Reformist lightning rod Michelle Rhee is about to strike out on her own. She announced today that she is leaving her post as Washington, D.C. school chief after three and a half years at her post.
Rhee and D.C.'s presumptive new mayor Vincent Gray announced the news today.
Rhee was installed by D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty in a model of school reform called mayoral control; Fenty took control of the schools and deputized Rhee to make changes as she saw fit. And make changes she did.
In her first year and a half, Rhee fired 270 teachers, shut down nearly two dozen schools and shook up the city's outdated central office. Every subsequent year she's fired more and more teachers, culminating in another major mass firing this summer when she dismissed 241 teachers and put another 737 on probation. All along she's pushed an agenda demanding that teachers trade job security for more pay upfront, and be evaluated based on their students' test scores. It's a topic that school districts around the rest of the country are starting to consider in earnest these days, but Rhee's already made serious inroads.
She instituted a teacher evaluation system called IMPACT where student test scores could account for as much as half of a teacher's job evaluation; low performance could mean dismissal.
Over the years, Rhee had clashed with Gray. When Fenty lost his Democratic primary against Gray in September, it was widely presumed Rhee would not stick around for long. Many said that Rhee's brash reforms angered D.C. voters. But along the way, Rhee catapulted herself onto the national stage. D.C. might not be able to stand her, but Fenty's loss comes at a time when the rest of the country is picking up education reform fever.
Her status as a reformist hero was cemented this year in the education movie "Waiting for Superman." Rhee was anointed by Oprah "a warrior woman for the times."
The Washington Post reported that Rhee called the decision "heartbreaking," and said that Gray "deserves the opportunity to work toward his goal of 'One City' with a team that shares his vision, can keep progress going and help bridge the divide."
"In short, we have agreed - together - that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside," Rhee said.
Rhee will not stay out of the spotlight long though. Today on Twitter she directed followers to a slick new website. Where she'll go from here is anyone's guess, but she has no shortage of options. Rhee will be replaced in January by Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson when Gray is expected to take office.