Education Reformer Michelle Rhee

During her three years as Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools Michelle Rhee became the point woman for the national debate on education reform by doing what many reformers talk about doing but rarely work up the nerve to do — ignore seniority rules to fire hundreds of underperforming teachers.

By firing 240 teachers, pressuring out 150 more, closing 21 schools, and paying those who remained based on performance, Rhee ignited a firestorm. The politically powerful teachers’ union helped defeat the reelection bid of Adrian Fenty, the charismatic young mayor who hired Rhee in June of 2007. After Fenty lost the democratic primary in 2010, Rhee announced her resignation on October 13, 2010.

“My goal is to continue to be able to serve the children of this nation,” she said at the time, noting that many communities want help in implementing reforms similar to those she had introduced.

After her departure Rhee was accused by the teacher’s union — on sketchy inferences — of having condoned or even encouraged the changing of answers on student tests meant to measure the progress of her reforms. Some even argued that her much-praised reforms had in fact been a failure. They ignore solid student progress on tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) between 2007 and 2009 — the integrity of which have never been impugned — showing that Rhee’s reforms produced student progress not matched by any other comparable urban district.

Rhee immediately capitalized on her national education gadfly status by launching StudentsFirst, a political advocacy organization focused on educational reform. On December 6, 2010 Rhee told Oprah Winfrey on her show that she has declined all job offers resulting from her high profile work as D.C. Schools Chancellor. She announced a goal of recruiting 1 million members for StudentsFirst and raising 1 billion dollars to catalyze education reform in the United States. Rhee also accepted the invitation of Florida’s GOP governor-elect Rick Scott to serve on his transition team.

Rhee’s tough-minded, go-for-broke reforms have influenced the discourse on education around the country. Even one of the presidential election debates between Obama and McCain in the fall of 2008 centered around Rhee’s position on school vouchers. A half year after her departure from Washington D.C., her reforms there remain the focus of political debates around the country as to whether putting the focus on teacher qualification and performance is the best way to raise dismal academic standards in economically challenged inner-city schools.

It’s no exaggeration to say that for years to come Michelle Rhee will remain the American icon for kickass educational reform.

Michelle Rhee was born on Christmas Day of 1969 in Ann Arbor, Michigan to parents who had immigrated from South Korea mid-decade. Michelle was raised in the Toledo, Ohio metropolitan area and graduated from Maumee Valley Country Day School in 1988. She graduated from Cornell University in 1992 with a BA in government. She later earned a masters in public policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Upon graduation Rhee joined Teach For America. She taught in Baltimore’s inner-city schools for three years. During her first year there she made overly talkative students put a piece of masking tape on their lips. When the tape was removed the students’ lips were bleeding.

In the resume Rhee submitted for the D.C. Schools Chancellor post and elsewhere, she claimed that over a two-year period in Baltimore she improved the national standardized test scores of 90% of her students to the 90th percentile or higher from initial average scores in the 13th percentile. Following her resignation a retired Washington D.C. teacher named G.F. Brandenburg published a blog post claiming that he had investigated Rhee’s test-score claim and found them to be false. Other independent sources could neither refute nor support her claim because the relevant Baltimore records were missing.

In 1997 Rhee founded the New Teacher Project, a non-profit that helps needy school districts recruit and train teachers. In ten years the Project expanded to 40 programs in 20 states and recruited over 10,000 teachers. It was the success that D.C. schools enjoyed in recruiting highly qualified applicants through the New Teacher Project that prompted Mayor Adrian Fenty to appoint Rhee to replace the old chancellor of the D.C. Schools system on June 12, 2007. Rhee rejected Fenty’s offer, but relented after he promised her a free hand in performing her job and strong support from his office.

Among Rhee’s first moves in the Chancellor job was to bring in master educators into classrooms to watch teachers at work. It was through this method that she was able to begin weeding out underperforming teachers. She also pushed to change the system under which teachers were paid from one based on seniority to one based on improvements in test scores. These kinds of changes are precisely what the current governors of Florida, New York and Idaho are trying to pushing through their legislatures. In large part, it’s the vehement resistance of teachers unions to these measures that so many charges have been leveled against Rhee after her departure from Washington D.C.

