What's Michelle Rhee's legacy in D.C. schools?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 - 9:39am

(CNN) -- Michelle Rhee hasn't run the Washington, D.C., public schools since 2010, but her time in charge, and her every move in education since, still draw cheers from some and ire from others.

"Rhee is one of worst friends and best enemies of public education," user david esmay commented on a CNN opinion piece by Rhee and former New York schools leader Joel Klein on CNN's Schools of Thought blog on Monday. Rhee and Klein wrote about a new report from StudentsFirst, the non-profit Rhee heads, which graded states' education policies.

"She's only a standout because she has the political backing to make her so. Her policies in Washington area schools are falling apart now that she and her drive to find funding are gone," William commented.

"I don't see how anyone can take this report or Ms. Rhee seriously," commenter Christine wrote about the StudentsFirst report.

"The Education of Michelle Rhee," a documentary airing Tuesday night on PBS, follows Rhee's time leading Washington, D.C., schools, and examines her legacy there. "Frontline" correspondent John Merrow followed Rhee on her trip to a school warehouses filled with hard-to-get supplies, to the firing of a school principal and to rallies celebrating higher test scores, some of which are now in question.

Through it all, Rhee still speaks boldly about education and her ideas. Here are five quotes from the film that offer a taste of how Rhee ran the D.C. schools, and what she's done since.

"I am Michelle Rhee. I'm the new chancellor of the D.C. public schools ... and no, I have never run a school district before."

This is how Rhee introduced herself to teachers in Washington, D.C., in 2007. Rhee had spent a few years teaching in a rough Baltimore neighborhood and a decade in education reform, but was a "virtual unknown," when Mayor Adrian Fenty picked her to run the D.C. schools. Her style was direct and her objectives clear - make Washington's school's better, even if it meant changing laws, firing people, closing schools and making adults unhappy.

"We're not running this school district through the democratic process."

Indeed, after some initial excitement, many adults were unhappy. Scenes show parents angry about school closures, district leaders angry that she defied their instructions, teachers angry about layoffs and firings. Teachers interviewed for the film said Rhee didn't consider that some kids live in extreme poverty or have fallen so far behind that they'd need more than one year to catch up.

In the film, Rhee abruptly explained that she listened to what people said, but she'd still do what she thought was right.

"How can you possibly have a system where the vast majority of adults are running around thinking 'I'm doing an excellent job,' when what we're producing for kids is 8% success?"

Some of Rhee's major - and lasting - initiatives tied teacher and principal performance to student achievement on standardized tests. The documentary features video of Rhee meeting one-on-one with principals, asking for guaranteed increases on tests. She's shown lobbying district leaders to change rules to allow her more control over central office staff. She fires one principal on camera and announces big payouts to educators whose schools post major gains on standardized tests. Her evaluation systems have remained in use in the district.

"In isolated places, could something have happened? Maybe."

Even now, there are questions about the validity of the huge test score gains D.C. schools had during Rhee's tenure. The documentary pulls together allegations, investigations and evidence that suggest some of the score increases were, as Merrow puts it, "phony." Investigations didn't determine whether cheating occurred, but did reveal a high rate of wrong answers erased and corrected. In some cases, investigations weren't thorough, or were limited to one campus. In the documentary, one Noyes Education Campus administrator reports seeing staff members at school after hours, test books open and erasers in hand. She said she reported the incident, but it wasn't investigated.

In response, Rhee pointed to schools that continued to show steady, or even huge, gains. But "Frontline" reports that with increased security in place, test scores plummeted at several schools - including schools Rhee had rewarded for "unbelievable" improvements.

"I lost the job that I loved."

Rhee stepped down in 2010, after Fenty lost his re-election bid and Rhee lost her most prominent champion. In the "Frontline" documentary, Merrow points out that Fenty lost his job, along with George Parker, the union leader that so often opposed Rhee's policies. Rhee, he said, came out "smelling like a rose," running the non-profit lobbying group, StudentsFirst. Her voice remains prominent among education reformers, and she turns up frequently on TV and in magazines.

It's important work, Rhee said, but it's not all rosy.

"Would I rather be in D.C. as the chancellor?" she said. "Absolutely."

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