(Bloomberg) — 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, may move closer to the unemployment line herself. Rhee's boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, faces District Council Chairman Vincent Gray in the Democratic primary tomorrow. Fenty trailed his opponent by 13 points among Democratic voters surveyed in an Aug. 29 Washington Post poll. If Gray wins, he will likely become mayor, as there is currently no Republican opponent. Gray has "been very clear" that he doesn't like the way Rhee and Fenty have operated, Rhee, 40, said in an interview. Gray said he wouldn't make a decision about Rhee's future until after the election.
Rhee's approach — measuring teacher quality by students' test scores, firing underperforming instructors and pushing merit pay — are the same changes advocated by President Barack Obama's administration in its $4.35 billion Race to the Top program and other initiatives. A backlash in the District of
Columbia may suggest trouble for these methods nationwide, said Emily Cohen, district policy director for the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and advocacy group based in Washington. "She has become the go-to reformer," Cohen said. "Everyone is watching her. If she leaves, it will be a blow because we won't be able to see how her reforms pan out."
In July, Rhee dismissed 241 teachers and put 737 on notice to improve within a year or leave, depending on the results of standardized test scores. There are 123 District public schools in operation, down from 151 when Rhee took over in 2007, according to her office. She reduced the central-office staff by almost half, to 495 from 934.
Washington has languished for years near the bottom of national rankings in student proficiency in reading and math. Its fourth- and eighth-graders scored lower than counterparts in all 50 states in the U.S. Education Department's 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, although scores in some cities such as Detroit were lower.
Under Rhee's tenure, test scores have risen at the elementary and secondary levels, in some cases by double digits, according to her department's website. Fewer than 50 percent of Washington's students across all grades are proficient in reading and math, she said.
So she continues to grade herself with an F, she said.
Rhee alienated people by acting as if she can do whatever she wants because she reports only to the mayor, said Diane Ravitch, who was an assistant secretary of education during the administration of President George H. W. Bush. 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 wrote in an e-mail.
The photograph "suggested either a new broom or a witch," Ravitch wrote. "It was all about attitude." Rhee also shows "a cockiness in overstating what's wrong and that she's the only one who cares," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit group in Washington. Rhee told Fast Company magazine in February that a layoff of 266 educators in October 2009 for a budget shortfall included teachers "who had sex with children." Rhee later said only one teacher of the 266 had been accused of sexual misconduct.
Rhee hasn't let detractors slow her agenda. "I didn't come here to be popular," Rhee said. "I came here to fix the schools. And if people are having more confidence in what we're doing but have to blame someone for the stuff that didn't feel good about getting there, that's OK."
Even as Rhee draws criticism, her approaches are gaining traction among funders. In addition to the U.S.
Department of Education's efforts, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is investing $290 million over seven years in model programs in four cities that will favor or penalize teachers if students make bigger or smaller gains than prior test scores would have predicted.
Rhee, the middle child of South Korean immigrants, went to Maumee Valley Country Day School, a private institution in Toledo, Ohio. She 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.
Rhee raised $65 million from four foundations to help pay for unprecedented pay raises in the new teacher contract, she said. The average annual teacher salary goes to about $81,000, from $67,000 a year. A top teacher may earn $140,000. In three years, 16 percent of the faculty may reach that level, Rhee said. The contract, ratified in June, also ties half of a teacher's evaluation to student performance on tests.
"People said we were crazy," Rhee said. "The unions went ballistic. Fifteen months ago, it was unheard of, and now we have states that are mandating that 50 percent of the teacher evaluation be based on student gains. I don't want to say it was all because of us, but it does give people some cover."
Rhee failed to incorporate teachers' views into her plans, said George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union. "There was very little listening when it came to the evaluation system and capacity to get an appropriate handle on it," Parker said. "If you have to fire your way to success, I don't believe you can do it."
The Aug. 29 Washington Post poll showed Democratic voters were racially divided over their support of the two black mayoral candidates, Fenty and Gray, as well as over Rhee's performance. Sixty-eight percent of whites said Rhee was a reason to vote for the incumbent Fenty. Fifty-four percent of blacks saw her as a reason to go with Gray. The poll surveyed 1,277 adults, and had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
One reason for the divide may be the high percentage of teachers and clerks in the Washington school system who are black and see their work as a way to advance socioeconomically, Jennings of the Center on Education Policy said.
For Rhee "to come in and imply that teachers don't care, that they're not doing their job, they ought to be fired, is really a threat to their lifestyle and this may mean they lose their chance to be in the middle class," Jennings said.
Sandra Wood, 59, who is black and lives near Anacostia Senior High School in predominantly black Southeast Washington, no longer supports Rhee, partly because she replaced the school's principal and fired several of Wood's friends, she said. "She's nasty," Wood said on the sweltering afternoon of Sept. 1.
Regardless of the poll numbers, Rhee expressed optimism that Fenty will win the primary. She'll get to finish what she started and set an example for other urban school systems, she said. "For every district that says the kids are poor, because we don't have health care and all these other reasons, they'll be able to say in D.C. where those factors looked the worst, they've actually been able to shift the tide," Rhee said.