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Despite Teacher Pushback, D.C. Continues Schools Reform

December 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Gwen Ifill speaks with John Merrow for an update on efforts to reform Washington, D.C.'s troubled public school system.
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MARGARET WARNER: That story was filed just a few weeks ago.

And, earlier this week, Gwen Ifill spoke with John to get an update of where things stand now.

She began by asking him whether there is still a standoff between Chancellor Rhee and the unions over contract negotiations and her decision to lay off teachers.

JOHN MERROW: That’s where we are now. The union appealed that decision. And the judge looked over the facts of the case and threw out the appeal. So, she won there.

But there is not any movement on the contract. That’s been going on. Those negotiations have been off and on for the entire time, basically, and they’re basically off right now.

GWEN IFILL: Those of us who have been watching your reports with some interest want to know the bottom-line answer to the question about what improvement is and how you measure improvement. Do we know if what a school chancellor like Michelle Rhee is doing, do we know if it’s working?

JOHN MERROW: There is one piece of solid evidence.

There is a national test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAPE. And that’s generally the gold standard, Gwen. And only four states and the District of Columbia showed significant gains in both fourth and eighth grade math on the results that came out in the fall. And that’s pretty remarkable. And it happened on her watch.

On the other hand, you would have to say that strife is up and morale is down. But, in terms of the academic gains, they are there.

GWEN IFILL: So, what can other school systems read into what D.C. has done wrong and what has worked here and what hasn’t worked?

JOHN MERROW: Well, she has had a significant impact. She set out saying that she wanted to make a difference nationally. And she’s had a significant impact in at least three ways.

One — for one, the conversation about linking teacher pay to student performance is now in the air. I mean, that’s even part of the federal effort called Race to the Top. And Michelle Rhee has pushed that forward.

People are talking now, questioning tenure in ways that they hadn’t before. And Michelle Rhee has pushed that as well. And, finally, charter schools are much more in the public consciousness. And they’re growing. And she has said that she doesn’t care if she loses students to charter schools. She just wants students to go to charter schools.

I would say she’s done this very visibly. A couple of other superintendents, Andres Alonso in Baltimore, Robert Bennett in Denver before he became U.S. senator, they both have been achieving remarkable things under the radar, quietly, and without all the furor and without all the alienation. So, Michelle Rhee has paid a price for what she has accomplished.

GWEN IFILL: It seems like, aside from her personal price, there is always a tradeoff in these sorts of things. Charter schools, some people say, weaken the other public schools. Some people say, many of them teachers, that this idea of linking performance to pay to tenure also doesn’t encourage teachers to stay and to grow. These debates, I get the feeling, are still going on.

JOHN MERROW: These debates are going on.

For a journalist, it’s a fascinating story. As a national policy issue, it’s important. We need strong public schools. And she’s one of the people trying to figure out if we are going to get there. Now, she may win on the big issues. But, on the other hand, she has made an awful lot of enemies and people waiting for her to fall. So, if she falls, she will fall hard.

GWEN IFILL: John Merrow, thanks for all your good work.

JOHN MERROW: Thank you, Gwen.