Yesterday’s unsuccessful bid for reelection by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was hardly a surprise. For months, there had been signs Fenty’s hard-charging style, insular politics, and perceived aloofness had rubbed Washingtonians the wrong way— much like his appointed schools chief, Michelle Rhee.
In the three years she’s been in D.C., Rhee has alienated many, whether it was with her now infamous Time magazine cover, her decision to shutter dozens of schools, or her mass firing of hundreds of teachers. Still, it wasn’t so much what Rhee has done that’s been so polarizing, but what she hasn’t: included stakeholders in these decisions.
But in an entrenched system like public education, and an extremely dysfunctional one like the one Rhee encountered in 2007— where teachers waited for basic supplies, textbooks, and even their paychecks, instruction was absent in many classrooms, and just 9 percent of the district’s freshmen could expect to earn a college degree within a decade— it’s hard to argue that drastic measures weren’t necessary to turn things around.
“Michelle could have been less divisive but that would’ve required dialing back her efforts and her timetable,” Rick Hess, an education analyst who specializes in education reform issues, told the Washington Post. “Too many superintendents move so slowly that, at the end of a six- or eight-year tenure, they accomplished only a fraction of what Michelle has thus far done.”
So the question then becomes: at what cost? Certainly, D.C. schools have a long way to go, but it appears to be moving in the right direction. So does forward momentum in urban schools, one of the hardest area’s of education reform, trump collaboration, inclusiveness, and “playing nice?” Or do results and the education of future generations matter more?
For now, it’s up to Rhee, who openly campaigned for Fenty, and mayoral victor Vincent Gray, who has promised the District a schools chief “who works with parents and teachers” whether and, if, they can meet in the middle.
One things for sure, what they decide will almost certainly have implications for what happens in other urban school systems and education reform in general.
Naomi Dillon, Senior Editor