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Media Attention Hinders Rhee’s Efforts to Reach Out to D.C. Teachers

May 5, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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In just under two years, School Chancellor Michelle Rhee's "take-no-prisoners" approach to school reform attracted much attention from the national press. John Merrow reports on whether her growing media prominence is hindering her pursuit of a revolutionary new teachers' contract.

GWEN IFILL: The high-profile school reform effort in Washington, D.C., is one of the nation’s most closely watched, but the spotlight has also attracted more scrutiny for the school system’s outspoken chancellor.

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has been chronicling those efforts. He has this update.

MICHELLE RHEE, chancellor, Washington, D.C., Public School System: No. That’s yellow. Can you say “yellow”? Do you know what color that is? What color is that?

JOHN MERROW, NewsHour correspondent: When Michelle Rhee assumed control of Washington, D.C.’s, struggling public school system in 2007, she billed herself as a change agent.

MICHELLE RHEE: I’d say that I have a tremendous will. When I know what needs to get done, very, very little, if anything, can stand in my way.

JOHN MERROW: The first-time superintendent has delivered. Rhee has closed 23 under-enrolled schools, fired more than 15 percent of her central office staff, and replaced over 30 percent of the city’s principals, all in less than two years.

The national media, including the NewsHour, has followed her every step of the way.

Attention swelled as she lobbied for a controversial new teachers contract that she hoped would become a national model.

MICHELLE RHEE: We can actually begin to shift the dynamic in the city and eventually in the country of who should go into teaching.

JOHN MERROW: She’d like to offer teachers the chance to earn six-figure salaries, if they give up job security, tenure. To change the way teachers are hired, fired and compensated in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee does not need the national press. She needs support from D.C.’s 4,000 teachers. And her growing national prominence has created problems for her at home.

In December 2008, Rhee made the cover of Time magazine. Her pose, standing in an empty classroom holding a broom, elicited of a strong reaction from D.C.’s teachers.

CANDI PETERSON, District of Columbia Public Schools: It left a very unsavory feeling from everybody that I’ve talked to. And the blogs really blew up on this story.

JOHN MERROW: Special education teacher Candi Peterson writes a blog about D.C. schools.

CANDI PETERSON: People were really upset. And I think it’s turned the tables against her by doing this.

GEORGE PARKER, president, Washington Teachers’ Union: This one shot gave the picture of, “Look, just sweep them all out. Get rid of them all.” It was an insult to the hard work that our teachers perform every day.

Article hurts teachers' morale

JOHN MERROW: Teacher union President George Parker has been locked in negotiations with Rhee for over 17 months. He says Rhee's media appearances have had a significant impact on his members.

GEORGE PARKER: It created a culture of low morale, one that was lowest that I've seen since I've been in D.C. public schools, and I've been here for 25 years.

JOHN MERROW: The lowest you've seen in 25 years?

GEORGE PARKER: Yes, yes, yes, without a doubt.

JOHN MERROW: Some teachers say Rhee's comments to the media are influencing classroom behavior. Randy Brown teaches ninth-grade English.

RANDY BROWN, Ronald H. Brown Middle School: There will be students who will start your day off saying, "Oh, yeah, I've read the article. You all are getting fired anyway."

JOHN MERROW: Kids say that?

RANDY BROWN: Kids absolutely say that.


RANDY BROWN: And they absolutely believe it. You can't really be accountable when you're undermined. They don't believe in you. They've lost their confidence in their teachers.

GEORGE PARKER: I think that the level of fear, an "I'm out to get you" culture that the chancellor initially, I think, developed created an environment where the morale is so low it would be very difficult to have folks truly buy into where you want to go and ride the train.

Because if folks are feeling that, "Look, they're just waiting to throw me off the train," that it's going to be very difficult for me to ride it.

RANDY BROWN: Where's civilization, inside or outside?

STUDENTS: Outside.

'Dysfunctional' schools

JOHN MERROW: Ron Brown Middle School, where Randy Brown teaches, has seen tremendous change in the past year. Rhee sent students from two nearby schools that were closed to Ron Brown, doubling the student body.

The new ninth-grade class is struggling. Randy Brown says he recently stopped teaching because a student threw a textbook at him and hit him in the head. Two other ninth-grade teachers at his school claim similar assaults.

RANDY BROWN: These schools are dysfunctional. The current dialogue that's going on or the current discourse, rather, about education is being monopolized by people who are showcasing.

JOHN MERROW: Principal Darrin Slade, a strong defender of the chancellor, acknowledges discipline issues, but he has a different interpretation.

DARRIN SLADE, principal, Ronald H. Brown Middle School: Issues like that arise from poor classroom management, poor relationships with students, and the big thing, poor instruction.

JOHN MERROW: Slade has been dissatisfied with some of his teachers. And now, with Rhee's support, he says he may finally be able to do something about it.

Chancellor Rhee has urged all principals to make full use of what's called the 90-day plan, essentially a last chance to improve or be fired.

DARRIN SLADE: I've been placing teachers on plans, 90-day plans since I've been an administrator. But in the past, sometimes it wouldn't work out. But this year, I feel as though the process is in place.

JOHN MERROW: Rhee's push to implement the 90-day plan has convinced some that she is anti-teacher.

GEORGE PARKER: There is no question that the substantial decrease in morale is a direct result of the fear that teachers have felt about job security or about being treated fairly. There was this culture of, "Someone is out to get me."

