The recent resignations of high-profile school chiefs Joel Klein in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., raise questions about the future of education reform at a time when school districts across the U.S. are adopting policies the two icons of change pioneered.
Rhee, who stepped down last month after three and a half years, made national headlines by firing 241 teachers based on their students’ test scores. She also fired or didn’t renew contracts for at least two dozen principals, including one at the school her daughter attended. Rhee took the blame for Fenty’s failed re-election bid.
“I think many of the reforms that Rhee and, in particular, Klein put in place will stand the test of time and hold up pretty well moving forward,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 66 of the country’s largest urban school systems. “Time will tell.”
Already, the measures are gaining traction beyond New York and Washington.
For example, Race to the Top, a federal competition that awarded money to states with the best plans to overhaul their education systems, prompted many states to adopt new data systems that will use student test scores to grade schools and teachers.
Both Klein and Rhee say their achievements include higher graduation rates and increased test scores, although critics question how accurately the statistics convey the true story and whether the scores are inflated.
What happens in the immediate future will depend on how new leaders in these cities respond to their mayors, who have the power to hire and fire the school chiefs.
“A lot of support for mayoral control has been tied to the notion that mayors can provide stability,” said Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “The D.C. case most clearly—and Chicago as well—shows that mayors can introduce instability as well.”
The upcoming departures of Fenty and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley mean that the tenure of their school leaders is also over. Henig added that “mayoral control is not a reliable solution to the problems of large city districts.”
In New York, Bloomberg handpicked Black, chairwoman of Hearst, to take over Klein’s job, and in Washington, Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s deputy, has been named as interim superintendent.
Like Klein, Black has no background in education, and Rhee only had minimal teaching experience before becoming D.C. Schools Chancellor in 2007. Critics of mayoral control worry that politicians will appoint non-educators to lead school systems, something that proponents such as Bloomberg see as an asset rather than a liability. They also fear that stakeholder voices—students, parents, teachers, community members—will go unheard in a system where the mayor holds the reins.
Pedro Noguera, an urban sociologist and professor at New York University, said there are lessons to be learned from Klein and Rhee’s tenures about the limitations of mayoral control and the mistake of seeing it as a panacea.
“Even if you are doing the right things, if you don’t engage with people in your communities, you will spend your time fighting,” said Noguera, whose research takes him into hundreds of urban schools. “How many shoes can you step on?”
This article was produced by the Hechinger Report. The nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet is affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Justin Snider and Liz Willen contributed reporting to this article.