Despite lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates and improved standardized test scores, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee gives herself a failing grade on her first 20 months in office.
“On an absolute scale … I would give myself an F,” Mrs. Rhee said in an interview with The Washington Times.
The chancellor said she is proud of the “tremendous amount of progress” made toward improving what has long been a deeply troubled school system.
But, “If my goal is to provide every child that’s in my care an excellent education, we’re an F on that,” she said. “I want to be evaluated on the quality of education that I’m providing to kids.”
That doesn’t mean she cannot reel off a list of achievements since stepping into the post in June 2007.
“Last year alone, our test scores grew about 10 percent across the board, which was larger than all four prior years added together,” said Mrs. Rhee, 39. She also said the achievement gap between white and black students narrowed by about 11 percentage points in the same period.
Still, she said she doesn’t want the statistics to give teachers and others “a false sense of where we are.”
The reality is that “we have a 70 percent achievement gap between our white kids and our black kids,” Mrs. Rhee said.
She has set twin goals of eliminating the achievement gap and making the nation’s capital the “highest performing” urban school district in the country. Her self-imposed deadline is the end of 2014, which would mark the end of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s second term, if Mr. Fenty, a Democrat, is re-elected next year.
Between now and then, Mrs. Rhee will have to negotiate with the Washington Teachers’ Union and other unions, which have their own ideas about how to reform the schools, and she’ll have to do it in a political environment that she politely describes as “unique.”
Authority over schools in the District is divided, to varying degrees, among the White House, two often opposing legislative bodies - Congress and the D.C. Council - a local school board, a state education office and a charter school authority. No other city schools chief has to contend with such fragmented and hands-on bureaucracies.
A recent congressional vote on school vouchers illustrated the problems.
President Obama signed legislation Wednesday that will effectively end a taxpayer-funded voucher program in the District, though he said children now in the program should be allowed to graduate.
The Bush administration started the program five years ago in spite of opposition from D.C. lawmakers and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the city’s nonvoting House member. The unions are vocal about their opposition to vouchers, yet the mayor now agrees with the president that the program should be extended.
Mrs. Rhee said in the interview that she is “neutral” on vouchers, and school officials say the system can accommodate the return of voucher students, who will have to return to public schools in the fall of 2010.
The chancellor sees the political battle as a symptom of a widespread impatience for reform that has led to 30 percent of the District’s school-age children being enrolled in charter schools and an additional 20 percent in private schools.
Parents, she said, are putting their children first, and she wants the unions to do the same. For starters, Mrs. Rhee wants teachers to agree to performance-based pay, a major point of contention between her and the Washington Teachers’ Union.
Mrs. Rhee is getting a little more sympathetic hearing from the union’s parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
AFT President Randi Weingarten has said everything but vouchers should be open to negotiation “provided it is good for children and fair to teachers.”
Mrs. Rhee said she has spoken with Ms. Weingarten and hopes the she can kick-start talks with the D.C. union. But if Ms. Weingarten doesn’t stand by her pledge, then it’s just “rhetoric,” the chancellor said.
Mrs. Rhee is responsible for about 46,000 students. She said they must be considered foremost when officials are negotiating.
“The vast majority of our kids are not prepared for college or life. … They’re struggling,” said Mrs. Rhee, who stays in touch with some of the system’s top students after they graduate.
“My goal is that our children graduate with options [and] without remediation. … We need to give all kids options,” she said.
Mrs. Rhee said the federal stimulus bill will provide some money to “fill the hole” created by shrinking city revenues.
Other money can be used for innovative learning, which she already is doing to try to turn around schools that failed to meet yearly progress requirements under the No Child Left Behind law.
One such idea is to form partnerships with other schools systems - an idea that her most recent predecessors were encouraged to try but never did.
Friendship Public Charter School in the District will work at Anacostia High School, in Southeast. Bedford Academy High School, in New York, will work to reform Coolidge and Dunbar high schools in Northwest. The programs will begin in fall 2010.