In the summer of 2007, when D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty selected Michelle Rhee to be the chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools, he made it clear that he wanted Rhee to shake up the chronically underperforming school system — and then fix it.
After two years of frantic — and frantically talked-about — reforms, Rhee has certainly shaken things up, becoming one of the few city school chancellors to earn national recognition, for better or worse.
But back at home, Rhee insists she has also begun the dirty work of fixing a broken school system.
In an interview with The Washington Diplomat from her spacious office on North Capitol Street, Rhee said she’s encouraged by the improvements Washington’s schools have achieved, but much more needs to be done.
“We’ve made tremendous progress. If you look at the trajectory of the last two years, we feel like we’re on track. But overall we’re still incredibly far behind where we need to be to be able to say we’re serving our children well and to say that we’re delivering a quality education for our kids. We’re nowhere near that,” she said.
“This was the worst performing, most dysfunctional school district in the country,” she added. “It got to the point that people in this city could no longer deny that some sort of radical change was necessary. It wasn’t about frittering around the edges. Everyone knew that wholesale change was needed.”
And Rhee hasn’t been shy about implementing that radical change — inspiring widespread admiration and scorn. She’s a constant source of debate on both the local and national stage — even earning a mention during the 2008 presidential campaign debates. She has been profiled by Time magazine (photographed with a broom on the cover for her effort to clean up the system), Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor and countless others publications — praised as a “revolutionary” and an “agent of change” for her drive to shut down failing schools, shut out bad teachers, and reward the good ones with corporate-figure salaries. Yet her “revolutionary” approach has also been deemed reckless by many of the teachers she’s run roughshod over during her contentious two-year tenure.
As the new school year begins this month, Rhee hasn’t let up on her passionate battle to transform the city’s schools, and she says that all Americans should be troubled by a system in their nation’s capital that has been in shambles for decades.
“It is especially jarring to know that in the shadow of the White House and the Capitol building we have kids who are being given a disservice every day by this educational system. That should be a big embarrassment for this country,” she said.
Rhee displays an impressive blend of corporate polish and sledgehammer directness. The daughter of South Korean immigrants, she was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and grew up outside of Toledo, Ohio. She graduated from Cornell University in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in government and earned a master’s in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1997.
Rhee taught in Baltimore, Md., for three years as part of the Teach for America program, which she credits with fundamentally changing the way she views education. She’s convinced that demanding, determined and effective teachers are essential for quality education. These teachers, she argues, are far more important than state-of-the-art technology, crisp new textbooks, or stimulating extracurricular activities.
“The importance of a great teacher can’t be overstated,” she said. “Teachers can make all the difference in the world in terms of educational outcomes for our kids.”
In 1997, Rhee founded The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that works with school districts to recruit and train new teachers. The program has helped place 23,000 high-quality teachers in schools across the United States.
On June 12, 2007, Mayor Fenty surprised almost everyone in Washington when he selected Rhee to serve as chancellor of the city’s public school system. At the time she was only 37 and had never served as a school superintendent. She was also not a Washingtonian, but rather a Korean American from Ohio heading up a largely African American school system. But by all accounts, Fenty was not looking for a cautious caretaker or a tidy manager. He was looking for someone to turn D.C. Public Schools upside down.
And the school system needed it. Even when compared to other large urban school districts, D.C. has long been among the worst in the United States. Washington students’ math and reading skills are well below the national average despite per-student expenditures that are higher than any major city except for New York. The school system’s bureaucracy is legendary for its inefficiency and lack of responsiveness to virtually everyone, especially the students.
Rhee stepped into the sprawling chancellor’s office committed to overhauling the Washington public school system, which currently has approximately 45,000 students and 4,000 teachers in 130 schools and an annual budget of about 0 million.
Currently, 90 of those schools are under some form of federal notice to improve under the No Child Left Behind Act. Rhee’s ambitious quest is to make D.C. the highest-performing urban school district in the nation and to close the achievement gap that separates low-income students and students of color from their higher-income and white classmates. Achievement, the chancellor declares, is a function of effort not innate ability. Schools must offer engaging instruction. School facilities should be safe, clean and modern. And the central office that supports schools must be efficient, transparent and responsive.
But before all of those issues could be addressed, Rhee focused on basic problems in her first two years, such as making sure teachers got paid on time, getting children their textbooks at the start of the year, and repairing crumbling buildings.
“You have to take care of people’s basic needs before you can hold them accountable on higher-level things,” she said. “I think we’ve done that. But now comes the hard part. How do we radically improve the quality of instruction that takes place in the classroom every day?”
Rhee answers her own question clearly: Teachers must be up to the task. The centerpiece of her reform campaign is to recruit and reward strong teachers, remove ineffective ones, and dismantle the tenure system that allows poor teachers to become entrenched in classrooms, sometimes for decades.
