National Journal Online — Education Experts — Whither Michelle Rhee? Lessons Learned

National Journal Online — Education Experts — Whither Michelle Rhee? Lessons Learned.

Whither Michelle Rhee? Lessons Learned

It came as no surprise to District of Columbia residents when Michelle Rhee announced her resignation this week as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. That her resignation (and tenure) made national news illustrates the depth of the education debates that she sparked. She leaves as her legacy the mass firings of teachers rated as minimally effective, increased emphasis on charter schools, and expanded use of standardized tests. Unafraid to publicly speak her mind, she has been alternately applauded or scorned by educators, depending on their views and positions in the broader educational system.

For education policymakers, how significant is Rhee’s very public struggle with a major city’s public school system? Does it help or hurt the debate to have a face and a name attached to it? Can educators take policy cues from her experience, or are the lessons to be learned largely about politics?


— Fawn Johnson,


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An Overemphasis on Teachers

Research Associate, Economic Policy Institute


Michelle Rhee, regardless of her specific impact on D.C. students, has chosen to join New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein in a national campaign for an overly simplistic and, on balance, harmful attack on incompetent teachers as the single most important problem facing public education. Although the test score gains on which Mr. Klein stakes his reputation have been exposed as seriously inflated, he and Ms. Rhee nonetheless chose the eve of her departure as the occasion for a “manifesto” of their views, published last week in the Washington Post.

The Klein-Rhee manifesto asserts that the difficulty of removing incompetent teachers “has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.”

Klein and Rhee base this assertion on a claim that, “as President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determinin…

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A New Deal With Teachers

Co-Founder and Partner, Bellwether Education


If ‘Michelle Rhee’ was the answer, what was the question?

Presumably: How are student interests put first; as, with the removal of ineffective teachers? Tenure and other things won by the teacher unions made it hard to put students first, so tougher management came to seem essential; has almost become the definition of ‘reform’.

OK. But lots of things are hard when you come at them the wrong way. What if ‘strengthening management’ is the wrong approach? The goal surely is: quality teachers who put students first. Might there be an easier way?

The country seems to have decided that much the unions have won is not in the student interest and not in the public interest. Their resistance on tenure, on compensation, etc. is ‘a problem’.

But problems, as someone once said, do not arise by themselves. They are the product of circumstances; can be solved only by changing the circumstances that produce them. So the important question is: “What causes teachers and their unions to behave as they do?

We need to consider that their actions over the yea…

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Three Lessons for Would-Be Reformers

Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute


There are three key lessons would-be reformers should draw from Rhee’s tenure. First, despite the enthusiastic claims of some proponents, mayoral control has real limits. The problem is that those swearing by the power of mayoral control have drawn heavily on the experiences of two exceptional mayors who, for very different reasons, have been nearly unbeatable: Richard Daley in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York. For other mayors, the calculus may play out very differently. Rather than their muscle stabilizing the superintenent, the pain of serious reform may imperil their tenure. Fenty was upended by a challenger who attacked him as high-handed and inattentive to community sensibilities. Rhee’s efforts were hardly the sole reason for this, but Fenty’s staunch support for her hard-charging measures became a primary point of contention. With Fenty out, the bottom fell out for Rhee.

Second, it’s a big mistake to imagine that things would have been different in D.C. if only Rhee or Fenty had been “nicer.” Education reformers love to talk …

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A Lesson on the Unions

President, The Center for Education Reform

The lesson is that trying to negotiate with the union is folly. They may give a little, but in the end, they will find a way to win. As Mayor Fenty said when asked what he would have done differently, “I would have gone faster.” Michelle Rhee and her team kept working at a compromise even though she could have implemented changes without their consent, as there was no contract in place at the time. Instead, she spent time — well over a year — negotiating a compromise. It’s a great lesson to learn. You spend time trying to find common ground, only to have the opposition stab you in the back for trying.



Go fast, because they won’t have time to fight. Lesson learned.



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