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Learning the Hard Way

Michelle Rhee '92 aims to overhaul D.C.'s ailing schools On a warm June morning, four rows of graduating sixth graders sit politely on the stage at Lafayette Elementary School in Washington, D.C. The boys are on one side, dressed in dark blazers and ties with hair neatly combed, while the girls, decked out in pastel […]


Michelle Rhee '92 aims to overhaul D.C.'s ailing schools

Michelle Rhee

On a warm June morning, four rows of graduating sixth graders sit politely on the stage at Lafayette Elementary School in Washington, D.C. The boys are on one side, dressed in dark blazers and ties with hair neatly combed, while the girls, decked out in pastel sundresses, perch on the other with hands in their laps and legs crossed at the ankles.

Just a year into her tenure as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, Michelle Rhee '92 occupies a seat in the front row of the camera-laden crowd of parents and teachers who have packed the cafeteria for the ceremony. Fully focused on the students, she smiles up at them as they read poems and give speeches. She doesn't glance at her watch or Blackberry, seeming as relaxed and happy as the proud parents watching this annual rite of passage. Toward the end, Rhee quietly slips out of the cafeteria and hurries toward the exit. Her black heels clack loudly in the empty hall. A reporter chases after her and attempts to introduce herself. Rhee barely looks up from the two Blackberrys she's working like a concert pianist and brusquely nods before racing out the door and climbing into the black SUV waiting to whisk her to a speaking engagement.

Behold the two sides of Michelle Rhee. Whether it's responding to the media or soothing the city council, she has little patience for the political niceties of her job—but when it comes to the students, her devotion is unwavering. Rhee was hired to reform the city's schools—her efforts landed her on the cover of Time in December—and her overarching message is that the system must put the interests of the children over those of the adults. To that end, she has made some drastic changes. In her first year, she closed twenty-three schools and fired 250 instructional para-professionals and 500 teachers. Thirty-six principals and twenty-two assistant principals were not reappointed. She even fired the principal of the school where her two daughters were enrolled.

The decisions were not popular, and Rhee's straightforward, often blunt manner added to the ammunition of opponents who have called her everything from unfair and inhumane to dictatorial. Rhee is aware of the criticisms of her personal style, but she says she's willing to make harsh and unpopular choices to reform the school system. "We're now in the position to staff each school with an art, music, and PE teacher and that's because we have more effective utilization of resources," Rhee says. "To see the kinds of changes we want to see, we have to do things that make people uncomfortable. I'm ready to do those things. I don't have a lot of tolerance and patience for ineffectiveness."

Rhee began her second school year battling for another unpopular change: switching teachers' pay from a tenure system to one based on merit. Under Rhee's plan, current teachers can opt into the merit system and all new teachers must agree to it. Those who prove themselves superior via student achievement can earn more than six figures a year. If she can get the teacher's union to accept her terms, Rhee says, the new system will weed out weak teachers. Her experiment would be closely watched: studies typically show a correlation between student achievement and merit pay, but few real-world evaluations have been done and many education professionals are unsure of how to best measure progress.

Successfully revamping the D.C. schools, long considered some of the nation's worst, would be remarkable—even more so considering that Rhee came to education by a roundabout route. A government major at Cornell, she had "no career aspirations whatsoever" and was uncertain about what to do after graduation. After watching a PBS special on Teach for America, a program that recruits college grads to work in urban schools, she applied. Assigned to an inner-city elementary school in Baltimore, Rhee admits that she had little control over the classroom her first year. Working with another teacher, she figured out how to spend less time disciplining her students and more time teaching them. Over the next two years, she saw huge gains and says the experience showed her that "teacher quality has everything to do with education."

After three years with Teach for America, Rhee left and started the New Teacher Project, a New York-based nonprofit that recruits teachers for urban school districts around the country. A decade later, the group had become well respected in educational quarters. When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty took office in January 2007, he took control of the schools, bypassing the school board. After meeting with Rhee to discuss possible candidates for the chancellor's job, Fenty tried to hire her. She turned him down, saying she couldn't reform the system without causing so much political trouble that she would ultimately be ineffective. Fenty not only promised to take any fallout in stride, but to give her the support she needed to make substantive changes. Rhee took the job.

The city's response was mixed. Many wondered how a Korean American from Toledo with no experience overseeing a predominantly African American student population could succeed. Rhee is the first to admit that Fenty's support and the organizational changes he made have worked to her advantage. She has said she would not have taken the job within a school board structure, because she doesn't believe that real reform is possible under those circumstances. Rhee also believes that her lack of experience running a school system allowed her to come to the job with a "fresh and open mind."

A little over a year into the job, she faces a smaller group of critics, though many still complain about her personal style, calling her cold or cruel. "I have seen her win over audiences that are prepared to dislike her," says Bill Turque, a reporter for the Washington Post who covers the D.C. public schools. "I think some of that 'cold' business is gender bias. I don't think you would have a high-energy male chancellor being described as cold. That said, she is not a glad-hander. She is not a back-slapper." In the meantime, Rhee continues to push forward with little concern for how she is perceived. "Some situations call for being matter-of-fact and making hard decisions," she says. "I'm impatient. Some people call me cold, yeah. But as long as I'm operating in the best interest of children, I'm OK with that."

— Kelly DiNardo '98