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The Highs, Lows Of D.C. Schools Chief Michelle Rhee

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The Highs, Lows Of D.C. Schools Chief Michelle Rhee

Education

The Highs, Lows Of D.C. Schools Chief Michelle Rhee

The Highs, Lows Of D.C. Schools Chief Michelle Rhee

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Heard On 'All Things Considered'

NPR's Melissa Block talks to Michelle Rhee

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Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced her resignation on Thursday. Rhee turned the city's failing public school system into a national laboratory for education reform. She closed schools, fired teachers and instituted a pay-for-performance system based on student test scores. But her tenure was also marked by battles with the teachers union and growing distrust along racial and political lines.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

After a tumultuous three-year term, Washington D.C.'s controversial schools chancellor is resigning. Under Michelle Rhee, schools here in the nation's capital became a laboratory - and a battlefield - in the nationwide fight over school reform. In a moment, we'll talk with Rhee about her decision.

First, NPR's Claudio Sanchez has this report on her tenure.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Michelle Rhee was the first to admit she was not a good fit as Washington D.C.'s schools chancellor, the seventh in 10 years.

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Chancellor, D.C. Public Schools): I am the opposite of what most people both had hoped for and expected.

SANCHEZ: That's how she put it in an interview with NPR just a few months after her surprise appointment.

Ms. RHEE: I am young. I am Korean-American. I have never run a school district before. I am not from Washington, D.C.

SANCHEZ: But Rhee was unfazed by people's skepticism. With the city's schools under mayoral control and in disarray, she answered only to the man who begged her to take the job, Mayor Adrian Fenty. Fenty gave her free reign, and Rhee quickly took an ax to the schools' bureaucracy - firing hundreds of central office employees, teachers, administrators, then shutting down schools.

Ms. RHEE: The fact that I was aggressive about closing down 23 schools, the fact that we removed 50 percent of the principals who we didn't think were effective, is there a controversy here? Is there a conflict? Yes.

SANCHEZ: Praised and lionized on national TV and magazine covers, Rhee was viewed as getting things done when most big-city school systems were dragging their feet. Under Rhee, the percentage of students performing at grade level improved by double digits.

Time magazine put her on its cover, standing with a broom and a scowl that teachers saw as insulting, as if they were the trash she was sweeping out.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says Rhee showed little or no interest in building a partnership with teachers.

Ms. RANDI WEINGARTEN (President, American Federation of Teachers): That requires working with teachers, not being antagonistic to them. It requires it. It forces us, even if you don't want to.

SANCHEZ: The antagonism boiled over when Rhee fired hundreds of teachers right in the middle of her contract negotiations with Weingarten and the Washington Teachers Union.

Unidentified Man: Can't take no more.

Unidentified Group: Kick Rhee out the door.

Unidentified Man: Can't take no more.

Unidentified Group: Kick Rhee out the door.

Unidentified Man: Can't take no more.

SANCHEZ: Teachers took to the streets, demanding Rhee's resignation.

Unidentified Group: Kick Rhee out the door.

SANCHEZ: Andy Rotherham, who has written extensively about unions and urban-school reform, says Rhee wasn't interested in making friends but in fixing a dysfunctional school system.

Mr. ANDY ROTHERHAM (Co-Founder, Bellwether Education): That's highly disruptive. And someone has to manage the politics of that: working with the community to understand what's going on, and engage people in the conversation about it and so forth. And I think there's a price to be paid for inattention to those politics.

SANCHEZ: The price that Rhee and her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, paid was at the ballot box. Fenty lost his shot at a second term, and Rhee was unwilling to work for anyone other than Fenty.

If Rhee has a crowning achievement, it's the five-year labor contract with the Washington Teachers' Union. Teachers got a salary increase, and Rhee got the union to agree to a voluntary pay-for-performance plan that allows teachers to earn $20,000 to $30,000 more for raising students' test scores. Performance, not seniority, would dictate what a teacher was worth. Several school districts across the country have comparable agreements. But for D.C., it was groundbreaking.

Facing a throng of reporters at a downtown hotel today, Rhee's goodbye was short and to the point.

Ms. RHEE: The thought of not being in this role anymore is heartbreaking, to put it mildly. But I do know that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside.

SANCHEZ: Rhee's last day as Washington, D.C., schools chancellor is October 31st.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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