Most Likely to Reform

CS-1209-MRhee-Inside1Photo by Barbara L. Salisbury/Washington Times.

After more than two years as the Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, the lowest performing in the nation, Michelle Rhee gives herself an “F.” That’s not to say the district hasn’t made measurable strides under her tenure, but to say that the controversial school reformer, who has fired some 500 teachers, is nowhere near satisfied. In the face of vocal opposition, the 39-year-old remains steadfast in her mission to make the urban school system one of the country’s finest. For her, it’s all about the kids.

By Ki-Min Sung

It’s October 16, a rainy, frigid day, punctuating the end of clear autumn skies in Washington, D.C. Yet, inside the offices of the District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor, the mood is even chillier. The constant buzz of Michelle Rhee’s BlackBerry is ambient noise as she watches district teachers protest their firings during what would be 18 hours of televised testimony before the City Council.

“I fired a bunch of people two weeks ago, so they’re all complaining,” Rhee said, her eyes still fixed on the TV screen. “They’re all up there talking about adult issues. They’re unhappy—they have bills to pay, they have this, they have that. What does that have to do with [the] kids?”

It’s an oft-repeated theme—what about the kids?—with Rhee ever since she took on the Herculean, or some would say Sisyphean, task of overhauling the D.C. public school system, the lowest-performing in the nation. The percentage of high schoolers proficient in reading hovers around 41 percent and fewer than half of them graduate on time. The district also serves some of the country’s poorest families, with 70 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.
Those are just a few of the stark figures that get Rhee so agitated and indignant—and feed her guiding principle, one she has scrawled on a paper easel pad in her office: “Ensuring that adult issues never come before the best interests of the children.”

Easier said than done.

Since Rhee took over D.C. public schools in June of 2007, she’s fired more than 530 teachers, nearly 100 administrators and one-third of the district’s principals, including the principal of her two daughters’ school. Yes, Rhee, with her hefty $275,000 salary, sends her children, 10-year-old Starr and 7-year-old Olivia, to a D.C. public elementary school. She’s shuttered schools that became under-attended as parents fled from the district or stayed away completely.
In other words, this 39-year-old has made some enemies. The teachers union filed a lawsuit to stop the lay-offs, unsuccessfully, and over the past two years, thousands of teachers have taken to the streets in protest.
As a consequence, this change agent is under constant scrutiny. These days, even her appearance is media fodder. Her haircut made news at The Washington Post. And what she wears, be it a pencil skirt or strappy heels, appears alongside descriptions of her education reform plans.

As this issue was about to go to press, a potential scandal was also brewing after several newspapers wrote about a year-old investigation involving alleged sexual misconduct by her fiancé, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, while he was running a local charter school. The old accusations also included alleged financial mishandling of AmeriCorps funds the school had received. The case returned to the headlines last month because Republican members of Congress are investigating whether the Obama administration acted appropriately when it fired Gerald Walpin, a former federal inspector general who investigated the Johnson matter. Walpin had filed a criminal referral to the U.S. Attorney’s office, but both Sacramento police and federal attorneys did not pursue charges.

Johnson’s office told the L.A. Times last month the old charges are meritless.

Rhee was tied to the case because a former charter school employee indicated that Rhee, a member of the school’s board at the time, had attempted to do damage control to protect her then-friend, Johnson.

Some observers speculated that this controversy could derail Rhee’s reform plans, but her office downplayed the matter.
She remains focused.

When Rhee stepped into the chancellor’s role, a shockingly nontraditional choice for a district with an 83-percent African American student population, her mission was to close the schools’ achievement gap and make D.C. the highest performing urban school system in the nation. Although far short of that goal two years later, there has been improvement. According to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests student proficiency, D.C. students made the largest gains in the country amongst fourth- and eighth-graders between 2007 and 2009. Prior to 2007, less than a third of elementary school students were performing math at grade-level, but after two years, close to half are proficient in math and reading.

You don’t have to tell Rhee those numbers, though a significant sign of progress, are hardly impressive.

“We are still ridiculously far from where we need to be,” she offered. “Our performance is unacceptable. People ask me all the time, what grade would you give yourself? And I say, I’d give myself an ‘F’ because we’re still failing the vast majority of kids in the city in the work that we do.”

The D.C. schools are a sharp contrast to those in Maryland, which ranked first, and ones in Virginia, which ranked fourth, in the Education Week Quality Counts 2009 annual survey, which evaluates schools based on student achievement, teacher accountability, chances for success and school finances. The District of Columbia schools ranked worst in the nation.
Failing schools are a major reason many parents who work in D.C. live in Northern Virginia and Maryland. Alternatively, parents can send their children to private schools in the city, such as Sidwell Friends School, where the Obama girls are enrolled and from which Chelsea Clinton graduated. For those without tens of thousands of dollars to spend on education, the public school system offers few options.

