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Is Radical School Reform Over?

public education, education system

Is radical school reform over?

I share Hanna Rosin’s deep disappointment in the outcome of her city’s mayoral election last night, which she writes about on Slate‘s Double X blog today (and, rest assured, has nothing to do with the Tea Party).

I have never lived in D.C., in fact, I live on the other side of the country as Rosin. I can’t name the new mayor or much in the way of the District’s big issues. But there’s been one thing — one person, actually — who I’ve been quietly cheering from my kitchen table ever since she swept into town: Michelle Rhee, the city’s controversial Chancellor of Schools.

Just google Rhee and you can get up to speed on why she’s either loved or reviled (and, really, it pretty much comes down to those two camps). She’s a huge personality, gotten a lot of attention, talked tough and on and on.

What got my attention was her willingness to get in there and try new things. Like firing bad teachers, firing bad administrators, paying teachers big salaries for forgoing the security of a union and so on. She believes in public schools and stuck her neck out to get them out of old habits and make them into something that is actually serving, you know, students.

I don’t agree with her on everything — I’m not a big fan of testing, testing, testing, for example. I’m not even a big fan of bureaucratic overlords — I think smaller more independent schools have a better feel for what the students need, etc. But I was willing to listen. I wanted to know! Maybe a heavy hand and an inability to smile is what these unimaginably huge urban school districts around the country need. Maybe her ideas would have worked. I wanted to know whether they worked.

Now, after Rhee’s ardent supporter Adrian Fenty was ousted from the mayor’s office last night, we probably won’t. At least not for a very, very long time.

Wide-scale education change is so unbelievably slow. Even if you start showing interest the year your oldest starts Kindergarten, she’ll be in high school before you can chalk up any real changes as actual reform.

Which is why if Rhee leaves D.C. schools, it will be felt nationwide. We were all watching — some with hope, some with dread — to see whether her ideas worked. Whether they really had an impact.

Sure, some other district somewhere in the country will snatch her up, put her to work for them. But as Rosin points out, Rhee will have to start over, fight the battles. And there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever get to see whether Rhee’s ideas and leadership could actually create great schools. Which we really need. Right now.

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