Michelle Rhee’s approach to reform an abysmal school district

November 20, 2008 | By | Reply More

The November issue of The Atlantic features Michelle Rhee, the new 38 year old Chancellor of the Washington D.C. School District.   This is an excellent biography, titled “The Lightning Rod,” which focuses on what Rhee had to do to get anything done at all.  Consider her bold approach:

Since her arrival, in the summer of 2007, Rhee, just 38 years old, has become the most controversial figure in American public education and the standard-bearer for a new type of schools leader nationwide. She and her cohort often seek to bypass the traditional forces of education schools and unions, instead embracing nontraditional reform mechanisms like charter schools, vouchers, and the No Child Left Behind Act. “They tend to be younger, and many didn’t come through the traditional route,” says Margaret Sullivan, a former education analyst at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. And that often means going head-to-head with the people who did.

Rhee, responsible not to a school board but only to the mayor, went on a spree almost as soon as she arrived. She gained the right to fire central-office employees and then axed 98 of them. She canned 24 principals, 22 assistant principals, and, at the beginning of this summer, 250 teachers and 500 teaching aides. She announced plans to close 23 underused schools and set about restructuring 26 other schools (together, about a third of the system). And she began negotiating a radical performance-based compensation contract with the teachers union that could revolutionize the way teachers get paid.

Many of Rhee’s new hires have been from the New Teacher Project: “which would contract with school districts to find and train people looking to jump from their old jobs—scientists, journalists, lawyers—into education.”

I found Rhee’s attitude toward the education of underprivileged kids to be refreshing.  I get so tired of educators finding excuses for failure instead of educating these kids.   The excuses-approach results in millions of kids not being given the education they deserve.   Here’s how Rhee sees it:

In her opinion, external factors simply underline the need for better educators. And while she pays lip service to the realities of urban poverty outside school walls, she dismisses the impact that poverty and violence might have on achievement. “As a teacher in this system, you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring your children are successful despite obstacles,” she told me. “You can’t say, ‘My students didn’t get any breakfast today,’ or ‘No one put them to bed last night,’ or ‘Their electricity got cut off in the house, so they couldn’t do their homework.’”

For Rhee, much of the problem with traditional approaches to education has been the focus: “I think part of the problem of how the district has been run in the past is that decisions have been made for political reasons, and based on what was going to placate and satisfy adults instead of what was in the best interests of children.”


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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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