The Education of Michelle Rhee

The DC schools reformer talks about firing teachers, the progress she made, and where she failed. And she reminds the politicians: It’s all about the kids.

By: Harry Jaffe

Since stepping down as chief of DC public schools, Michelle Rhee says, “I’ve gotten like a bazillion offers, and despite all that, what I really want to do is be here for four more years. But I know I can’t.” Photograph by Stephen Voss.

Michelle Rhee cut two very different figures during more than three years as DC schools chancellor. To a national audience of education reformers, she was a brash, tough-talking leader in the crusade to improve public education. But to many in the DC school system—teachers, parents, and students—she seemed uncompromising, closing schools and firing teachers. How could one person be seen in such different lights?

In summer 2007, Rhee was working for the New Teacher Project, a teacher-training nonprofit she had created, when newly elected DC mayor Adrian Fenty convinced her to become the District’s first public-schools chancellor. Fenty had just taken control of the schools—which had had six superintendents in a single decade—and saw Rhee as the kind of strong reformer he thought they needed.

Rhee, 40, was raised in Toledo. Her father was a physician, and her mother owned a women’s clothing store. When Fenty convinced Rhee to run the schools, she moved to Washington with her two young daughters and her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, head of public affairs for Teach for America, a group that places college graduates in public-school classrooms. (Rhee is now engaged to Sacramento mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson.)

As chancellor, she proceeded to close 23 DC schools, reorganize the bureaucracy, and embark on two years of negotiations with the Washington Teachers’ Union. The resulting contract—which eliminates the guarantee of job security in exchange for the chance to earn higher pay and greater support—was seen by reformers as breaking the union’s hold on public education in DC. Rhee left her post in October after Adrian Fenty lost his reelection bid for a second term to Vince Gray.

In an interview a week after she stepped down, she talked about race, democracy, and what she believes it will take to remake schools across the United States.

Beyond that, will her changes here be lasting? What groundwork has she laid for reform nationwide? What’s next for Michelle Rhee?

When you came to DC, what was your impression of the schools?
I had run the New Teacher Project before I became chancellor, so I had been in DC public schools occasionally for the better part of eight years, watching summer training programs, observing our teachers, that sort of thing. When I took this job, I fully knew what I was heading into.

Did you feel prepared to deal with all of the politicians and pitfalls?
If you ask me if I was prepared in the traditional sense of the word, meaning you’ve done this exact stuff before, the answer is no. But I did feel prepared in that I knew exactly what I was going to be up against and knew exactly what I wanted to do.

What were your goals?
Two things that Mayor Fenty and I said at the beginning: We were going to become the highest-performing urban school district in the country, and we were going to close the achievement gap between white and black kids. And a sort of third goal, which we didn’t talk about as much, was we wanted public schools to be the choice that families in the District of Columbia make about the schooling of their children.

Did you make any headway?
We did not achieve any of those goals. Did we make progress on each of them? Absolutely. We went from being last among urban school districts to leading the nation in gains. We leapfrogged ahead of a number of districts. So were we number one? No, but there was some progress being made.

For example?
We grew enrollment for the first time in 39 years this school year.

When you made a decision to step down, did you review those goals and ask yourself, hey, if I stay here for four more years, can I achieve these goals?
If Fenty had been reelected, I knew that if I had another term with this man, we were going to be able to achieve these goals. I was absolutely in it for four more years and had my whole head in it.

Do you have any regrets?
The last day of October, [my fiancé] Kevin asked: “So tomorrow will be your first day not being chancellor. How do you feel?” And the only thing I could think was I’ve gotten like a bazillion offers, and despite all that, what I really want to do is be here for four more years. But I know I can’t—I wouldn’t be able to stay under anyone but Fenty.

When you came, what was working well?
Dysfunction was working perfectly.

