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Washington’s Bold Reformer

A young school chancellor takes D.C. by storm.


For more than a year, the debate, press coverage, and buzz in Washington, D.C., have swirled over whether someone so different—and so relatively inexperienced—can deliver sweeping change. And presidential hopeful Barack Obama hasn’t been the only one receiving that kind of unrelenting scrutiny.

Michelle Rhee became chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) in June 2007, just after the city’s newly elected mayor, Adrian Fenty, had taken control of the troubled district. She fast became a lightning rod with her launching of a massive reform of a system that burned through six of her predecessors in 10 years. She has come under fire in part for firing principals without warning and closing schools without seeking much community input.

“I didn’t think that off the bat I’d be embraced by the community. Why would I be?” Rhee said in a phone interview recently. “I was the diametric opposite of what people both wanted and expected. Joel Klein [New York City public schools’ chancellor] always jokes that I was the most unpopular choice that the mayor could have made.”

Rhee, a 37-year-old Korean-American whose parents immigrated from South Korea, arrived after a decade at the helm of the New Teacher Project, a New York-based organization that has recruited teachers—many of them professionals willing to change careers—for 200 mostly urban school systems across the country. While she notes that managing 120 employees may not add up to running a school system with almost 50,000 students and more than 4,000 teachers, she says she came to her new $275,000-a-year position prepared.

“I ran a small nonprofit organization, but we had contracts with New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago. It wasn’t like I didn’t know how a large district bureaucracy worked or what you had to go through to move the things that you needed to move.”

Although she was taking over a school system in which 86 percent of fourth-graders lacked proficiency in reading and 92 percent of eighth-graders were deficient in math, Rhee had already filled tall orders. “I took on things that others said was impossible,” she notes. “They said that there was no way of talking people who were making six-figure salaries into taking a 90 percent pay cut to teach in inner city schools. And we showed in city after city—year in and year out—that there absolutely was a group of mid-career professionals who were compelled to change careers and come into education.”

Rhee and the young team she brought over with her also had worked with DCPS since 2000. “We knew a lot of the people here,” says Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who worked with Rhee for 10 years at the New Teacher Project. “We knew something of the politics, and we knew very clearly what the key challenges were here. So we were able to get started more quickly.”

Still, Rhee admits, she never aspired to head a school system, until Fenty convinced her. “I saw the conviction that he had and thought that this is a one-time opportunity to show it’s absolutely possible to have a high performing urban school district,” she says. “After years of poking and prodding from the outside, I was willing to put my money where my mouth is.”

Rhee’s D.C. setting is a world away from her suburban upbringing outside Toledo, Ohio, where she attended private school from grades 7 to 12. “I grew up in an upper middle class household,” Rhee says. “My father was a physician, and he very much raised us with the belief that everything you have in your life has nothing to do with the fact that you were special and everything to do with the fact that you were lucky enough to be born into this family. Because of that, I grew up with this sense of social justice and kids not getting what they need just by virtue of where they were born.”

After getting a bachelor’s degree in government at Cornell University, Rhee joined Teach for America and spent the next three years teaching second- and third-graders at an inner-city Baltimore elementary school before moving on to the New Teacher Project.


Jumping Right In

This past June, the D.C. Mayor’s Office released a list of almost 50 first-year accomplishments by Rhee’s administration, including a national campaign to recruit principals. Applications increased by 350 percent from the previous year to a total of 700, which has provided the district “an excellent pool of potential school leaders to choose from,” according to a press release. Other changes ranged from creating a tracking system to deliver an unprecedented 97 percent of required textbooks by the start of the 2007-2008 school year to the deployment of 6,300 computers for teachers and administrators, the kind of steps one might expect from a school system trying to right itself.

But Rhee says the most significant change has been the transfer of school oversight to Mayor Fenty and the city council. “My biggest takeaway from my first year is that real systemic educational reform cannot happen with the typical governance structure that exists in most school systems,” Rhee insists. “But here, we have a mayor who has taken control and has put all his political capital behind the educational system.” City Council members have so far remained compliant to Rhee’s requests for more authority over hiring and firing. The nine-member D.C. State Board of Education—created when Fenty took over the schools—has quietly confi ned itself to school accreditation, teacher certification, and high school equivalency standards.

