OK, Chancellor Michelle Rhee will probably leave D.C. “I will be fine … and Adrian Fenty will be fine,” she says.
And she is correct. Both are smart and ambitious but with a political deafness that is debilitating. Nonetheless, they will go on to high-paying jobs. They will also create explanations for the fiery years they served in the nation’s capital, years that offered so much promise but ended with a thud. Like Hugh Scott, the first African American superintendent in D.C., who served in the early 1970s, Rhee will be a footnote in a doctoral dissertation on the D.C. schools a generation from now. No more Wonder Woman. No more super-hero to rescue the D.C. schools. Thousands of teachers will continue to teach their daily lessons as she exits. And the new mayor will scramble to advertise another vacancy to be filled by the next “hero.”
Will Fenty’s loss in the Democratic primary diminish faith in mayoral control turning around failing schools? Hardly. Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein continue to run the New York City schools. Boston and Chicago mayors will still have their appointees overseeing schools. Business and civic leaders’ faith that mayoral control is the key to “real” reform may be tarnished somewhat by D.C., Detroit, and Baltimore but it continues to entrance venture fund entrepreneurs and policy wonks inside the Beltway. Other mayors will learn from Fenty’s loss that voters can turn on you if you fail to heed your community and give your superintendent too long a leash.
Will Rhee’s departure lessen policymakers’ embrace of the business model of schooling that includes charters, pay-for-performance, accountability through testing, more technology, and national standards? Nope. The D.C. episode is a mere road bump that will fade in the rear- view mirror. Endorsed by both political parties, these market-inspired reforms will continue to ride high for the next few years regardless of what happens in classrooms.
When it comes to classroom teaching, however, super-hero superintendents–beyond their amazing energy, drive, and commitment–are myopic. They, like dozens of policy wonks see charters, pay-for-performance, testing, etc. etc. altering what teachers do daily in their classrooms and magically leading to higher test scores.
The logic behind these reforms is that you adopt, fund, and implement them in schools and Presto! teaching practices change in the right direction. And because of these changes in teaching practices, kids will learn more and better. The logic is flawed, of course, because no one can tell the public (much less teachers) how this transformation in classrooms will happen. Moreover, not all policies are fully implemented. And even when they are, few super-hero superintendents (or their policy analysts) take the time to find out systematically whether what teachers do is the same-old, same-old or has shifted. Yes, Chancellor Rhee did put into practice an evaluation system that identified high- and- low-performing teachers through classroom visits and test scores. The Rhee agenda, however, was to reward and punish both, not determine whether teaching practices had changed and students learned more and better.
And that is weak link in the chain of logic behind all of these grand policies delivered from the federal, state, or district leaders. Those top decision-makers should know what occurs routinely in classrooms. They do not. They hear scattered stories told by administrators, journalists, and relatives of friends who teach. And they are stories. Without systematically collected evidence, attributing a rise, plateau, or decline in annual test scores to a reform policy is, at best, a guessing game and, at worst, foolish. When test scores rose in New York City the past few years, the mayor and Chancellor took credit saying that their reforms (new curricula, small high schools, charters, entrepreneurial initiatives) caused the improvement. Yet this past year when the state changed tests and scores dipped, not a word about what caused what to occur. And so it goes.
There is so much chatter in an urban district when undertaking major reforms such as pay-for-performance, charters, new reading curricula, and professional development that determining whether daily teaching has changed to mirror the reform designs gets ignored. And without reliable information, little can be said about whether students are learning (and not learning) or whether changes have occurred that might (or might not) be picked up by existing state tests.
Super-hero superintendents, even ones who have had some teaching experience as did Michelle Rhee, are too caught up mandating changes and basking in media attention to spend the time and resources to find out what goes on routinely in classrooms. Without that knowledge, without a commitment to strengthen the teacher corps, and without staying on the job for more than a few years, reform success remains a mirage.