Waiting for Superman Becomes Waiting for Godot

Telling tales about the demise of education reform in D.C.


She was the superintendent of 168 dysfunctional schools in a mid-sized city, but Michelle Rhee managed to become awfully famous. She began her tenure posing for a controversial Time magazine cover with a pushbroom, a symbol of her intent to clean up D.C. schools. When she resigned today, the reformist ballbuster went out on the heels of the premiere of Waiting for Superman, an Oscar-fodder documentary by the director of An Inconvenient Truth which features Rhee declaring that D.C. schools are giving kids "a really crappy education."

In recent weeks, a narrative has congealed around Rhee's chancellorship and the Democratic primary defeat of her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty. The story Fenty and Rhee lovers and haters alike are telling themselves is that while the dynamic duo of reformers had a lot of the right ideas, they had the wrong personalities. They were too brash, too peremptory, and insufficiently concerned with building consensus.

The new Baltimore teachers contract going up for a vote today is being cited as an example of what can happen when personalities are less flamboyant and everyone plays nice. And folks like blogger Dana Goldstein are right to point out that the Charm City contract includes some worthwhile reforms. But they are minute; steps so small that they are barely visible to the naked eye. Teacher evaluations are barely gestured at. There are some elements of merit pay and promotion, but teacher tenure (read: near-guaranteed lifetime employment, regardless of skill level) remains untouched. And while there is additional autonomy built in for individual schools, it seems to be mostly with regard to the length of the school day (something I have argued elsewhere is a red herring).

Goldstein and others believe that Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers and the villian for both Waiting for Superman and my article about education reform in D.C., has gotten a bad rap. They note that she is friendlier to reform than any of her predecessors and has shown a willingness to try new things. This is true. It's just that what she's willing to do is nowhere near enough. America's public schools are on fire, and bystanders are giving Weingarten credit for meandering over from next door with a watering can, while yelling at Rhee for rudely barreling up the block in a large, noisy red truck.

At The Atlantic, blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests that Rhee and Fenty just didn't try hard enough to make nice with the city's black parents either, whom he thinks should have been easy to peel off from the coalition of teachers unions and education bureaucrats that failed them for decades. He writes that "we should be really careful about signalling the death knell for school reform. A smart mayor, would find a head for D.C.'s schools who could build on the good work that Rhee has done, and convert those natural community constituencies for school reform into allies. We'll soon see if Vincent Gray is that mayor."

But Vincent Gray will never be that mayor. At a smiley-nicey press conference, a close associate of Rhee was appointed as interim chancellor and everyone promised that reforms would continue as planned. But Gray rose to power by campaigning against Rhee and Fenty. The American Federation of Teachers spent $1 million on Gray's campaign. The same union sued to restore virtually every teacher Rhee fired. Gray owes his position to the belief that he will not be "that mayor."

Instead, Gray's tenure will likely see the private donors Rhee brought in to fund her radical merit pay proposal fade away, and possibly even the loss of federal Race to the Top funds, which D.C. won on the strength of Rhee's efforts to implement teacher evaluation programs. Transition-time rhetoric aside, there is no reason to think that this mayor or this union will continue what Rhee and Fenty started. And there is every reason to think that they will act together to gradually remove most of the evidence of Rhee's short tenure in the city.

It won't be hard. Rhee has been dragging a boulder uphill, and despite all the hullaballoo, she had made very little progress. And it will roll right back downhill when she leaves. The teacher evaluation system she implemented, IMPACT, will probably stay in place. But the reason she implemented it was so that she could know who to fire. Without firings, the system will do little more than guide a few pay increases to better-performing teachers. Not nothing, but not much. As with President Obama's Nobel Prize, the attention that Rhee got was more about what she might do. Obama has two more years to retroactively deserve a Peace Prize, but Rhee is out for the count.

Rhee was trying to make D.C. schools into a racehorse, and now the best the city can hope for is to realize the old saw about the horse designed by committee; if we're lucky, we will wind up with a camel. As long as school reform remains in the political realm, too much assertiveness will you get booted at the next election cycle, because results can never be swift enough to win over your doubters. But too much consensus-building means little more than baby steps and backsliding. Faced with this seemingly impossible dilemma, and the disappointing outcome of Rhee's remarkable efforts in D.C., the much-awaited Superman starts to feel more like Godot.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.