Andrew Clark: Adrian Fenty isn’t the election’s only loser

Students, not Adrian Fenty, were the ones who lost the most this week in D.C.’s high-pitched election for Mayor. If incoming Mayor Vince Gray gets rid of D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, D.C. students will have lost their best advocate and friend in the government.

The D.C. public school system is a textbook case of failure. Despite having one of the highest spending-per-pupil rates in the United States, Washington students’ reading and math proficiency rates are hovering near the single digits. It’s hard to justify how anyone could call this a success – yet for decades, teachers received tenure, were given pay raises and were ensured ultimate job security.

Then in 2007, Michelle Rhee came along, vowing to reform Washington’s schools with an iron fist. In her first 18 months, she dismissed 270 teachers, shut down 21 schools and fired 100 District officials from the central bureaucracy. Blaming a culture of education that places job security over results, Rhee and her team have created an innovative new way of measuring teacher performance. IMPACT, as the system is known, relies on five unannounced evaluations throughout the year, and uses both teacher skills and student test results to judge a teacher’s effectiveness.

This system, when combined with the new contract Rhee aggressively negotiated with the teachers unions, is Rhee’s strategy for turning D.C.’s public school failure into a leading model of success. Rhee agreed to give D.C. teachers generous pay raises, and even promised bonuses for strong student achievement. In exchange, all teachers’ tenure will be absolved for one year. In other words, you will be rewarded if you do your job well, and fired if you do not – and no one is cushioned from the expectations.

The strategy appears to be paying off, at least partially. Graduation rates in the District are up 3 percent. Proficiency rates in high schools have launched even more – 14 percent for reading and 17 percent for math – since 2007, making D.C. the only major U.S. city to see double-digit growth. This success, truthfully, is jaded by the stagnation of rates in elementary schools, and the fact that much of the growth came from already high-performing areas. However, the numbers are the best signs of life the District has seen in recent memory, and show the positive results of Rhee’s new regimen.

However, because of Rhee’s firm commitment to student reform, her tactics are often seen as draconian, especially when on the receiving end of a pink slip. But as Rhee told Time magazine in November 2008, “Just because you’re a nice person and you mean well does not mean you have a right to a job in this district.” Indeed, after decades of lockstep bureaucratic and union control of our failing schools, it makes sense to start focusing on raw numbers, and not how nice a teacher is.

This idea is hardly radical. Even President Barack Obama’s own Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been pushing similar reforms, although less aggressively. The Obama administration is encouraging U.S. school districts to switch to teacher evaluation systems, like IMPACT, that include a focus on student performance in exchange for grant funding. Obama himself has vocalized praise for Rhee.

She may be ruffling feathers and provoking emotional attacks, but that is the very nature of Rhee’s mission to fix the District’s schools and elevate them to among the best in the nation. The status quo has been nothing short of a disaster, and school employees are hardly in a position to be defending their jobs on the grounds of successful performance. The unions are not called student unions, but teacher unions, and teachers are whom they are inherently designed to protect. Someone needs to be protecting the kids.

I encourage Vincent Gray to keep the students at the top of his priority list. Don’t only keep Rhee as the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, but give her the room she needs to continue aggressively reforming our city’s public school system. The attacks from angry teachers and powerful unions may not be easy to deal with, but we all know in the long run, it’s the best for the kids.

-The writer, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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