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Former DCPS Chancellor Rhee: Pace Of Reform Has Changed

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Former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee speaking about innovative education models in 2009.
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Former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee speaking about innovative education models in 2009.

It's been two years since Michelle Rhee resigned as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. During that time, she closed more than two dozen schools, fired hundreds of teachers, brought in millions of dollars in private funding and pushed through a landmark teachers union contract.

The pace of reform in D.C. has changed since she left, she said in a recent interview.

"I think the reforms have definitely continued. Kaya Henderson worked with me for three and a half years, and I have tremendous faith in her and her team. I do think there's a difference though," said Rhee. "Mayor Fenty and I spoke every day. I think when you have that dynamic, it creates a difference sense of urgency in the city overall."

Under Rhee, students' test scores counted for 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation. Recently that was changed to 35 percent. But Rhee doesn't necessarily consider it a rollback.

"The D.C. CAS [Comprehensive Assessment System] specifically will only count for 35 percent," says Rhee. "The other 15 percent will be based on other kinds of assessments, and certainly, as long as they're valid and reliable tests, then overall you're still looking at the 50 percent."

Rhee is almost always described as "hard charging" and "controversial," adjectives she's a little baffled by, she said.

"The reforms we advocate are common sense reforms," said Rhee. "So how they have been framed as controversial and hard charging still bewilders me a bit, but if it helps people have conversations that are much needed and in some cities have been avoided, that's okay."

Rhee admitted made a lot of mistakes during her time as chancellor, but noted that everyone does. One of the biggest lessons is the importance of communication, she said.

"Now when I talk to school superintendents across the country, one of the things I say is, 'you have to be very cognizant of how you're communicating,'" she said. "One of the mistakes we made was,we were doing the work and it was clear to us why closing schools, or doing layoffs by quality rather than by seniority, was important. And yet we didn't do a good job of connecting the dots for people."

Rhee now heads StudentsFirst, an education reform advocacy organization.

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