“Some of our schools you wouldn’t send your dogs to,” says Kaya Henderson, the district’s Deputy Chancellor. Prior to working under Rhee, she led the D.C. office of The New Teacher Project, a national consulting and teacher recruiting program Rhee started in 1997. In that capacity, Henderson had a decade to assess the challenges ahead for Rhee. “People don’t see some of the things we’re seeing. They don’t understand what she’s seeing and the sense of urgency that she’s working with, when there are schools that look like baby jails.”

That’s why Tijwanna Phillips placed her three children in a city charter school when she moved to D.C. from a Maryland suburb in 2004. At that time, the public schools were “not an option,” she said. Today, however, she has a daughter in a district high school and a son who started second grade in a public elementary school last fall. Her eldest is in college.

“Before Chancellor Rhee, I saw a stagnant school system run by politicians and people who were satisfied with being ranked lowest nationally year in and year out,” Phillips said. “It is clear the old regime was broken and needed major adjustments.”
The 42-year-old, who is a member of a neighborhood advisory council in Southeast Washington, said she sees the failures of the public schools on a daily basis. “I see young men and young women without jobs. I see young men and young women who think that taking care of their family means being engaged in illegal activity,” she described.

“People have been saying the teachers need respect. What about the children who have been neglected for years? Who respects them and their right to a quality education? The answer: Chancellor Rhee. She fights for the children, and that’s all I need to know.”

Phillips testified in support of Rhee at a city council hearing on October 29 over the reduction in force of 266 teachers, which put the mother of three in a newfound spotlight. She supports the controversial teacher firings at her own daughter’s school.

“I have had to deal with some very angry parents because I’ve been adamant about my support for the chancellor,” she admitted. “I’ve had to be courageous.”

Not all parents share this faith.

“She tosses around that statement about ‘adult issues,’” said Iris Toyer, an activist with Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools. “Yet the things she does are all directed at being combative with adults, and somehow she believes that is beneficial to children.

“You cannot fire your way to success,” Toyer added. “She seems to have no respect for teaching as a profession in the sense that the longer you do it, the better you get.”

It’s been one year since Rhee, the first non-African American to lead the school district in four decades, appeared on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom in a classroom. Some saw the broom as a metaphor for cleaning up a broken education system. The Washington Teachers Union took a more literal interpretation.

“This one shot gave the picture the look of, ‘Look, just sweep [the teachers] all out. Get rid of them all,’” WTU president George Parker told PBS at the time. “It was an insult to the hard work that our teachers perform every day.”

Then, Rhee showed her softer side, praising teachers in an editorial in The Washington Post.

She, however, does not back down from her conviction that the teaching profession, as well as the administrative jobs funded by the district, should not be seen as entitlements.

“This system didn’t become the way it is by accident,” she said in her characteristic bluntness. “There are people every day who benefit from the fact that this has been a dysfunctional school district with absolutely no accountability whatsoever. So when you start to change that system and hold people accountable, you’re going to have a lot of unhappy people on your hands.”

Rhee referenced remarks by a legendary teachers’ union founder and president, Albert Shanker, to explain why children’s best interests have not been represented. “He said, ‘As soon as kids start paying dues, I’ll start looking out for the best interests of the children.’ And that says it all. There are all of these adult interests that are out there, but at the end of the day, the kids aren’t paying dues, they’re not paying taxes, they’re not voting, so nobody’s looking out for their interests.”
Throughout her rocky two years, Rhee has enjoyed the unwavering support of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. The 39-year-old mayor came into office in 2007 with education reform at the top of his agenda and appointed Rhee as his agent of change. She warned that he could risk his political career by hiring her. He was willing to take that chance. He is up for re-election next year.

Under a restructured system that places the school district directly under the mayor’s supervision, Rhee answers only to Fenty, and that has given her considerable latitude.

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his schools chancellor Joel Klein similarly restructured the public schools in that city several years ago. Klein, in fact, was the one who recommended Rhee to Fenty when he was looking to hire the district’s sixth chancellor in 10 years. Since then, she has quickly emerged as the public face of education reform: her Asian female face, no less.

“She doesn’t obviously fit the mold (of a chancellor) compared to what a lot of people expect, but she ultimately does what she believes is right in her heart,” says Rhee’s older brother Erik. “A lot of people mistake that passion for something they see as negative.”

That passion can be blamed for putting talks of teacher compensation reform on ice. A flawed compensation system is at the core of failing schools, Rhee has long said. The old system based on seniority does not reward great teachers nor does it punish terrible teachers. That’s why she has pushed for merit-based pay and offered teachers the chance to make $130,000 salaries in exchange for tenure. It’s a program the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is offering to support financially. Teachers can maintain the option of tenure, but for a reduced salary.

But the Washington Teachers Union, along with the American Federation of Teachers, is up in arms about all the teacher firings and school closures. Lawsuits and contentious marathon city council hearings have replaced any meaningful negotiations between the parties.

