Your editor has been a tad too busy focusing on the impact of Michael Brown’s alleged murder in Ferguson, as well as other pieces, to think much about Michelle Rhee’s departure from StudentsFirst. Others, as you know, haven’t ignored it. As you would have expect given the divisiveness that surrounds anything regarding Rhee, Stephanie Simon of Politico an inside-the-Beltway-stenographer-like not-for-attribution-quote laden gossip piece about Rhee’s tenure at the outfit. That piece, in turn, has been rightly lambasted by This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo and Andy Rotherham of Eduwonk (along with Rhee’s soon-to-be former underlings) for being way below Simon’s usually-higher standard of reporting. Traditionalists such as once-respectable educational historian Diane Ravitch are also celebrating Rhee’s departure from the school reform outfit. So are, given how Rhee’s presence in the school reform movement crowded out so many aspiring big names, her friendly rivals as well.

transformersCertainly Rhee didn’t accomplish all that she could during her tenure overseeing StudentsFirst. Rhee’s infamous lack of collegiality, along with the envy among rival groups, meant that StudentsFirst wasn’t always successful in building coalitions on the ground needed to advance critical reforms. This was clear in Florida two years ago when its effort to pass a Parent Trigger law was defeated in the Sunshine State senate. Under Rhee, StudentsFirst didn’t hit what I determined to be the sweet spot in advancing reform: Merging policy savvy with hard-core, grassroots activism and entrepreneurial (and operational) drive.

Then there’s the fact that Rhee hasn’t been successful (or even had enough time to) build StudentsFirst from a personality-driven outfit to an institution that will survive long beyond her departure. StudentsFirst has more than enough money to survive for the time being, and after a period of high turnover, now has a top-notch staff that includes chief operating officer Rebecca Sibilia and policy czar Eric Lerum. But Rhee’s failure on the institution-building front is especially shocking, especially when you consider the lasting success of teacher quality reform outfit TNTP and the continuing work of reforming D.C. Public Schools undertaken by Rhee’s successor there, Kaya Henderson.

Yet you also can’t deny that Rhee’s work at StudentsFirst did achieve some important results for our children. The organization’s success in backing strong systemic reformers in statehouses deserves praise. Her embrace of the bipartisan single-issue voter approach in politically advancing reform, an approach that differed greatly from that of groups such as Democrats for Education Reform that have spent most of their time only trying to win support from respective party circles, is one that other reform groups should embrace. This is because Rhee realized, as other reformers have figured out the hard way, that bipartisanship is the only way to break through the ideological sparring and power relationships at the state and district levels that often complicate efforts to advance systemic reform.

Under Rhee, StudentsFirst also succeeded in developing the State Policy Report Card, which has proven to be a comprehensive-yet-simple report on what states are doing (or, in many cases, not doing) in the area of revamping public education. Even better, the report card has shown how even the most-aggressive reform-minded states have not taken on the school finance and pension reform overhauls that are as critical to reforming American public education as expanding school choice and revamping teacher evaluations. Other reform groups should embrace StudentsFirst’s effort and craft their own.

Meanwhile we must keep in mind that Rhee’s impact on the debate over transforming American public education extends beyond her short time at StudentsFirst. Certainly, this can be hard to consider. After all, the clash of egos, both between reformers and traditionalists, as well as among the movement’s players (especially when one of the their own gains heightened public stature as Rhee has), colors every consideration of Rhee’s legacy so far. But we must acknowledge that without Rhee, the school reform movement’s most-renown public figure, and one of its few from minority households (whose second husband is also from that background), the movement would have not advanced its efforts as far as it has.

One of the points your editor always make is that movements succeed in part because of divisive figures who stand by their moral principles, strongly challenge policies and practices that are immoral and abominable, force people to clarify where they stand on matters of great moral importance, and embrace true leadership. Divisive figures such as Thomas Paine, William Wilberforce, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi are the ones who force the positive changes that have improved the world for all of us. And Rhee deserves to be considered among them.

After all, without Rhee (along with Teach for America cofounder Wendy Kopp), there would be no TNTP, whose reports and work with districts on addressing their shoddy hiring practices have provided us with new models for bringing high-quality teachers to every classroom. Without TNTP’s studies, there wouldn’t be the Vergara lawsuits that are challenging morally repugnant near-lifetime employment laws that harm poor and minority kids. For the existence of TNTP alone, Rhee deserves our thanks.

Without Rhee’s strident rhetoric in challenging traditionalist thinking, along with her willingness to use her own bully pulpit to take on traditionalist thinking, discussions around transforming American public education would still be mired in the anti-intellectual civility of false consensus, phony collaboration, and embrace of “best practices” that only serves to keep the status quo ante. While some reformers find this to be discomforting, Rhee’s willingness to call things and people as they are provides much needed-clarity in a battle in which sophistry and demagoguery from the likes of Ravitch and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is the norm.