She believes it’s imperative to create a culture of accountability in which teachers show they are providing their students with a first-rate education and principals demonstrate that their schools are graduating students who have strong skills that give them meaningful options for life. “The question is how do you do this in a way that doesn’t feel like an attack on people’s professional experiences or themselves as individuals,” she said.
Indeed, Rhee herself hasn’t been able to fully answer that question, generating as much controversy as she has praise for her efforts. She has shut down more than 20 schools, fired dozens of administrators and principals, and dismissed more than 100 teachers, often with little explanation. Her blunt style may have bucked the system but it has also turned off teachers, colleagues and sometimes even students.
Rhee has also run into a major stumbling block to her plan of rewarding teachers with higher pay in return for more latitude dismissing or reassigning them, butting heads with the powerful Washington Teachers’ Union and the larger American Federation of Teachers. Negotiating a new contract with the teachers’ union remains a high-stakes challenge for Rhee, who has been working on the thorny negotiations for more than a year.
Rhee has proposed a novel compensation model to allow teachers to choose between two pay scales. On one scale, they could make up to 1,000 in merit pay on the basis of their effectiveness in exchange for giving up tenure for one year. Or they could keep tenure and accept a lower pay scale.
The contract talks have been a rollercoaster ride for Rhee, as union leaders have given mixed signals on whether they will accept her basic offer. They worry in part that teachers will be sacrificing their due-process rights in return for higher pay, and they note the difficulties of determining the metrics with which to properly evaluate teacher performance (also see “Merit vs. Tenure: Heated Debate Over Teacher Pay May Signal New Era in Education” in the May 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Rhee said she understands the complexity of the situation for the teacher’s union. “This is hard for the union. It will set precedents across the country. I realize why the union is approaching it with a tremendous amount of trepidation.”
But she added: “It’s about creating a different culture. One of the positive things about setting expectations higher is that as a system you strive for excellence. Constant improvement is your mantra. We never want to be satisfied. We have to be constantly improving our practices. The best creativity and innovation comes when people are constantly striving for the next level. Shifting to a new culture will not be an easy process or a quick process, but it’s one that benefits our kids pretty significantly.”
And while Rhee still faces enormous challenges, she believes Washington has a rare chance to fundamentally remake its school system. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All of the stars are aligned in a way that will allow this school district to really implement the radical reforms that are necessary. We can see dramatic change in a short period of time which has never been in place in any other urban school district,” she said.
And if the city can improve the education of its children, Rhee says that success could send shockwaves across the country’s other urban schools. “Our first and major goal is to significantly change the life choices and life outcomes of children in the city,” she said. “But we realize as we do that, this has national ramifications. If you take the worst performing school district in the country and turn it into one of the best, you take the excuses away from all the other schools and districts and cities. It also sets down yard-markers for other leaders across the country.”
Rhee understands that her determination to oversee sweeping reforms cannot ensure these changes will be continued by future Washington chancellors. But she hopes that tangible improvements in student achievement and in teacher performance would make it very difficult for her successors to return to the old way of doing business.
“The best we can hope for is that we can have produced such wildly good results that anybody who tries to move in a different direction would be seen as crazy. But there are no guarantees.”
Rhee has had some measure of success so far. Student test scores are up, the physical structures of schools are improving, and far more resources are allocated for the professional development of teachers. Some of the improvements are a double-edged sword though: According to a recent “report card,” the Washington Post noted that “one-fifth of special education students attend private schools at public expense because the District can’t meet their needs. Although the public school system has lost 4,000 students since Rhee’s arrival, the District’s public charter movement continues to thrive, with a projected increase this fall of about 3,000 students (to a total of 28,000).”
Yet Rhee has also implemented innovative programs to boost public school performance, such as an “academic power hour” to provide extra after-school instruction, “credit recovery” courses taken during off hours by high school students to help them graduate, and a billion plan to modernize a dilapidated campus inventory.
Rhee also credits Mayor Fenty’s passionate support for education reform, saying it gives her the freedom to do things that no other school superintendent in the country could do. “I’ve never met a politician who is as committed to public education as this man is. He has supported every single initiative. He has protected our budget in these tough economic times. He’s been absolutely unwavering in his support of me.”
She added: “Every superintendent wants to do what we’re doing. The problem is they don’t have the political cover.”
And contrary to popular belief, Rhee says she wants to provide the same cover to teachers — albeit deserving ones. The single mother of two daughters, Rhee pushes her reform agenda relentlessly from early morning until late at night. The work of a chancellor is demanding, she admits, but it’s much less grueling than the demands placed on a good teacher.
“I can say from experience that teaching second and third grade in an inner-city school in Baltimore, Maryland is a lot harder than this job. This is a walk in the park compared to that,” she said.
“People tell me that I have the hardest job in the city. I tell them that being an effective teacher in a low-performing urban school is the hardest job you can imagine. Our teachers don’t get enough credit for all the things they do every day.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.