WASHINGTON – Michelle Rhee became a public face of education reform during her tenure as head of the District of Columbia's schools, but she found out that reform isn't always popular, especially when it involves school closings and teacher layoffs.
Rhee stepped down Wednesday, several weeks after the man who appointed her, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in a Democratic primary where Rhee's celebrated yet stormy tenure was a factor.
"We have agreed that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside," she said during Wednesday's announcement, adding that the decision was one both she and Fenty's presumed successor, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, agreed on.
Education observers suggested that the fast pace of change and Rhee's abrupt personality might have contributed to her downfall, though not everyone agreed. Others stressed the importance of getting stakeholders to back sweeping change.
"Michelle Rhee did mostly what she was hired to do: shake up the system, be a bull in a china shop," said Mike Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education think tank.
If there is any lesson in Rhee's departure for other school reformers, Petrilli said, it is that they need to pay attention to politics. Petrilli blamed Fenty for failing to sell education reform and said he and Rhee were wrong to think that just showing gains in student achievement would bring residents around.
"At the end of the day, school reform is not terribly popular," Petrilli said. "People will say they support accountability, but if they're gong to shut down your local school or fire your friend who is a teacher, suddenly reform doesn't sound so good."
Larry Cuban, a former D.C. public schools teacher who wrote a book about education reform in Texas, says Rhee took the "sledgehammer" approach of many new schools heads: trying to force reform through quickly. In her first year, she closed more than 20 schools and replaced nearly three dozen principals. Cuban said that approach doesn't work.
"It fails because it often alienates the very groups you have to cooperate and build partnerships with, and those are teachers and parents," Cuban said.
Fenty on Wednesday rejected suggestions that the pace of reform should have been slower, and the idea that if it had been, both he and Rhee would have been able to continue their work in a second term.
"We were elected to fix the schools as fast as humanly possible," Fenty said Wednesday after Rhee's announcement.
Rhee, who founded a nonprofit that focuses on teacher recruiting, became a national figure during her three years as D.C. public schools chancellor. She appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, graced the cover of Time magazine and drew praise from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Many of Rhee's reforms were ones the U.S. Department of Education has promoted, such as evaluating teachers in part based on student performance and replacing principals at failing schools. She was also criticized for laying off hundreds of school employees.
George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said he wasn't bothered by the pace of change under Rhee but rather by her approach.
"There was a certain degree of impatience that caused her to overlook the human element of this," Parker said. Had she "exhibited a little more sensitivity," he added, she would have fared better.
Frederick M. Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, disagreed.
"I think the wrong lesson to take is, 'Michelle should have been nicer,'" Hess said. "It's the wrong lesson to imagine the right personality would have smoothed over the conflict."
In the end, Rhee, a former Teach For America teacher, didn't last much longer than many urban school heads. According to a 2008 report from the Council of Great City Schools, the average tenure of a school superintendent is about three and a half years — about what Rhee's was. And though Rhee is departing, her senior management is staying in place. On Wednesday, it was announced that Kaya Henderson, the deputy chancellor who worked with Rhee at the New Teacher Project, has been named acting chancellor.
What exactly is next for Rhee is unclear.
"My goal is to continue to be able to serve the children of this nation," she said Wednesday, adding that many communities want to push forward with reforms similar to those in Washington.