The Big Story

Michelle Rhee: a reformer, reformed

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Michelle Rhee sparked lots of emotional fires as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system. Now the firebrand is taking her education ideas to a national level.

As a young Teach for America recruit in the early 1990s, Michelle Rhee took a veteran teacher’s advice and vowed to enliven her Baltimore elementary school classroom. She hung a giant calendar and distributed play money to help the students learn math. She clapped and chanted with her third-grade students. And she divided the class into small groups, gearing lessons toward each skill level.

But Rhee’s early educational tactics sometimes strayed into controversial territory. In a speech to Washington, D.C., school teachers as their chancellor in 2010, Rhee told a story about a day in Baltimore when she taped her students’ mouths to keep them quiet on their way to the cafeteria. Though Rhee later told a Washington Post reporter the students' mouths weren't covered, the story remains part of Rhee lore today.

As perhaps the most controversial figure in American education, Rhee’s hard-charging tactics as Washington, D.C.’s school chancellor, including the firing of more than 200 teachers and the closing of about two dozen schools, made her a household name.

More than two years after she left the district, Rhee no longer graces national magazine covers and garners daily coverage, but she remains vocal in education reform. While Rhee’s efforts aren’t new -- politicians, parents and advocacy groups have been working for decades to, for instance, reform teacher evaluations -- she parlayed the chancellor job into a position that reaches far outside the Beltway.

As founder and CEO of the advocacy and lobbying group StudentsFirst, Rhee is pushing her agenda across the country. With three major goals -- to quantify teacher effectiveness, offer more school choice and shift education spending -- policies championed by Rhee include eliminating tenure, ending charter school caps and increased school budget transparency. She’s had a hand in education reform efforts from Maine to Michigan, and she attended both major political parties’ national conventions this year. The board at StudentsFirst includes journalist Connie Chung, comedian Bill Cosby, former NBA star Jalen Rose and former New York City schools chancellor Joel I. Klein.

“We have to put the laws and leaders in place that will create the environment that allows for really aggressive reform,” Rhee told SmartPlanet in a September interview.

A teaching legacy

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Rhee graduated from Cornell University in 1992 and quickly joined Teach for America, which places young teachers in urban and rural schools across the country. After three years teaching in Baltimore, Rhee pursued her master’s degree in public policy from Harvard. In 1997, she started the New Teacher Project, which she would lead for a decade. Since its inception, the national non-profit has advocated for new teacher evaluation systems and trained new teachers for high-poverty districts through programs including the D.C. Teaching Fellows in Washington.

In 2007, Washington’s new, young Mayor Adrian Fenty passed over more traditional candidates and nominated Rhee to be his school chancellor. Rhee took the job and, unlike many political leaders, enrolled her elementary school-aged daughters, now 10 and 13, in the city’s public school system rather than private school. That decision, Rhee said, motivated her to make some of her most controversial moves as chancellor.

When her new teacher evaluation system pinpointed under-performing educators, members of Rhee’s staff argued the district should let the instructors keep their jobs and receive professional training. Rhee disagreed. “If I let a person stay in the classroom, then I have to be OK knowing one of my own two daughters could get that teacher,” she said. “If we as policy makers and politicians were to make more decisions based on what we’d do for our own kids, we would end up with a wildly different set of rules and laws than we do now.”

Yet Rhee’s firing of more than 200 teachers in 2010 was roundly decried by the city’s teacher’s union, which labeled Rhee’s evaluation system -- heavily reliant on test scores -- as faulty and her decision rushed. Similarly, parents said their opinions were left unconsidered in 2008 when Rhee closed about two dozen schools she deemed failures. Looking back recently, Rhee acknowledged that her public relations skills were lacking and said she neglected to connect the dots for the public between her unpopular policies and her goals. “One of our biggest shortcomings was on the communications front,” she said. “We didn’t do that as well as we could or should have.”

Rhee nevertheless defended her choices. “If you were a parent of a child in the D.C. public schools where only 8 percent of eighth graders were on grade level in mathematics, you wanted change yesterday,” she said. “They wanted to know something was going to change now. I felt like that was my obligation. It’s not to placate the adults and try to make it easier for them to accept change.”

