Michelle Rhee: Using Accountability to Rescue Washington's Troubled Educational System

Michelle Rhee

Michelle Rhee

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.

Read the Q&A

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?

Move forward.

Next article in "The Daring Dozen 2008" > Roger Weissberg

Comments (3)

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Michelle Rhee Controversy

I have read about Michelle Rhee. I have seen her on television. she is a young agressive out of the traditional box thinker. She wants to do what is best for the children in DC Public Schools. She mirrors many professionals who have avoided the path she has taken because it is not easy.
Some professionals would say she is adrift from educational reality. Some would say that she is duty bound, and that is a good thing. Others would say, she is sensitive yet sensible. How can she be? She's firing people. What are they to do? Still others would probably see her as I do, a fountain head. a fountainhead using an administrative flare that is bold and considererd dangerous. Fountainheads always have diffculty. This fountainhead has set a course that is attempting to destroy the resolve that being a minority, neglected, in poverty, etc. can be dispelled with teacher competency. Whew! Wow!
I am not a worker or professional in the DC public schools. I am an educator, who wonders if I could have been one of those retained professionals able to withstand the chilling winds of Michelle Rhee's change.

Mary E. Fox (not verified)

education of students

I admire the woman for taking on the responsibility of school change and school improvement. If the improvement leads to having teachers let go, then so be it!
I am a teacher and am young at my profession of being in the classroom; I am sixty years old at this time. I have worked with children for the past thirty years or so, being a mother, teacher aide, childcare provider and now a certified teacher. My dream was to teach in a government boarding school and work with the disadvantaged children. I attended a boarding school during my elementary and part of my high school educational years.
I am a teacher on my reservation and the majority of our students are behind academically and socially. A large percentage drop out and try to attend our local community college to receive their GED certificate and they struggle with the math and reading booklets of the tests they must pass to receive the certificate. They do not know how to read at their grade level and struggled with the math at their local school and now they want to finish with a GED certificate. This is part of my story as well. I obtained a GED and went on to college to be a teacher and I struggled academically and raised five children.
What is being done in our schools are revising the curriculum, testing on a daily basis and whatever else they, the administration, can think of! Our children are still behind academically and not improving to this date.
I would like to know what can be done to improve our systems on the reservations? Hire someone like Ms. Rhee?

Thank you.

Mary (not verified)

Michelle Rhee

Michelle Rhee is a good talker. She has captured the imagination of journalists all over America.

However in DC she is known as a despot who pits young teachers against older ones, principals against teachers and the city council against the mayor.None of this helps the Children. She says she puts children's interests above adult interests but she seems to be putting her interests first -- getting national publicity.

Read the Time article, in which she is featured on the cover (dressed in black and holding a broom). She comes across as the bully she is. Also read the local coverage in the Washington Post if you want to see what's really happening in DC.

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