Rhee Quits as Washington, D.C., Schools Chief Amid Clash With Teachers

Michelle Rhee, the public schools chancellor of the District of Columbia who drew attacks from unions for firing more than 200 teachers, mostly over student performance, has resigned, effective at the end of the month.

Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson will take over, Rhee’s boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, said at a press conference today. Fenty lost his bid for re-election Sept. 14 in a primary in which Rhee’s educational policies became a central issue. Rhee said she reached a mutual decision with Fenty’s opponent, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, to resign. Gray, who has no Republican opposition, is expected to become mayor.

Rhee, 40, favored measuring teacher quality by students’ test scores, firing underperforming instructors and pushing merit pay -- the same changes advocated by President Barack Obama’s administration in its $4.35 billion Race to the Top program. In July, Rhee dismissed 241 teachers and put 737 on notice to improve within a year or leave. Washington has languished for years near the bottom of national rankings in student proficiency in reading and math.

“We have agreed together that the best way to keep these reforms going is for this reformer to step aside,” Rhee said at the press conference. “All of the reforms can continue as planned.”

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Public schools chancellor of the District of Columbia Michelle Rhee, seen here, favored measuring teacher quality by students’ test scores, firing underperforming instructors and pushing merit pay. Close

Public schools chancellor of the District of Columbia Michelle Rhee, seen here, favored... Read More

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Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Public schools chancellor of the District of Columbia Michelle Rhee, seen here, favored measuring teacher quality by students’ test scores, firing underperforming instructors and pushing merit pay.

‘Pivotal Leader’

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement called Rhee “a pivotal leader in the school reform movement.” Duncan said the department expects her to be a force for change wherever she goes.

Rhee, who became chancellor in 2007, declined to say what her plans are.

“My goal is to continue to serve the children of this nation,” she said at the press conference.

Rhee has started a website, Twitter account and a Facebook page to spread her message about overhauling U.S. education. Her website invites visitors to “be the first to learn of her latest plans for improving our educational system” by signing up for her e-mail list.

Fenty, speaking with reporters after the press conference said Rhee has “probably done more to turn around a public school system than almost anybody” who has served as a chancellor in a similar period.

‘Cautionary Tale’

Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington education research organization, said he favored Rhee’s goals and approach. Her short-lived tenure is typical of those who push change in a disruptive way, Finn said.

“It’s a cautionary tale that you don’t always win these battles, that there will be setbacks and there will be costs in making changes that will better serve kids,” Finn said in a telephone interview.

While there has been progress nationally, many parents and teachers remain uncomfortable with education changes that include teacher firings and school closings, he said.

Diane Ravitch, who was an assistant secretary of education during the administration of President George H. W. Bush, called Rhee’s resignation a sign her methods and style cannot succeed over the long term.

“Rhee is out because her patron lost the election, and that loss should have taught the leaders of this movement that they are headed in the wrong direction,” Ravitch wrote in an e- mail. “Public schools cannot be reformed without public support.”

‘Stiff Resistance’

“The school reform ideas that she represents will continue with the support of the wealthiest, most powerful men in our society -- President Obama, Bill Gates, and Wall Street -- but will encounter stiff resistance from millions of teachers, parents, and citizens, who want to improve their local schools, not close them or privatize them,” Ravitch said.

Rhee alienated people by acting as if she could do whatever she wanted because she reported only to the mayor, Ravitch said in a September e-mail before the election. Posing on the cover of Time magazine in December 2008, with a broom in hand, under the title “How to Fix America’s Schools,” Rhee didn’t help soften that image, Ravitch said.

Personality Differences

Rhee’s interim successor, Henderson, is as tough-minded and aggressive on overhaul goals as Rhee, Emily Cohen, district policy director for the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington, said a telephone interview today.

Henderson has a personality that can help her work better with others, especially black parents who said they had become disaffected by Rhee’s style, Cohen said.

Rhee, the middle child of South Korean immigrants, earned her undergraduate degree at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and her master’s degree in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A single mother, Rhee has two daughters who attend public school in Washington. She is engaged to be married to Kevin Johnson, the former professional basketball player who is mayor of Sacramento, California.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tom Moroney in Boston at tmorrone@bloomberg.net; Jeffrey Young in Washington at jyoung89@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at jkaufman17@bloomberg.net

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