Friday, March 11, 2011

Proving Grounds • School “Rheeform” in Washington, D.C.

The Price of Autocratic Reform

"In a Feb. 1, 2010, article, the Washington Post reported that approval ratings for Mayor Fenty and his schools chief had dropped precipitously. The poll showed Chancellor Rhee’s approval rating had sunk from 59 percent of residents in January 2008 to 43 percent in early 2010.(12)

The numbers are crucial for Fenty: The mayor is up for re-election this fall, and the race is being cast as hinging on public support for his school reform agenda. Fenty’s challenger, Vincent Gray, the current chair of the city council, has been a critic of Rhee’s leadership: “We need a mayor who understands that the best way to achieve real and lasting school reform is to involve the community. The best way to help every community in the District is to engage teachers, engage parents, engage principals, and engage students in the decision-making.”

Mary Filardo, director of the 21st Century School Fund, agrees. “School change should be about students, families, and communities taking ownership of their schools. Although there is the illusion that parents may have more access—that Michelle Rhee will answer their emails—there is meager civic life around the public schools.”

Cathy Reilly, who leads the Senior High School Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators, notes:
“It’s not an empowering model. . . . The players in the system—parents, teachers, and principals—are supposed to understand that things are being ‘fixed’ and to get with the program, or get out.”

For many parents and teachers, the problem with Rhee’s approach was best summed up by Diane Ravitch, former undersecretary at the Department of Education under President George H. W. Bush. Ravitch, speaking at a reception in D.C. last spring, was asked what she thought of D.C. school reform. Ravitch responded with the timeless adage, “It’s difficult to win a war when you’re firing on your own troops.”"

Continue Reading: