Michelle Rhee: Using Accountability to Rescue Washington's Troubled Educational System
Credit: Peter Hoey
Michelle Rhee, who became chancellor of the Washington, DC, schools last June, is tackling a job that has vanquished six school chiefs in ten years. Her monumental task -- to rescue one of the nation's most troubled education systems -- is one she assesses very bluntly. "We have a massive challenge here," she said in an interview on National Public Radio. "If you look at what we are facing right now, and the achievement gap we have in this city, it is unacceptable."
For example, Rhee says, the differential between the city's white and African American students, as illustrated by their SAT and Advanced Placement test scores, has reached "hundreds of points." And the problem, she says, is the school system, not the students. The city's African American students, Rhee says, are not getting the quality of instruction they deserve. She believes those scores can rise significantly, but it is the job of the adults in the school system to see that they do.
Rhee, a Korean American (thus the district's first nonblack chief in many years) is young -- thirty-eight -- and has never run a school district, but she has come into the job like a well-focused whirlwind. Some of her initiatives, such as school closings, have been controversial, but her straight-ahead, can-do and will-do style has won legions of converts to her cause.
Rhee began her career as a Teach for America teacher in second- and third-grade classrooms in Baltimore. In 1997, she founded the New Teacher Project, which made its mark nationally with an innovative approach to placing thousands of new teachers in low-performing urban schools in cities across the country.
In Washington, Rhee already is making a major impact on the 50,000-student, 144-school district by putting in place methods for tracking student achievement, as well as teacher and principal accountability. She's also instituting new policies that will hold her and her staff responsible for how students perform. As Rhee told NPR, "For far too long, we have failed to deliver the quality of education that our students deserve -- and no one had ever been held accountable for that. The only people that were suffering the ramifications of public schools were the kids, and those days have to stop."
Rhee's intensity, courage, and determination are impressive, to say the least. She is committed, she says, to showing people that the district and all its personnel care about the individuals -- both parents and students -- whose lives and futures are affected every day by what happens in the city's classrooms. In an interview last November, Rhee said, "On the weekends I'm in the grocery store . . . and people come up to me, and they say, 'Thank goodness you're doing this. You can't do it quick enough. Don't give up." She says, emphatically, that she won't.
How do you use the Web or other technology in your work?
Before becoming chancellor, I relied on the Web frequently for research of urban school districts and other information important to my work. As chancellor, my reliance on technology has been through heavy use of email. Because I spend most of my days in meetings and visits in the community, in between meetings I depend on email communication all the time. This allows me to stay in touch with staff, parents, and students regularly, and with automatic record keeping, it helps me keep track of many tasks at once.
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
My staff. I have been fortunate to bring many of the high performers I have worked with before to Washington, DC. Other senior staff members have shown results in other urban school districts such as those in Cleveland, New York, and Oakland, and I depend on their experience and specialized knowledge every day.
Who are your role models?
My parents. I always had what I needed when it came to education. But my parents made sure I knew that my success was a result of the benefits I had, that it should not lead me to believe that I was better or more special than anyone else. They taught me that when people have what they need, they achieve. I remember this when I see schools at 20 percent proficiency levels in our district. When someone says to me that urban kids just won't be high achievers, it's a no-brainer for me to say, "No, I don't believe you, and we're going to do this."
Chancellor Joel I. Klein, of New York City, has been a valuable mentor to me, because he has already shown that all of what I want to do in the district can be done when the will is there.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
It is old advice: Work hard. Identify what you need in order to succeed, and stand up for yourself to get it. Be loud if you have to.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
- A school is only as good as its principal and teachers.
- When you give kids what they need, they will exceed your expectations.
- Improving this school district is about putting the needs of children above the concerns and careers of adults.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
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