D.C. residents made their opinions known in the voting booth. Fenty’s campaign for a second mayoral term was defeated in 2010, an outcome partially blamed on Rhee’s unpopularity. Though Rhee left the district with her head high, saying her stewardship resulted in gains in test scores, graduation rates and enrollment, controversy trailed her. In 2011, USA Today published an investigation that found “extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests” at D.C. schools during Rhee’s tenure. The pattern of wrong answers erased and corrected prompted an investigation by the D.C. Inspector General. That report, released in August, found evidence of cheating at one elementary school, but was criticized for ignoring other schools with rising test scores and high erasures.

Moving on

After months of speculation about where she’d land -- news accounts reported Rhee was being courted for school administrator jobs by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others -- Rhee went on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show to announce the founding of StudentsFirst, an advocacy and lobbying group working to change educator evaluations, promote charter schools and alter school spending. Rhee, who is married to Sacramento mayor and former NBA all-star Kevin Johnson, now has a work life revolving around meetings with states where she’s assisting legislative plans, fund-raising efforts and grassroots work.

StudentsFirst has raised millions from wealthy donors on both ends of the political spectrum, according to news reports, and is using the money to promote its legislative mission and support politicians and candidates. Since the 2010 launch, Rhee said her group has helped pass legislation in more than 10 states, including a Michigan law to remove the state's cap on the number of charter schools that can open there and a Missouri law that expanded charter access.

In addition, she said, evaluations of teachers has changed. “We’ve passed, in a number of states, laws that ensure that when layoffs are conducted, they’re conducted by quality rather than seniority,” Rhee said.

In Pennsylvania, Rhee counted teacher evaluation reform among her accomplishments. The new evaluation system, in pilots now and rolling out next year, improves on an old model that was highly variable, was focused on classroom observation and was unhelpful in providing teacher feedback, said Carolyn Dumaresq, who is overseeing implementation of the state’s new system. The new model, she said, uses a variety of criteria, including classroom observation and test scores, to determine teacher effectiveness.

It’s similar to Rhee’s evaluation method in D.C., which rated educators almost entirely on test scores and classroom performance. But Pennsylvania’s system will control for issues, such as a student’s poverty or special needs, that are beyond a teacher’s purview, Dumaresq said. (Rhee’s model had been criticized by teachers for ignoring those special circumstances.) “It’s very important that students be able to read and compute on grade level,” Dumaresq said. “But all students don’t come to us on the same level.”

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, didn’t oppose the new evaluation system because it includes multiple measures for evaluating a teacher’s performance and doesn’t overemphasize test scores, said spokesman David Broderic. “The only fair way to evaluate a teacher’s performance is to look at a broad set of indicators,” he said.

Still, Rhee’s efforts continue to face sharp criticism, including complaints she wants to do away with teacher tenure and privatize education through charter schools and vouchers. An anti-Rhee website was unveiled in 2011. In a recent interview with the American Prospect, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch said the charter school movement could learn from public schools. "I don't see any examples of where the charter school movement has been so successful that public schools ought to be learning from them," she said. "I hear this question all the time: Why aren't they learning from charters? Well, there are a lot of terrible charters. Why should we be learning from them? Why aren't they learning from the best public schools?"

Rhee defended charters, saying that while they should be held accountable, the special public schools expand educational options for families and can serve as models of innovation. Rhee said she came to support vouchers during her tenure in D.C., after meeting parents who couldn't afford to move their children to a neighborhood with better schools or score a charter school slot. "I came to support publicly-funded scholarships for low-income kids trapped in failing schools," Rhee said in an e-mail. "I do think any private school that accepts public dollars to educate kids should be held to accountability standards."

But with more education reform legislation in the works across the country, Rhee vowed to continue her mission. “We hope to keep growing and working at the grassroots level to ensure the needs of students come first when policies are enacted that affect our schools,” she said in an e-mail. “We have to continue to work hard to make our voices -- and the voices of kids and families -- heard.”

Photo: Phil Kampel

Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure