Mike Klein Online

Michelle Rhee: “We Need a New Voice” to Advocate for Students

Michelle Rhee is education reform’s rock star.   She’s Madonna, never afraid to be out front, never afraid to speak her mind, never afraid to confront status quo, never afraid to be forced out of her job as Washington, DC schools chancellor because she did the right thing: She advocated for students first.

Technically, Rhee was not forced out.  She resigned in October after Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated by voters.   Fenty put Rhee in charge of the city’s schools three years ago and with her benefactor and protector gone, Rhee saw the writing on the blackboard.  (Or the iPad?)

Rhee’s volatile term included battles over teacher tenure and pay raises, school closures, accountability fights and large reductions to central office personnel.  There was also a perception that Rhee did not listen well.  On the plus side, Washington, DC public school students made dramatic gains in fourth and eighth grade reading and math, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress examination.

The one-time Teach for America recruit who founded the New Teacher Project non-profit in 1997 has already moved on; she turned down traditional job offers to launch StudentsFirst with a typical Michelle Rhee goal:  Raise $1 billion and recruit 1 million members during the first year.

“We need a new voice to change the balance of power in public education,” Rhee wrote in Newsweek magazine’s December 13 issue cover story.  “Our mission is to defend and promote the interests of children so that America has the best education system in the world.”

Michelle Rhee

Rhee is succinct about her Washington tenure.  “Some people believed I had disdain for the public,” she wrote.  “I read a quote where a woman said it seemed like I was listening but I didn’t do what she told me to do.  There’s a big difference there.  It’s not that I wasn’t listening; I just didn’t agree and went in a different direction.  There’s no way you can please everyone.”

Nearly 1,000 system under-performing or unqualified teachers were fired or placed on probation during Rhee’s tenure.   There was a very public battle two years ago over the new teachers’ union contract.  Rhee was portrayed as being anti – teacher in a union-dominated city.  Status quo supporters including some inside the school system worked to discredit her work.  She does not apologize for her goals – students first – but Rhee admits she could have handled it better.

“I did a particularly bad job letting the many good teachers know that I considered them to be the most important part of the equation,” Rhee wrote in Newsweek.  “I should have said to the effective teachers, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about.  My job is to make your life better, offer you more support, and pay you more.’  I totally fell down on that.”

Several studies have reported U.S. public school students are falling behind others worldwide.  Rhee wrote that U.S. students are currently 21st, 23rd and 25th among the 30 developed nations in science, reading and math.  “The children in our schools today will be the first generation of Americans who will be less educated than the previous generation,” Rhee wrote.

“I was at Harvard the other day, and someone asked about a statement that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others have made that public-school reform is the civil-rights issue of our generation.  Well, during the civil-rights movement they didn’t work everything out by sitting down collaborating and compromising.   Conflict was necessary in order to move the agenda forward.

“There are some fundamental disagreements that exist right now about what kind of progress is possible and what strategies will be most effective.  Right now, what we need to do is fight.   We can be respectful about it.  But this is the time to stand up and say what you believe, not sweep the issues under the rug so that we can feel good about getting along.”

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.


December 9, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , ,

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