Michelle Rhee was the face of education reform in America — tireless and relentless, with a zealous gleam in her eye. In taking over the Washington, D.C., schools, she intended to make a big statement about the need to remove underperforming teachers and impose strict learning standards. Alas, she ran afoul of Washington’s class-based politics — that is, classes within the city’s African-American community. Her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was accused of standing by while veteran black teachers were fired. He was voted out, and this week Rhee announced her resignation.
Fenty and Rhee deserve great credit for taking on the educational establishment, and their woes grow mainly out of Washington’s unique political equation. Nonetheless, Rhee’s missteps should be noted by fellow reformers. Voters appreciate the need for swift action to improve schools; but reformers who are insufficiently cognizant of the political process can alienate potential supporters. That’s not a risk in Boston, with a five-term mayor and a judicious superintendent, Carol R. Johnson, who also happens to be African-American.
This week, Johnson faced predictable criticism for co-signing an opinion piece in The Washington Post complaining the unions make it too difficult to fire ineffective teachers. She’s right, and there’s no sign that her critics care about anything more than preserving their job guarantees. Rhee may be gone, but the reform movement continues.
Boston Globe Editorial October 15, 2010
When Fenty lost the Democratic primary for Mayor in September I made the following prediction:
“The new mayor, Vincent Gray, can choose to keep Rhee on and assume ed reform will proceed as it has-unlikely; appoint a teachers' union-friendly chancellor and let Rhee reforms die a slow but certain death; or as what often happens after a bull in the China shop leader leaves, appoint a conciliator who can move forward but is willing to listen to teachers' concerns and make compromises.
My guess is we've seen the end of Rhee but the reform will not disappear.”
I have been following the Rhee saga since she went to Washington and admire her determination, but her fall was not a surprise. She played a little too loose for me, and I fear the D.C. kids will be the losers, again.
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