TAMPA — Call her a one-woman wrecking crew, a miracle worker, or the quintessential "mean girl" in American education reform. Call her what you want; Michelle Rhee doesn't mind.
"Be prepared to be Ms. or Mr. Unpopular," the outgoing chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools told an audience of urban school administrators here Thursday. "I am really good at this one right now."
Three years ago, Rhee launched a whirlwind of change: a tough evaluation system and teacher contract that resulted in 241 firings this spring, and ultimately may oust 25 percent of the district's teachers from their jobs. Those forces led to her resignation last week, following the election defeat of her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty. But they brought applause from her audience at the Council of Great City Schools conference.
On another panel in the adjoining room, Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia was describing a kinder, gentler strategy to reach what is rapidly becoming a national goal: boosting teacher quality and winnowing out those who can't make the grade.
"We're coming from a different approach on the same issue," said Elia, adding that she "absolutely" opposed the tone Rhee has used in talking about struggling teachers.
"Working together is what is going to bring results," she told U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan during his visit to the district last week. "We are going to feel stressed as we go through change, and we're going to work through it."
Hillsborough's reforms share many elements with those in Rhee's district: a new evaluation system, stiffer tenure standards, and a value-added system that ties teacher pay to student test scores.
The district has told the Gates Foundation it might need to fire up to 5 percent or 425 of its 8,500 tenured teachers annually in the first years of the reforms, though officials say they hope intensive support for teachers will reduce that number substantially.
Still, Elia told Duncan, teachers who can't improve will be shown the door.
"They're either going to leave or we're going to say, 'Let us help you leave,' " she said.
Rhee's district might be unique in another way: some of the nation's worst test scores.
She said just 8 percent of eighth-graders in Washington were scoring at grade level in mathematics when she arrived in 2007. But 95 percent of teachers were rated as excellent.
"How can you possibly have a system where all of the adults are running around thinking that they're doing a great job for kids, and what we're producing is 8 percent success?" she asked. "That's a recipe for failure, in my opinion."
Rhee won dramatic changes. Now every teacher gets observed five times by principals or trained master teachers.
"Four of those are unannounced, not the dog-and-pony show," she added, referring to the widespread practice of allowing teachers to prepare for the day they'll be evaluated.
Teachers who receive an "ineffective" rating can be fired outright, while those who are "minimally effective" — 750 last year — get one year to improve.
Administrators are under the gun in Washington, too; 66 percent have been dismissed.
"I had to fire the principal of my kid's school. That did not go over so well," Rhee said. "But you can't take on a high-quality evaluation system if you have weak administrators."
Panelists from Miami-Dade County, Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia shared tales of standards raised and contracts won, though few talked quite so tough.
"Those are the very same provisions that we negotiated," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief academic officer of Detroit public schools.
"But we did it in a collaborative fashion, as opposed to Michelle Rhee's Gestapo style," added her union president, Keith Johnson.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.