Was there anything that was working well in educating kids?
There were some gems of schools—well-known examples like Mann Elementary—but there were also schools like Langdon in Northeast DC that, in terms of achievement of African-American kids, were doing pretty darn well and were on the upward trajectory.

You taught in Baltimore with Teach for America. You grew up in Toledo. Were you surprised at how segregated DC was and how segregated the schools were?
No.

Did you think the African-American kids were getting as fair a shake as the white kids?
Absolutely not.

Why?
That’s what drives my work every day. The experience I had in Baltimore was I went into one of the poorest, most segregated communities in Baltimore. I taught at a school with 100 percent African-American kids, most all of them on free and reduced lunch. I was in the neighborhood where they later filmed The Wire.

What was your approach?
In my second year of teaching, we took them from the bottom to the top on academics, and what I learned from that experience was these kids were getting screwed because people wanted to blame their low achievement levels on the single-parent households and on the poverty in the community. In that two-year period, none of those things changed. Their parents didn’t change.

What changed?
What we were doing with them in school. I know that when I first got here, some people’s concern with me was that I was upper middle class, a doctor’s daughter, a Korean lady who went to private schools.

But that actually solidified in me the injustice, because I went to a private school from middle school through high school and I saw rich white kids who were not motivated, were not particularly bright, were not particularly talented. They all went on to college. After they graduated from college, they came home. They took over the family business. They are now well-to-do and having kids and whatever.

Take my kids in Baltimore who are working hard. They have real ambition and talent. I knew that for the most part these kids who had tremendous talent were not going to be able to make it through college and to have a productive life because of the school system they were in, not because of their abilities or their motivation.

Why do you think the African-American community in DC was so up in arms about you?
I don’t exactly know the answer to that, but I think part of it was clearly I didn’t do a good enough job communicating what my motivations were. And I think one of the unfortunate things that came out in the mayoral campaign—and I know campaigns are dirty and people do what they need to do to get elected and that sort of thing—was, you know, “She’s all about the white people.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The message that the African-American community in Washington got was that she closes schools, she fired our teachers.
That’s on me. That’s my fault. I don’t know what the right path is. I don’t think there’s another superintendent out there who went to more community meetings than I did. I had living-room meetings, I had office hours, I had community forums, I tried to engage the community. But trying to engage a community and successfully engaging a community are two different things. If people didn’t feel engaged, that means that I wasn’t utilizing the right strategies.

What are the new strategies going to be under mayor-elect Vince Gray?
I think they’re going to try a new suite of things, but I don’t know that anybody anywhere has really figured this out.

Let’s go back to teachers. In the ’50s, talented women of all ages and races became teachers because it was one of the only jobs they could get. The quality of teachers seems to have declined. Was the teacher’s contract you devised an attempt to change that whole paradigm?
Absolutely.

By salaries and incentives on the back end, can you raise teacher quality?
Salaries and incentives are what people talk about because it’s sexy. But other things are in the contract—like the teacher centers and the increase in the amount of resources we’re giving to teachers and the fact that we’re going to increase professional development. All that is in the contract, too. We believe that the contract as a whole could go an incredibly long way in beginning to change the dynamic, to make teaching something the most talented people aspire to do.

What about the existing teachers? How do you help improve their quality?
One of the things I’m proudest of is how we’ve changed the conversation and dynamics around human capital and the teaching profession. We just highlighted 662 highly effective teachers at the Standing Ovation for DC Teachers event at the Kennedy Center. These are people who’ve been in the system a really long time. They deserved to be recognized.

Why is that so special?
In education, everybody is “good,” everybody gets tenure, everybody gets a satisfactory evaluation—and that does not actually help the profession. What you have to do is differentiate. So the problem was that when we began to differentiate, some of the policies that were the first to be implemented impacted the lowest performers—they were getting fired. But there was a bigger picture: We also wanted to recognize successful teachers like never before. But that didn’t happen until later.

Not a bad way for you to finish.
I’m glad that on my last day, my last event could be to give people a taste of recognition.

