Posted by: Jeff | September 7, 2010

Michelle Rhee, on Educational Philosophy and the Mayoral Election

Michelle Rhee is the controversial Chancellor of Public Schools in DC, who, over the past three years, has led a sweeping set of reforms aiming to increase funding through federal grants, better utilize data collection and metrics, and implement human resources standards for evaluation that eliminate ineffective staff and award effective teachers.  This is all very controversial because there are some fundamental philosophical issues at play – how do you measure an effective teacher, given a one-year sample and the vast disparity in student groups?  How do you measure effective funding – is money better spent on human resources, or on materials or school infrastructure?   How do you incentivize teaching in one of the worst-performing Districts in the country?

Since these are controversial issues to sort out, the controversy has inevitably spilled into the political realm, with many calling DC’s mayoral election a referendum on the state of DC’s public school system itself.  Adrian Fenty is an outspoken ally of Rhee’s, and her opposition to the Vince Gray candidacy is well-established, leading many to speculate that if Gray wins – as he is projected to – Rhee, along with her array of reforms, will depart DC for good.

She recently spoke to DCist in an interview so good that I’m going to just quote a large chunk of it here:

Some people are calling this election a referendum on the city’s schools, and your leadership. Do you think that is a fair characterization, given that Mayor Fenty has staked so much of his administration on education reform?

I think that one of the great things that has happened under the last four years under the Mayor is that schools and education have become the number one priority in the city. And in my mind, it’s because he made it that. When he started his reelection bid several months ago, somebody from the media asked him, “what are your top three priorities for your second term,” and he said, “schools, schools schools.” That’s just consistent with everything that he’s articulated over the life of his term, and that’s now reflected in what the polling data says about D.C., with education being the number one issue. That’s very different from what it is nationally. I was on the John King show the other day, and he was like, oh you must be really disheartened because our polls show that education is…I don’t know, 8th or 13th on their list of issues, up behind, obviously, the economy and jobs and that sort of thing. And I said, well that’s not the case here in D.C.; it’s the number one issue. So I think that’s huge and such an opportunity for the school district, and one that we really appreciate a lot, just the fact that so many people are thinking about it.

People are saying, oh this is a referendum on you and the schools. And it’s less that in my mind than the fact that these two men are very, very, very different in their philosophies and their styles and their priorities. And because they each have very distinctive views on the schools, and because it’s important to both of them, I think that sort of is bubbling up to the surface a lot.

You have implied that you would leave DCPS should Vincent Gray win the primary, and the Chairman has declined to speculate on whether he would want to continue to work with you. For you, under what circumstances would you stay should Gray become Mayor? What kinds of commitment or agreement about the direction of school reform would the two of you have to reach?

I have to be careful on this, because I’ve been accused of violating the Hatch Act, so I really can’t elaborate, you know…All I can do, which is not going to be helpful for you, is reiterate what I’ve said a million times, which is what I need in a boss, in general, separate from this election. I really can’t say more than that.

Are there any issues or policy positions that for you would be deal breakers?

Say that a different way.

What would be a dealbreaker, in any setting?

Well, like what I’ve said before, the only reason we’ve been able to accomplish everything that we have and we’ve been able to move as far as we have is because we’ve had the unequivocal support of the Mayor. And this is not easy stuff, when you’re talking about closing down schools, and restructuring schools, and removing ineffective staff members — that’s not easy or fun stuff. It’s not something that I enjoy, causing this kind of disruption. But at the same time, they are necessary things that have to happen in order for us to believe that kids are going to get a good education. And so if you look at it from the political side of things, and it’s making a lot of people upset — well, it’s making a lot of adults upset — if that’s the kind of thinking that’s going to drive our decisions then I’m not going to be the most effective leader to have.

For me, one of the things that the Mayor and I have in common, one of the things that has driven so much of our work together is that fact that when faced with decisions, even if it’s going to make a lot of adults unhappy, if it’s the right thing for kids and we know it’s going to result in better schools for our children, then we’re going to make that decision. And when you add in the component of people who have agendas where decisions need to be made on keeping people happy, keeping all the adults happy, well then there’s probably a better leader who can fill that role.

There’s a lot more over at DCist.  Go read it.

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