Then there’s the presence of Rhee herself. Certainly some may have been discomforted by the photo of Rhee holding a broom on the cover of Time. But that very image also attracted much-needed new voices into the school reform movement and galvanized the support among those who never gave much thought to the possibility that systemic reform of public education could be done. Every movement needs its Churchills, its Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs, the controversial big faces who can attract attention needed to drive its cause forward, who can take the barbs of opponents, while others work on the ground to make things happen. Without Rhee (and without figures such as Kopp, Howard Fuller, John Norquist, Virginia Walden Ford, Steve Barr, and Joel Klein), the school reform movement would still be a coterie of wonks, chamber of commerce members, and southern governors. And you can’t transform education without a wide array of voices from all backgrounds fighting for brighter futures for all children.

Meanwhile Rhee’s impact can be seen in Washington, D.C., where she gained fame and infamy during a four-year period as overseer of the district’s turnaround. Certainly Rhee is likely disappointed by successor Kaya Henderson’s less-than-sensible this week to temporarily halt the IMPACT teacher evaluation regime –the hallmark of her tenure and the most-successful performance management effort in the nation — in order to alleviate concerns about the district’s transition to tests aligned with Common Core reading and math standards. [Your editor will have more thoughts on this later this week.] But even with IMPACT halted for the time being, the data shows that Rhee’s reform efforts have been successful in helping more kids in the nation’s capital get high-quality education. The concerns expressed in 2010 by then-Contributing Editor Steve Peha have proven to be unfounded.

The percentage of DCPS fourth-graders reading Below Basic as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined from 61 percent to 51 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Education; the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 14 percent to 25 percent in that same period. The average DCPS fourth-grader reads a grade level higher in 2013 than they did six years earlier. Black and Latino children showed the greatest improvements. The percentage of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined by five percentage points (from 67 percent to 62 percent), while the percentage of them reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by four percentage points (from nine percent to 13 percent) in that same period.

While the percentage of Latino fourth-graders reading Below Basic remained unchanged, the percentage of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 15 percent to 26 percent in that time. The percentage of kids from poor households reading at levels of functional illiteracy have also declined. Between 2007 and 2013, the percentage of fourth-graders eligible for free and reduced lunch reading Below Basic declined from 71 percent to 63 percent, while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels doubled from six percent to 12 percent; the average fourth-grader on free- and reduced priced lunch read at half a grade level higher in 2013 than six years earlier.

This isn’t to say the work begun by Rhee and being continued by Henderson has been an unqualified success. Like other traditional districts, DCPS has not done well on preparing kids for success in higher education and career that is the key marker of success in this stage of reform emerging a decade after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. But that is understandable. After all, DCPS’ overhaul began long after districts such as Houston and New York City began their efforts. There’s also the unwillingness of Rhee and Henderson to address the allegations of test cheating that occurred during the former’s tenure, which continues to cast a cloud on the successes they have achieved. Rhee should have displayed more candor on this front. Period.

There’s also the fact that DCPS is still struggling with improving literacy for young black men, especially those from poor households. Getting this right is critical to the Rhee’s reform efforts yielding lasting fruit. The percentage of low-income young black men in fourth grade reading Below Basic did decline by three percentage points between 2007 and 2013 (from 76 percent to 73 percent), and the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by two percentage points (from four percent to six percent). But the average scale score declined by two points (from 183 to 181); the average young black fourth-grade young man educated in DCPS reads at a grade-and-a-half level below that of his peer nationwide.

Yet Rhee helped spur the reforms needed to help the district toss off its status as the Superfund Site of American public education  — and has given black and white families the possibility that they can send their kids to high-performing schools. IMPACT has shown the way on how districts can effectively use school data in evaluating and ultimately, improving the quality of teachers working it classrooms. Ultimately, Rhee, along with former New York City chancellor Joel Klein and Boston’s Tom Payzant, has shown that traditional districts can be overhauled. Whatever your views on whether the traditional district should continue to exist as a way to provide education (your editor’s views are well-known on this front), Rhee has proven that failure clusters need not be immortal. Rhee has also proven lie to the traditionalist argument that only so-called experts should be charged with operating districts and schools. We need great leaders who understand the challenges facing them, yet are willing to take them on for our kids.

All in all, the school reform movement needs more challenging and divisive figures like Michelle Rhee to continue the transformation of American public education. We also need Rhee to continue playing her part. Our children needs all the strong voices they can get to fight on their behalf.