But accounts of her education reforms were received warmly by many prominent figures, including President George Bush and the First Lady who invited Rhee to be her guest at the 2008 State of the Union address.

Rhee has two daughters, Starr and Olivia, with Teach For America Executive Vice President of Public Affairs Kevin Huffman from whom she is divorced. Rhee is engaged to Kevin Johnson, Sacramento Mayor and former NBA basketball player.

Let’s visit each category:

Cheat: This is the newest allegation, arising from a USA Today investigative piece in late March that revisited an older controversy about the high number of test score erasures at some D.C. schools.

The prediction for the coming year: Until Rhee’s opponents can effectively paint her as a cheat/fraud/failure, it is likely we will see more governors and Republican-controlled legislatures unleash Rhee-style reforms. Which means the education fights will become even more polarized, more bitter – all because they focus on Rhee’s issue of singling out teachers.

Read more:

Michelle Rhee became a public face of education reform during her tenure as head of the District of Columbia’s schools, but she found out that reform isn’t always popular, especially when it involves school closings and teacher layoffs.

Rhee stepped down Wednesday, several weeks after the man who appointed her, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in a Democratic primary where Rhee’s celebrated yet stormy tenure was a factor.

“We have agreed that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside,” she said during Wednesday’s announcement, adding that the decision was one both she and Fenty’s presumed successor, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, agreed on.

Education observers suggested that the fast pace of change and Rhee’s abrupt personality might have contributed to her downfall, though not everyone agreed. Others stressed the importance of getting stakeholders to back sweeping change.

“Michelle Rhee did mostly what she was hired to do: shake up the system, be a bull in a china shop,” said Mike Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education think tank.

If there is any lesson in Rhee’s departure for other school reformers, Petrilli said, it is that they need to pay attention to politics. Petrilli blamed Fenty for failing to sell education reform and said he and Rhee were wrong to think that just showing gains in student achievement would bring residents around.

“At the end of the day, school reform is not terribly popular,” Petrilli said. “People will say they support accountability, but if they’re gong to shut down your local school or fire your friend who is a teacher, suddenly reform doesn’t sound so good.”

Larry Cuban, a former D.C. public schools teacher who wrote a book about education reform in Texas, says Rhee took the “sledgehammer” approach of many new schools heads: trying to force reform through quickly. In her first year, she closed more than 20 schools and replaced nearly three dozen principals. Cuban said that approach doesn’t work.

“It fails because it often alienates the very groups you have to cooperate and build partnerships with, and those are teachers and parents,” Cuban said.

Fenty on Wednesday rejected suggestions that the pace of reform should have been slower, and the idea that if it had been, both he and Rhee would have been able to continue their work in a second term.

“We were elected to fix the schools as fast as humanly possible,” Fenty said Wednesday after Rhee’s announcement.

Rhee, who founded a nonprofit that focuses on teacher recruiting, became a national figure during her three years as D.C. public schools chancellor. She appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, graced the cover of Time magazine and drew praise from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Many of Rhee’s reforms were ones the U.S. Department of Education has promoted, such as evaluating teachers in part based on student performance and replacing principals at failing schools. She was also criticized for laying off hundreds of school employees.

George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said he wasn’t bothered by the pace of change under Rhee but rather by her approach.

“There was a certain degree of impatience that caused her to overlook the human element of this,” Parker said. Had she “exhibited a little more sensitivity,” he added, she would have fared better.

Frederick M. Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, disagreed.

“I think the wrong lesson to take is, ‘Michelle should have been nicer,’” Hess said. “It’s the wrong lesson to imagine the right personality would have smoothed over the conflict.”

In the end, Rhee, a former Teach For America teacher, didn’t last much longer than many urban school heads. According to a 2008 report from the Council of Great City Schools, the average tenure of a school superintendent is about three and a half years — about what Rhee’s was. And though Rhee is departing, her senior management is staying in place. On Wednesday, it was announced that Kaya Henderson, the deputy chancellor who worked with Rhee at the New Teacher Project, has been named acting chancellor.

What exactly is next for Rhee is unclear.