Michelle Rhee’s tenure as D.C. Schools Chancellor ends Monday. In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, she and Mayor Adrian Fenty published an “Education Manifesto” summarizing their reform legacy and the breakthrough they hope it represents for other troubled school systems.

Their rallying cry: Education policy should serve the needs of children, not the demands of adults.

That conviction brought Rhee into direct conflict with the Washington Teachers’ Union as she sought to revive one of the worst school districts in the nation. Despite spending $18,000 annually per pupil, D.C. public schools have some of the lowest test scores in the nation, fewer than 50 percent of students graduate on time, and almost one in eight students have been threatened with a weapon.

Rhee focused particularly on union demands, such as tenure, that compete with students’ interests. In 2008, she brought a bold new proposal to the bargaining table during the district’s teacher contract renegotiation. It offered teachers significant pay raises if they would forego tenure and agree to compensation based on their performance.

“At first, union leadership was dead-set against it and simply refused to allow their members to vote,” write Rhee and Fenty. The clash lasted more than two years. But when teachers eventually did get a say, they voted overwhelmingly for a new contract.

Rhee and Fenty describe the contract’s key provisions as a model for other cities to put students first:

  • “It rewards great teachers who accept a higher level of accountability with some of the highest teacher pay in the nation—up to twice as much as they were previously making.
  • “No longer do educators have a job guarantee for life. Ineffective teachers are immediately dismissed from the system. Minimally effective teachers do not receive a pay step increase and have one year to improve their performance. If that doesn’t happen, they are subject to termination.
  • “If layoffs are necessary, the decisions about whom to dismiss are based on quality and performance instead of seniority.
  • “We also instituted a comprehensive system for evaluating teachers, including growth in student achievement as measured by standardized tests (so that teachers who take on the toughest students aren’t unfairly penalized), observation of their classroom practices and assessment of their contributions to the school community.”

While D.C. public education has a long way to go (which is one reason students need private school choice now), Rhee’s contract reform has set the right course.

Moreover, during Rhee’s four-year tenure, D.C. gets the “Most Improved” award:

The improved achievement of our secondary students was unprecedented in D.C.’s history and unparalleled anywhere in the country, with an uptick of 14 points in reading and 17 points in math in three short years. SAT scores of District students are also rising: up 27 points this year, on average, with a 40-point jump for African-American students and a 54-point jump for male students.

D.C. students have benefited from a tough-minded reformer. Now other struggling districts need similar leaders who will tackle the bureaucratic bloat and look beyond spending increases for real solutions to educational stagnation.

Since the 1960s, per-pupil federal education expenditures have more than tripled (adjusting for inflation). Non-teaching staff has increased 83 percent since 1970, while the student population has grown only 7 percent. Meanwhile, student achievement has languished and the graduation rate has hovered around 75 percent.

Resources aren’t lacking. The problem is getting money to the classroom level and to hard-working teachers who can make a real difference for individual students. Leaders who can stand up to the unions and cut through the red tape to accomplish this, like Rhee, will make a lasting difference for American education.