That top-down approach has left critics like Iris Toyer, who chairs the advocacy group Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, leery of the new administration. “The legislation giving the mayor control of the schools gives the mayor and the chancellor almost absolute power,” she says. “Now we have two people who don’t have to answer to anybody.”

Rhee’s supporters and critics agree that for most of the past year, it’s hardly been business as usual. Lisa Ruda, Rhee’s chief of staff , came last summer from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where she had served as general counsel and interim CEO. “In Cleveland, we closed over 20 public schools, but we did it over an eight-year period. Here it happened in eight months,” she says, noting the fast pace tested community relations.

Rhee’s decision to shutter 23 schools also happened without significant community input. The three weeks of public meetings that followed last winter served largely to explain her choices, but didn’t alleviate the pain and anger many parents and other members of the community felt. “You cannot drive 100 miles per hour and make those turns safely,” complains Toyer. “The closings did not have to be that acrimonious. When you essentially make your decision and invite the community in for sham hearings, that creates ill will.”

Controversy also followed Rhee’s hasty dismissal of 36 principals of poorly performing schools (an additional seven resigned under pressure), an action she took after meeting with each, armed with five years of mostly lagging test scores and other student performance data. “Parents came to me afterwards and said, ‘We want to know what your decision-making process was. We think we should be involved in the process and we should have a say,’” recalls Rhee. “And I said, ‘Look, I will not hire and fire people by committee. I can take people’s thoughts into consideration—I absolutely did—but at the end of the day, I’m going to make the decision that I think is right, and I’m going to be held accountable. People wanted to know why I fired whom I did, but I couldn’t share that information. If I said, ‘Here are the five reasons that I fired this person,’ I’d get sued in a heartbeat.”

But even some city leaders say that Rhee acted too imperiously. “You’ve got to have more mechanisms for community voices to be heard, and we have a good ways to go,” counters Kathy Patterson, who served on the D.C. City Council through 2006 and chaired its education committee for her last two years.

Tackling Teachers

Rhee has taken an aggressive stance on other personnel matters as well. “She’s certainly bringing new kinds of ideas in terms of negotiations,” says George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, which represents all 4,200 D.C. teachers. “She stretches the envelope quite a bit when it comes to teachers’ job security and tenure.”

At Rhee’s urging, the D.C. City Council passed a bill last January allowing her to reclassify nonunion workers in the central office as “at will” employees, a prelude to firing almost 1,000 who were underperforming. An agreement she negotiated last spring with the teachers union let her reassign teachers from the 23 closed schools to other schools based on performance rather than seniority. In early July, Rhee promptly terminated 250 teachers and 500 aides who had not met the June 30 certification deadline Rhee had imposed when she arrived a year earlier. Many of those dismissed had been similarly warned in 2005 by DCPS’s last superintendent, Clifton Janey, who had not taken action.

“We should have a system in which people are held accountable for whether or not they’re producing results for kids,” Rhee insists. “And if they’re not, then they can’t work here. I think that is revolutionary.” What makes Rhee’s approach so diff erent, say observers, is her ability to change the dynamic with the teachers union. As part of the negotiations for the next contract with D.C.’s teachers, she has proposed a two-tiered pay scale that would increase the earnings of teachers to as much as $131,000 a year if they waive their seniority rights. In fact, Rhee notes that one of her greatest accomplishments at the New Teacher Project was helping to change the contract with New York City’s teachers. “Seniority does not play a role in the placement of teachers now in New York. It’s an open market system,” she explains. “People said that theirs was the most untouchable union, but we got rid of seniority in the contract.”

Changing the Culture

For all of her reshaping of the educational landscape, Rhee has also made it a point to recognize those schools that are working. Before the start of the 2007-2008 year, three elementary schools that had achieved a 20 percent increase in reading and math scores over the previous year were designated the district’s first “Team Award” winners, and everyone from clerical and custodial employees to principals received bonuses of $2,000 to $10,000, depending on their position.

“People were calling in saying, ‘What do we need to do next year to win the Team Award?’ We’ve already seen a very different level of seriousness,” says Henderson, who has also seen an administrative push for greater attendance on test days. “We weren’t making AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress] in many schools because our participation on test days was as low as 43 percent. One of the ‘low-hanging fruit’ things we did was to make sure—by hammering it home in meetings with principals and staff —that they understood the importance of students being there.”

