Q-and-A with Michelle Rhee

What are the three biggest challenges facing the D.C. public school system?

The most important challenge is that the majority of our students are not reading, writing or doing math on grade level, when in fact our students are very smart and capable. It is going to take a lot of hard work from everyone to change this, because we have to do more than catch up. We want our students to be able to compete with students in the top schools in the country, and I know they can. We know they are absolutely capable of doing it if they get a solid education.

All the other challenges we face are the obstacles we have to remove in order to get there. This includes slogging through broken and disconnected data systems to fix them, and recruiting more excellent teachers when we can’t reward them yet for doing a good job. The new contract would be instrumental in changing this.

What role will charter schools play in the future of the D.C. educational system? Where will most of the political and financial support for charter schools come from?

Successful charter schools have been instrumental in improving the public school system. They are actually the reason I have a job! Enrollment has declined for the past 30 years in DCPS, and many said that unless city leaders did something about it very quickly, there would be no more DCPS, because all of the students would be in charter schools. So the D.C. Council and Mayor Fenty worked to change the way the school system was run. Instead of a school board making all the decisions (this meant a lot of people had to agree on almost every big change!), now the mayor is responsible for improving the system. It’s working, and enrollment has virtually steadied for the first time in decades.

Bad charter schools don’t help anyone, but great ones provide models for success. They also bring out the competitive spirit in the rest of us, which is so important, and it is leverage for the District to enact greater change.

Regarding support for charters, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are very supportive of charter schools, and much political and financial support is coming from their efforts.

In the future, what standards will you use to determine when to close inefficient schools in the DCPS?

So far we have been using enrollment, so that if there aren’t enough children at the school to provide all the resources that kids need, we would close a school (this is mostly because schools with less kids don’t get as much money from the government, so sometimes the students don’t have things like art or music teachers, which isn’t fair).

Moving forward, we’d like to add performance to that, so that if students aren’t learning as they should be, we would close the school. Usually this happens under the first criterion of enrollment, because if a school is not doing well, parents are more likely to choose a charter school, making enrollment go down and putting a school on the possible closure list. We’re working on a School Scorecard — which is like a report card for parents showing how well the school is doing on a number of measures — and until we have that, we wouldn’t expect to close schools based on performance alone.

Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.

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