Michelle Rhee’s Five Year Plan 

Chancellor Michelle Rhee predicted today that the D.C. Public School system “will be in a wildly different place” in five years, in fact “the highest performing urban school district in the country and one that has the faith and confidence of the citizens of the city.”

Rhee expressed her optimism at a Thursday morning conference in Georgetown, “Making a Difference: Personal Experiences from Three American Leaders,” sponsored by Accenture.

But Rhee is not exactly setting the bar very high when she aspires to be the best urban school district in America. While there are some great schools in urban districts – U.S. News & World Report’s December list of “Gold Medal Schools,” includes Dallas’ School for the Talented and Gifted (5th) BASICS Tuscon (9th), and Miami’s Design and Architecture Senior H.S.(15th) – on the whole, urban school districts are perfect examples of government sinkholes, where billions of dollars disappear annually with few tangible results to show for it.

After three years under Rhee, DCPS has managed to scrape itself off the floor, leaving behind (hopefully forever) the withering distinction of being the worst public school system in America. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.  Education Week gave D.C. an overall  D+ on its latest report card, and an embarrassing F for college readiness.

D.C. also participates in the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Trial Urban District Assessment, which is used to compare large urban school districts’ test results with each other – not the rest of the nation.Since we’re constantly told that urban areas are superior to suburban and rural enclaves because of the educational and cultural opportunities they offer, why do cities need their own rankings?

Because urban test results look even more awful when compared to suburban systems that are at least minimally adequate in teaching children how to read and write.

In other words, if Rhee is successful in accomplishing her ambitious Five Year Plan, DCPS will still be only the best of the worst. While any progress in the right direction would be welcome, this is not exactly shooting for the moon.

The second obstacle Rhee faces is the teacher union contract she just signed, which preserves tenure and financially rewards the same people who have proven themselves incapable of improvement despite the highest per student spending of any school system in the nation. The chancellor apparently is convinced that doing the same thing that didn’t work before will somehow produce different results. You can look up the definition of that in a dictionary – if you can find one at DCPS.

Rhee reassured the group of businessmen and women that she has “an unwavering belief in the children of the city, that they can achieve at high levels despite the obstacles they face” in their personal lives. But after three years of running the show, she has yet to convert that belief into major results.

The chancellor’s real test comes next year, not five years from now, when the kids who were first graders in 2007 – the year she was named chancellor by Mayor Adrian Fenty despite having no experience running a school system – enter fourth grade and take the NAEP.

If Rhee’s oft-touted reforms are really working, their math and reading scores will compare favorably to all school districts across the nation, not just equally dysfunctional urban systems. After all, District students won’t have the luxury of competing for jobs in such a small labor pool.

If not, the former Time magazine cover girl will eventually be remembered as the seventh D.C. schools chief in 14 years who went down trying.

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