There is also a new “culture of customer service,” Henderson adds, promoted by a newly created Critical Response Team that in its first year responded within 24 hours to 7,000 inquiries—from contractors who haven’t been paid and teachers who think they are on the wrong pay step to parents confused by the school closings. Rhee responded to 6,000 e-mails in her first three months on the job. “She answers every single e-mail from students, principals, teachers, aides—and in record time,” Henderson marvels.

For the 2008-2009 school year, Rhee is promising a change in the culture of D.C.’s schools, literally. “I think that the school closures—while they were not an easy process—certainly were worth it because next year every single one of our remaining schools will have an art teacher, a music teacher, a physical education teacher and a librarian for the first time,” she says. “And the research shows that kids who have access to a broad-based, rich curriculum do better academically.”

Ultimate success for Rhee is essentially “dramatically increased student achievement and a reduced achievement gap.” In his two-and-a-half years as superintendent before Rhee, Janey made widely acknowledged but slow-moving improvements to standards and assessments. Rhee has redoubled those eff orts, with some early positive returns on the D.C. comprehensive Assessment System, the standardized tests that determine whether schools are making AYP. For the 2007-2008 school year, 46 percent of elementary school students tested proficiently in reading and 40 percent in math, increases of 8 and 11 points respectively over the 2006-2007 year. D.C.’s secondary school students saw 9-point increases in each category.

Fearless, Not Reckless

Henderson identifies high expectations, a sense of urgency, and fearlessness as Rhee’s dominant qualities, all focused, she adds, on a larger consideration. “She has a genuine interest in and concern for the kids. We’ll sit there and argue the merits of different strategies, and she’ll say, ‘What do you think is best for kids?’ And the room stops. I’ve worked in school districts across the country, and that priority is rarer than you would ever imagine.”

“She’s a great boss,” Henderson adds. “If you say, ‘I want to swing from the moon,’ and you have a plan and can guarantee results, she’ll let you swing from the moon.”

"She answers every e-mail from students, principals, teachers, aides-in record time." -Kaya Henderson, deputy chancellor , District of Columbia Public Schools

Ruda offers her own positive take. “If you say, ‘Hey, Boss, you need to do A, B, C and D before you act,’ she’ll listen. She knows that good decisions executed poorly become bad decisions. She’s fearless, but she’s not reckless.”

“I also give her props for trying to put a team together to cover the gaps in her own background,” says Ruda, referring to Rhee’s hiring moves. “This is a woman willing to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m not the instructional leader here, so we need to get someone who is.’”

The Learning Curve

Rhee says that she’s had no surprises. “You name it, I’ve seen it,” Rhee declares of her first year on the job. Her protestations notwithstanding, others who know her say her job has not been easy, starting with the school closings and the community meetings that followed. “She went out every night for three weeks and took a battering,” Henderson says.

“Probably the biggest surprise for Michelle was that the bureaucracy is no joke here,” Ruda chimes in. “She’s got to be stunned at times by how long it takes to get things done.”

Gaining the right to fire central office employees took Rhee six months, she says, and the central office needed two months just to scan 4.6 million loose personnel documents in a process to digitize them.

At the New Teacher Project, staff members had flexibility if policies and procedures weren’t working, Henderson recalls. Rhee continues along those lines, and still holds to the credo “You don’t turn around an organization or a school district by committee,” Henderson says.

Henderson emphasizes, though, that Rhee is hardly going it alone and that the willingness of the mayor to support her with the city’s agencies is making a big difference. “It allows us to provide services we haven’t been able to provide before, and we’ve been able to take some things off our plate that are not part of our core competencies,” says Henderson.For example, DCPS has been able to tap the D.C. Department of Mental Health for additional social workers for students with mental health issues. A new office of Public Education Facilities, created by Fenty and managed by the city, handles the construction of new buildings and improvement of old ones.

Even Rhee’s critics admit that despite their disagreements with her approaches, Fenty’s unwavering political and financial support has put her in an unusual position for a school leader. “That’s a huge advantage that her predecessor didn’t have,” says former city councilor Patterson. “She’s in a position to be protected by her mayor, and virtually every discretionary dollar in the D.C. government has gone to the public schools. Michelle Rhee is the favorite child.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.