JOHN MERROW: The number of teachers on the plan has grown from roughly 15 teachers each year before Rhee arrived to 132 today.

Are you pleased with that development? Does that seem like the right number?

MICHELLE RHEE: No, I wouldn't say that I'm pleased with it. What I would say is that I think it's important for us to identify teachers who are struggling. And if they aren't able to become successful through professional development, that we move them out of the system so that they are no longer negatively impacting students.

TEACHER: When you cite whatever you say you're citing...

Providing teachers with training

JOHN MERROW: Rhee says she wants to help her teachers succeed. She has increased the budget for professional development this year to almost $20 million, about five times greater than before. She's also provided most schools with new staff dedicated to helping teachers improve.

SHANNON FEINBLATT, assistant principal, Ronald H. Brown Middle School: The first thing I want to say is congratulations to the seventh-grade team.

JOHN MERROW: At Ron Brown Middle School, while some classrooms continue to struggle, the additional support is starting to pay off in seventh grade.

REBECCA MILLNER, Ronald H. Brown Middle School: Well, I know for specifically the seventh-grade team, as we call it, it has a very team feeling. So this is really neat. It's like our team did really good so far this season, and we're just getting ready for the championship.

JOHN MERROW: Just 25 percent of Ron Brown students were proficient in reading last year. Today, preliminary test scores in the seventh grade are among the highest the school has ever seen.

DARRIN SLADE: I have some classes that are 80 percent proficient in math and 75 percent proficient in certain areas of reading, never happened before.

SHANNON FEINBLATT: But I wanted to put it in chart form so you could see it...

JOHN MERROW: Slade credits Assistant Principal Shannon Feinblatt, whose position is new this year.

SHANNON FEINBLATT: I mean, you can see where our "below basic" has dropped tremendously.

JOHN MERROW: Feinblatt meets regularly with teachers to analyze testing data and help plan lessons.

SHANNON FEINBLATT: This data allows us to look deeper in, how can we have these students be more successful?

JOHN MERROW: Do you think the D.C. schools are making progress on the ground or in the classrooms that the public doesn't know about?

MICHELLE RHEE: I think that, in some schools and with some teachers, we absolutely are. I don't think it's happening consistently yet.

JOHN MERROW: Rhee says more support for teachers and better teamwork are among her priorities for the district.

MICHELLE RHEE: A lot of the things that were coming out in the press were sort of saying, you know, "Rhee wants to fire people. It's all about firing people." And I don't think that it was a comprehensive sort of view of what I actually believe, and so I thought it was important to be able to communicate that.

JOHN MERROW: In an effort to reach out to teachers and in apparent recognition of her image problem, Rhee began a series of what she calls listening sessions.

Are you doing a lot of them?

MICHELLE RHEE: Yes, I do them a few times a week.

CANDI PETERSON: She realizes, finally, after a very long time, it's not working for her. And she's really losing a lot of her fan club, if you will.

Public relations efforts

JOHN MERROW: Reporters aren't allowed to attend these sessions, but teachers talked afterwards. Some left the meetings with a new perspective.

What was your reaction to that Time magazine cover?

PATRICE BILLUPS, Ronald H. Brown Middle School: What she said was that she actually took several pictures. They didn't display the pictures of her sitting around with several kids or her sitting in a classroom. Of course they're going to pick the actual picture that's going to get all the teachers all stirred up.

JOHN MERROW: So you're OK with Chancellor Rhee? You're on the same page now?

PATRICE BILLUPS: Do I disagree with some of the things that have happened? Yes, I do. However, as a leader, everyone's not going to be happy.

JOHN MERROW: And in what some saw as a public effort to make amends, Rhee made her own media statement. In February, the Washington Post published her open letter to teachers.

MICHELLE RHEE: In the op-ed, I reiterated what I've said lots of times before, but I was just giving a more holistic view.

JOHN MERROW: It's too soon to say how effective Rhee's campaign will be. Her biggest hurdle -- a new contract with the teachers -- remains.

Rhee's initial plan to offer teachers the chance to earn more money in exchange for tenure may be in jeopardy because now, at George Parker's request, national union President Randy Weingarten has gotten involved.

RANDI WEINGARTEN, president, American Federation of Teachers: What we are against is proposals that divide people, and that undermine education, and that, actually, like the one that Michelle Rhee is proposing in Washington right now.

JOHN MERROW: In February, the union presented a counterproposal that differs dramatically from Rhee's offer.

GEORGE PARKER: Our proposal does not include a system that in any way requires a teacher to give up tenure. Now, with that said, one of the things that we do realize is that the concept of having some component of pay for performance, the day has come for that.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: We're very optimistic that this contract proposal could serve as a framework to breaking the logjam.

MICHELLE RHEE: Hopefully we'll be able to do that and really move to that decision sooner rather than later. Now, would I stake my anything on it? No.

GEORGE PARKER: We can create a model for the country of what to do or we can create a model for the country of what not to do.

JOHN MERROW: You're still optimistic?

MICHELLE RHEE: I'm very confident.

JOHN MERROW: Recently, both sides agreed to work with a mediator to try to resolve the dispute. They selected former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

Meanwhile, continuing a decades-long trend, D.C. parents are voting with their feet. Public school enrollment has dropped by over 4,000 students since Rhee took office.