky city will get her and she'll work her magic there. 10 years from now we will miss the bright, successful students that would have come out of WADC. Now back to the same old corrupt system. But it going to help get OBAMA what he wants. Does he think of the weak performers and drop outs that keep falling out of our schools. He should have fixed this first then health care.

October 14 2010 at 3:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to God's Children's comment
chuck

so what...ask the Fins. about who should decide on what is taught...IT'S the teachers not these dicatorial administrators...and look at where they rate world wide...this is just another republican crying about unions...

October 14 2010 at 8:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gttdux

another gutless performance by Obama - you can't preach reform and then not support the most visible of all reform programs unless your true goal is just another term. Obama is just another Pol who seeks power and office over true change and improvement. Union votes mean more than kids' education and worst of all - he like many others wants to blame teachers for what is the parents fault. Education does not succeed at all levels in America today because the vast majority of parents just want "their kids to be happy". Guess what folks -real education does not come from play and fun - it comes from hard work and committment. We need to teach our kids that school is job one for them. Only when parents take education as seriously as my generations parents did will we see a true turn around in results. Too many parents fight against homework, against classromm discipline and hard work - teachers are not miracle workers nor should they have to be - children should come to school expecting to follow the rules and work hard - most don't have a clue about how to behave or how to work hard - our kids are soft (mentally and physically ) and pampered. Wake up parents - you do your kids no favor by excusing their lack of interest and indifference to school.

October 14 2010 at 8:57 AM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
gwmnnova

Pay for performance is s STUPID idea. GIve me 30 studenst whose parents graduated college and who live in $250,000 homes and I will be a superior teacher. Give me 30 students who have no parents, who live in crack neighborhoods and I will fail as a teacher...it is that simple.

October 14 2010 at 7:59 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to gwmnnova's comment
John Vilvens

Rhee way seem to be working in bad areas of Washington DC. Sorry to see her go. Glad you are not a teacher in one of those areas, you have already given up before you try.

October 14 2010 at 10:51 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
vobox3343

You're absolutely right!

October 14 2010 at 4:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
elwin37

Unions do not like the ugly truth...Unionism has no place in public education..it has been too costly for far too little progress. Fro Unnions is it all about the money...they do not care one bit about educating one child!!! It is time for them to go!!

October 14 2010 at 7:49 AM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
John Vilvens

who would obama support Rhee or the teacher union? Rhee wanted teacher to do thier job and teach. Unions did what unions do anymore, they fought for the bad teachers. Good teachers need no one to fight for them, To keep union happy the kids will pay for it.

October 14 2010 at 6:51 AM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
eyeforeye42

She'll go on to bigger and better things (and a better pay check), you just see. I can imagine a plethora of school districts, especially citys lining up for her resume. If only we could get someone like this in Congress, especially the part of leaving in under a term or 2

October 14 2010 at 4:45 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
okitori

This woman is exactly what the educational system needs. I'm sure this won't be the last we hear of her. She seems to have a good grasp of what is needed to correct the mess our schools are facing. The country needs to support teachers and not the unions who use the dues of hardworking teachers to entertain themselves and support the candidates of the union.

October 14 2010 at 3:28 AM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
cojdann

Alex: your piece is full of insights in this sad turn of events. I find it disgraceful that a mere 2-3 weeks after 3 of the principal players mentioned in your piece (Rhee, Duncan and Weingarten) were featured in a Meet The Press roundtable on education that the one person who did the most to innovate, challenge the educational establishment and effect actual much-needed change is now out of work. Even from as far away as the Colorado Rocky Mountains, I followed Ms. Rhee's efforts and was happy to see her take the bold, if unpopular, stances she became known for. Any parent of a school-aged child (I have a 5th grade son) would commend the types of attempts she made to break through the Chalkboard-Green Wall erected by teachers unions and education-oriented special interests in the pursuit of what would best benefit the generation of students now in school.

October 14 2010 at 3:16 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
mamie07

I hope Chris Christie snaps her up. We need a new Secretary of Education here in NJ!

October 13 2010 at 11:00 PM Report abuse +16 rate up rate down Reply

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