Unpopular in D.C.

On their way out the door in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty take credit for making “politically unpopular choices” in the Wall Street Journal.

Forced to lay off excess staff to save money, they “decided to allow principals to make the layoffs based on the quality, value and performance of their staffs” rather than seniority alone. It took 2½ years of bargaining with the union and millions of dollars from foundations to get teachers to approve the new contract.

• It rewards great teachers who accept a higher level of accountability with some of the highest teacher pay in the nation—up to twice as much as they were previously making.

• No longer do educators have a job guarantee for life. Ineffective teachers are immediately dismissed from the system. Minimally effective teachers do not receive a pay step increase and have one year to improve their performance. If that doesn’t happen, they are subject to termination.

• If layoffs are necessary, the decisions about whom to dismiss are based on quality and performance instead of seniority.

• We also instituted a comprehensive system for evaluating teachers, including growth in student achievement as measured by standardized tests (so that teachers who take on the toughest students aren’t unfairly penalized), observation of their classroom practices and assessment of their contributions to the school community.

Every student subgroup in D.C. has improved on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Rhee and Fenty write. Graduation rates have increased. SAT scores are up too.

So what went wrong?

We did not explain why we were doing what we were doing well enough. We did not do enough to engage the local leaders and neighborhood activists who needed to be at the forefront of the fight.

People who want change were overwhelmed by “special interests—unions, administrators and opportunistic politicians—who are vocal and committed,” Rhee and Fenty argue.

About Joanne


  1. Hi Joanne,

    Interesting, I read the same article, and noticed / pondered the exact same paragraph. So, I asked her this question via email:

    “What will you do differently next time?”

    She’s promised to blog the answer … and, at my suggestion, to enable comments.

    Looking forward to the conversation,


  2. They said that they failed to reach out to the local leaders and activists… not sure that would have helped them. Their fate was sealed the moment they were hired to make the changes…

  3. They were doomed because of ugly racial politics. Even though Mayor Fenty is African-American himself, the attempt to reform the D.C. schools was painted as championing “white” interests over blacks. Very sad…

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Interesting articles in the Atlantic. Various reasons for face-spiting nose-cutting.
    You want better education or not…?
    Okay. Guess not.

  5. Richard has it right. Ultimately, despite various claimed mistakes, the ultimate reason Rhee and Fentry were ousted was that the opposition was able to convince the voters that the status quo with regards to union jobs and racial politics was more important than attempting to fix the system.

  6. If you don’t bother to get the support of the people necessary to your cause, you are going to fail. If you treat them with contempt, you are going to fail in technicolor.

  7. Forced to lay off excess staff to save money

    More like lied to lay off veteren teachers, and then suddenly “discovered” tons of extra money. Did she use the money to rehire those excessed teachers?

    Of course not!

    Her lies and ego caught up to her.

  8. Quality public education in many respects has been murdered. Unlike a game of Clue, there is not a single killer who did it in the library with the candlestick.

    Many people are going to vote tomorrow for many different reasons. I’ve been exhorted to vote for school taxes because “the children will thank me for it.” Not sure about that, but the big teachers’ unions will.

    Remember what teacher union kingpin Albert Shanker (who let the UFT for 20 years) said:

    “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”