So what do you do next?
I don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out. One of the things I think people would find surprising is that I get 50 percent of my fan mail from teachers who like what I’m doing. They e-mail me and say, “We’re so frustrated. You’re right. We agree with you. What can we do to help?” And I think it’s interesting because you never hear that voice.

So you want to start a new teachers’ union?
No, that’s not me. I’m looking at a lot of things right now, from going into another school district to going into the private sector and everything in between.

Mayor-controlled schools were the rage a few years ago. Did that idea work here?
Absolutely. You can argue with the process, you can argue with the politics, you can argue with the communications. You cannot argue with the policies or the results.

But if you invest control in the mayor and the mayor changes, then what?
Right now you invest control in the school board, and those change even more rapidly.

Where should power in a public school system reside? The mayor, the chancellor, the principal, the teacher?
The parents.

I’m not sure that came across. How do you do that?
Did we sit down with all parents and say, “Here, we gotta go through the school-closing process—everybody raise your hand if you want to close your school”? No. That doesn’t work.

But the biggest parent complaints to us were that they were having issues with teachers, they were having issues with principals, this was not working for their kids. So what we were fixing were the things parents were telling us were not working about the schools.

Give me examples.
The PTA of a school in Ward 5 came to me and said, “Our neighborhood is changing—there are more young people, more young families. You’re not going to get all those families to come to the school versus one of the charter schools unless you do these things: add a foreign language at the elementary level, wire the school for technology, bring in a computer teacher, all this sort of stuff.” And we did all of that.

It seems to me you got a bad rap because of what happened at Hardy Middle School in upper Georgetown. African-American students came from across town to what they saw as a nurturing performing-arts middle school. Then you decided to make it a regular school for neighborhood families, most of whom were white.
Before the whole Hardy situation, no one was accusing me of only being about white kids. In fact, it was probably that I wasn’t paying enough attention to white kids.

So it turned the conversation.
Yes. But I’m not painting myself as a victim. We screwed up. If somebody was creating a narrative about me going in one direction, we didn’t do a good job of correcting that narrative. We didn’t do our part.

What would you have done differently?
People tried to paint Hardy as if it were a great school. Only 50 percent of the African-Americans at that school were testing proficient—which is better than a lot of other schools, so I’m not saying it’s terrible, but it’s certainly not what we should aspire to.

Except that parents and teachers and students develop bonds and relationships that have no bearing at all on data points, on achievement, on those kinds of measurable results. They have bonds that are emotional. Why upset that?
To me, bonds and relationships are secondary to getting a good education. At some point you’ve got to stop the dysfunction, despite the fact that there are emotional pieces to it that are real.

Where did your reforms work?
From elementary schools in upper Northwest like Mann and Janney and Murch to schools like Smothers Elementary in Ward 7, Turner at Green Elementary in Ward 8, and Payne in Ward 6. If you were to talk to those principals, they would say, “I’ve been in the system for a long time, and what I can tell you is we now have the head of the school system and the central office focused on us and giving us what we need, and we now have more of the tools that we need to be able to do this job well.”

How many principals do you have in place now who are good and solid?
I’d say 50 percent of the principals are good and solid. I’d say about 25 percent are relatively new and it’s too early to tell.

And the other 25 percent?
Probably are going to have to go.

What are the one or two things you did that contributed to the success you did have?
I brought accountability. People knew they were going to be measured on how well they were doing in moving student-achievement levels.

And we put intervention in place: If you’re not on grade level, the first hour of your afterschool is academic power hour. You can’t go do dance and other stuff until that hour is over. Saturday academy—we started putting things like that in place.

One of the problems with being a DC public-school parent is that every two or three years the leadership changes and you get a whole new set of rules and standards.
This was not somebody leaving because she got tired of it. This was the people—voters—saying we’re ready for a change. People knew that if Fenty left, I would leave and there would be new leadership in the schools. That’s democracy.

