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D.C.’s Braveheart

Audio interview with Jason Kamras, deputy to D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, in regards to the new teacher evaluation system set up in D.C.


Michelle Rhee’s senior staff meeting has all of the ceremony of lunchtime in the teachers’ lounge. News is exchanged. Ideas tumble around. Rhee sits on the head on the table but doesn’t run the meeting or maybe grab the conversational lead. Staffers talk over her as frequently as she talks over them. If consensus could be the goal, the ball is upfield.

But then, Rhee wades alongside, “Here’s whatever think,” or “What I’m not going,” or “This is crap,” or “I want a person to figure this out,” or “I’m gonna show you what we’re gonna do; we can easily take a look at how we’re gonna take action.” And that is exactly that. Next order of business, please.

Rhee’s style-as steely since the sound of her peekaboo high heels on the linoleum-tile hallway-has angered high of Washington, D.C., and baffled the rest since she arrived as schools chancellor in June 2007. It really is also helping her gain command over a faculty system that’s defied management for decades: that hasn’t kept records, patched windows, met budgets, delivered books, returned telephone calls, followed court orders, checked teachers’ credentials, or, for ages at a time, opened school on schedule in the fall.

When Industry experts Rhee to her most crucial achievement in her 2 yrs in Washington, her answer suggested that any progress is, thus far, only incremental. “We have begun-begun-begun-to establish a culture of accountability,” she said, by using a long pause in between each “begun.” A teacher had recently e-mailed her regarding a personnel matter, she went on, and was thrilled that Rhee had replied. “It’s sorta sad given that the expectations are very low. Because you just receive a solution is celebrated,” she said.

Rhee tells parents and taxpayers how they should judge her on “student performance.” Are test scores rising? Are students graduating? Up to now, there’s some evidence potentially they are, and some teachers and parents say that even that evidence is suspect.

But very little learning gets done without institutional support, as well as decades in Washington, almost no has. Once i asked Kenneth Wong, director of Brown University’s urban-education policy program, of what measures Rhee should really be judged, he answered by using a long list. It included how the faculties use other city agencies (to obtain sidewalks plowed during the winter, such as), how many and which colleges new teachers derive from (the wider the net, better), how fast managers return messages or calls, and whether teacher absenteeism is down. Only at the end of your list did he get to student performance. “The other stuff would be the necessary conditions to get to student achievement,” he stated.

That’s not particularly glamorous for any national media darling who’s got been celebrated on magazine covers, on Capitol Hill, through obama, but it’s a start.

Rhee tells parents and taxpayers to guage her on “student performance.”

Rock Bottom?

It’s not news that Washington’s schools are one of the most woeful in the united states, but obviously any good cynic should gasp. The mismanagement is legendary: consider the 5 million personnel records Rhee says she found piled with a storeroom floor when she took office. Marc Borbely, occasion teacher, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2004 to determine what amount of work orders were outstanding along at the central maintenance office. The response: 25,000.

Teachers made note of out-of-control students: The city’s Ballou School was closed for the 35-day cleanup after students stole chemistry-lab thermometers and scattered the mercury around hallways. In every school districts, mercury thermometers was replaced years earlier.

The system churned through six superintendents in A decade’s, usually after brutal head butting while using the city council and community activists. That made Washington the La Brea Tar Pits of strategic plans: Each one of these sank into oblivion because its drafters advanced. The institution funding formula changed 4 times under several superintendents.

Academic measures were miserable. The 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered before Rhee’s arrival but announced five months after her term began, found that 61 percent in the city’s 4th graders had below-basic reading skills, that means they are able to barely read. Just 8 percent from the 8th graders were proficient-that is, at grade level-or above in math.

Scores around the district’s own tests with the 2006