Michelle Rhee: The self-proclaimed radical

Michelle Rhee brings her take on education reform to Seattle.
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Michelle Rhee marching in the 2010 D.C. Pride Parade.

Michelle Rhee brings her take on education reform to Seattle.

“If you never take your head out of the sand, then no one can knock it down,” a friend once commented after being criticized for proposing changes to longstanding PTA procedures at our kids’ elementary school. At issue was her attempt to develop a strategic plan with measurable outcomes for the PTA, which did not sit well with longtime volunteers, who were used to responding to school needs rather than initiating change.  It was a struggle I saw played out year after year, through several PTA administrations.

The tug of war between operating a school like a business with measurable “best practices” and creating a welcoming learning environment for a wide range of kids is at the crux of our national debate on education.

Depending on whom you ask, Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools, founder of The New Teacher Project and founder and current CEO of the education advocacy group StudentsFirst, is either on the right or the wrong side of the rope.

The protestors outside Seattle Town Hall last night, where Rhee was scheduled to speak about her new book “Radical, Fighting to Put Students First” complained that her reliance on standardized testing reinforces institutionalized racism and limits creativity in the classroom. They are wary of her corporate supporters and political alliances. They question Rhee’s limited teaching experience (She served one three-year stint with Teach for America in inner city Baltimore and gained notoriety for admitting that she taped her unruly students’ lips closed for the walk from the classroom to the lunchroom).

During her Town Hall presentation and in an earlier conversation with Crosscut, Rhee explained that her book was written in part to dispel the myths that she is anti-teacher and is trying to privatize education. “I wanted to tell my story – how my views were formed, to let teachers see where I’m coming from and give parents a road map for action. I ran a public school system and increased its enrollment for the first time in four decades,” she says. “If I was trying to privatize education, I didn't do a very good job.”        

She claimed she is glad to see protestors — better engagement than apathy. As for her own self-proclaimed radicalism: “It’s interesting that in D.C., which was a low performing school district, I took aggressive steps (such as firing principals, closing schools and shrinking the central office bureaucracy) that seemed obvious to me, but were called radical by others. If bringing common sense to a dysfunctional system makes me a radical, so be it. Everyone should be a radical.”

Rhee will tell you that the education debate has become unfairly polarized.  Rather than being on extreme sides of the rope, most people fall somewhere in the middle.

Though her book feels rather hastily put together, with moments of false modesty, Rhee in person makes a compelling case for the principles she is fighting for. The heart of her philosophy rests on three policy pillars: Elevating the teaching profession, ensuring that families are given options in choosing the right schools for their kids and using tax dollars wisely.  

“No matter what environment kids come from, they can thrive if they are in effective education environments,” Rhee asserts. She believes that cumbersome bureaucracy is often a roadblock to the success of a school or a student. “Children will either rise or fall to the expectations we set for them. It’s our job to create an environment where values are reinforced every day.”

But within these principles lies controversy. In Washington, D.C., Rhee negotiated a differentiated teacher compensation package in which the highest performing teachers were given bonuses (using funds raised from outside donors), enabling them to earn as much as $145,000 in a year.

Later, allegations surfaced that standardized tests in D.C. schools had been altered to improve scores during Rhee’s tenure. She says those charges of systematic cheating did not hold up under scrutiny from outside auditors and the D.C. inspector general and D.C. students continue to make measurable gains on standardized tests.

To her foes, who call her racist and cite poverty as a reason students cannot thrive (and a reason why teacher evaluations should not be heavily weighed by student test scores), Rhee is unflinching. “A high quality education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty.”

Rhee’s sledgehammer approach to education reform and radical publicity (she once fired a principal on national TV, a move she now regrets) have made her both a lightning rod and the poster child for the hubris that often hinders a meeting of minds on public education. But many of the reforms she pushed for, such as strengthening teacher evaluations and an end to the Last In, First Out approach to teacher placement and retention, are now a regular part of dialogue between teachers unions and school district administrators.

StudentsFirst, which is active in 17 states, gave Washington a D+ ranking on its National Policy Report Card. The organization, which works by invitation from governors, legislators or community groups, is not active in Washington and, according to Rhee, the state is "not on our radar."

A D.C.-based friend of mine said, “Her vision and passion were only surpassed by her arrogance and conceit.”

But when asked to describe her most frustrating moment as an education reformer, Rhee says it had to do with D.C. politicians who did not always share her sense of urgency. “They told me to slow down, but they didn’t have kids in the school system. What they failed to understand is that I couldn’t move fast enough for D.C. parents. They wanted their schools fixed yesterday.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick, longtime Crosscut contributor, is the author of "Ruminations from the Minivan" and the blog "Slice of Mid-Life."