But don’t you want these building blocks you put in place to persist?
Are you frigging kidding me? Of course I want them to last. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into this. My hope is that people learn a lesson from what happened. What people need to take away from this is that despite the fact that she cared more about black kids than white kids and despite the fact that there was progress, people voted for a change.

Fenty gave you carte blanche. Do you think you could work for a politician anywhere else unless that politician looked you in the eye and said, “Go for it”?
No.

Do you think you’ll get that again?
Probably not. I’ve gotten calls from numerous politicians, and their sell to me is “I’m going to give you every bit of support that Fenty did, and I’m going to play the political game better than he did to ensure that you can stay longer.” That’s the sell.

And you’re not buying it?
No. Politicians say stuff all the time. It’s like campaign promises. That’s what makes Fenty so unique—the guy said it, and he overdelivered.

Do you think it’s fair to judge a teacher on test results when kids come to school tired and hungry and freaked out by violence and totally unprepared?
Yes. Because we’re measuring growth. So if you started this school year and 13 percent of your kids were on grade level and then at the end of the year 30 percent of them are on grade level, that’s pretty darn good, right?

And at places like Mann Elementary, you have to look and say, okay, so all your kids are proficient. How many of them moved from proficient to advanced? And what are their reading levels? If they started at a fifth-grade level, did they move to the seventh-grade level? You’ve got to look at it in terms of value-added growth.

Are you happy with IMPACT, the system you developed to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom?
It always needs to be tweaked, and we made a lot of tweaks from the first year of implementation last year to the second year.

A lot of our tweaks were brought to us from teachers. We have a hundred focus groups that worked with teachers to say what worked about IMPACT, what didn’t work. People felt like you could game the system and get a pretty high score even if you weren’t doing all that much, so we worked with the teachers to figure out how to make the rubrics less gameable. They’re now more rigorous, but that rigor actually came from teachers saying these are the changes that need to be made.

Do you see yourself in education reform as a catalyst or a manager, as a pioneer or a settler?
I’m a builder, not a sustainer. I don’t want to become part of the establishment. In ten years I’m going to be 50. I used to be the young upstart. Nobody calls me young anymore. I’ve got ten years, I feel, to make real change.

Why are you so impatient?
I went to this conference the other day, on innovation, and they were talking about how kids who grew up in immigrant families and farm families were the best innovators—perhaps because the farm culture encourages tinkering and such. And I said, “Let me break this down for you: What farm families and immigrant families have in common is their attitude toward kids—‘Shut up, stop whining, and work hard.’ ”

Well, that gets back to parents. How do you change that dynamic?
It’s not just about parents, though. I’m about to get really big-picture on you: This country is in a significant crisis in education, and we don’t know it. If you look at other countries, like Singapore—Singapore’s knocking it out of the box. Why? Because the number-one strategy in their economic plan is education.

We treat education as a social issue. And I’ll tell you what happens with social issues: When the budget crunch comes, they get swept under the rug, they get pushed aside.

We have to start treating education as an economic issue. We need America to become number one again, and the one thing that can drive us toward that is competition.

Look at our little ones—everybody’s great, everybody gets a trophy. No. My kids suck at soccer.

But if you looked at all their trophies and medals, you’d think I was raising the next Mia Hamm. It’s this culture where we want everybody to feel good. We’re not saying, “You lost and we’re not going to give you a trophy until you are number one—so work hard and practice more.” We’re not building that.

How does that relate to education?
Look how we’re treating our teachers. We’re going to treat all teachers the same: You’re all great. No, you’re not. Some of you suck. Some of you are great. Reward the great ones, fire the sucky ones, right?

The education system overall is a government-run monopoly. A government-run monopoly can never produce a high-quality product. You need competition.

That’s not just about changing parents. That’s about changing the culture of this country.

So what have you learned?
I’ve learned that results are not enough.

This article first appeared in the December 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.

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