As hard as Rhee comes down on teachers, it’s largely because she holds the position of influence as sacred. “If you have three highly effective teachers in a row, it can literally change your life trajectory,” she has said during the multiple speeches she gives around the country. For that reason, under her leadership, the district has seen a 400 percent increase in professional development dollars.

This conviction is also rooted in personal experience.

As a young Cornell University graduate, she joined Teach For America, the teacher training program that places recent college graduates in poor school districts across the country. Her first assignment was teaching second grade at Harlem Park Elemenary School in Baltimore. It was a disaster. She had no control over her classroom. Instead of using blocks as learning tools, her 35-plus kids would hurl them at each another.

She spent the summer strategizing. That fall, she broke down the classroom into smaller groups, which were team-taught along with another teacher. The teachers offered tutoring after school and on weekends. Soon, Rhee became that teacher known around school whose class you don’t mess around in. Even insects were shown no mercy, including one errant bee that floated into Rhee’s classroom, eliciting screams of excitement from the students.

“They were all focused on the bee and what I was trying to do was say it’s not worth focusing on the bee,” Rhee recalled what has become a famously-told story in profiles about her. “Focus on the teacher.”

In order to silence the children, she swatted the bee with some papers, grabbed it and swallowed it. “The kids were like, ‘Ew, that’s so nasty!’ And then they thought I was a little crazy after that, which was a good thing.”

Along with improved classroom behavior came a jump in students’ test scores.

“I saw how different teachers would have a wildly different impact on their kids,” said Rhee, “and it didn’t have anything to do with how long people had been there or what race they were or anything like that. It’s just that some teachers were incredibly effective and did amazing things for kids, and other teachers, not as much.”

Rhee’s own privileged life actually built the foundation for her current drive to provide even the poorest of children the finest education. Reared in Toledo, Ohio, she attended private school. The community and her classmates were mostly white. Dad was a doctor, mom owned a clothing boutique.

Rhee’s father made sure she and her brother were well aware of their fortunate circumstances. “That difference was always at the very front of my mind and something that my dad instilled in us—that you’re not special, you’re not all that good. It’s just because of the family you’re born into. You’re lucky to have the things you do.”

A point driven home when Rhee made the journey from Toledo to Baltimore.

“The private school I went to, the kids got the best of everything. Even the dumbest kids, like the biggest jokers, all went off to college because their parents had money,” Rhee said. “And then I was in these poor communities [in Baltimore] where these kids were immensely talented, and I knew that, because they were getting such a crappy education, they weren’t go to be able to be successful in life.”

After three years of teaching, Rhee went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to pursue a master’s. Just before she graduated in 1997, Teach for Amercia founder Wendy Kopp asked Rhee to launch a spin-off, The New Teacher Project, which would contract with school districts to recruit and train professionals looking to make a job transition into teaching. The nonprofit consulting company has placed more than 33,000 teachers so far.

For all of her success at Teach For America and The New Teacher Project, Rhee had never before been in charge of a school district, let alone a school. Before she accepted the chancellor position, she sought support from people she could trust professionally and personally. Henderson was one of those people and recalled an unusual form of commitment that Rhee sought from her.

“The deal was, if you are making a serious oath, these ancient Korean warriors would bite off their pinky and sign their name in blood,” said Henderson.

When Rhee was asked to interview for the D.C. chancellor’s job that spring, she told Henderson she wanted her as her deputy. “I need you to bite off your pinky and know that you’re in it with me,” Henderson quoted Rhee.

“I told her, I don’t have a problem biting off my pinky, and chomp, literally four weeks later, she was chancellor,” said Henderson, who doubted the ritual is in fact rooted in Korean tradition as Rhee claimed.

The outspoken chancellor’s Korean identity has certainly been hard to ignore, given the students she aims to serve are mostly African American. And, predictably, she was met with some degree of doubt and suspicion. The reaction, she said, was not so different from what she encountered as a teacher in Baltimore.

“I think that the African American community at first was very leery of me because the only Asians they ever knew were the Koreans who ran the corner store in the community,” said Rhee. “They weren’t used to seeing a Korean person in the schools as a teacher.

“It didn’t take long for the parents to see that I worked really hard. I was there early, I stayed late, I was really dedicated, and that’s all they cared about at the end of the day.”

To this day, Rhee keeps that work ethic. She literally works day and night, known to respond to emails before dawn and well after midnight.

“I’m like, ‘You need to sleep!’” said her brother Erik. “But she’s driven and she’s committed.”

It’s easy to forget Rhee has a personal life, including two daughters to take care of with her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, who moved to D.C. when she became chancellor. “She and her ex-husband have such a good relationship, it’s putting the kids first,” says Erik Rhee, who remains friends with Huffman. “I really haven’t seen that change at all since they split apart.”

She has also managed to find love despite the workload and swirl of controversy that surrounds her.

After reporters spotted a diamond ring on her finger, Rhee recently announced her engagement to Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player. The two met while she was serving on the board of St. Hope Academy, a nonprofit school that Johnson founded and the one at the center of the 2008 federal probe. He staunchly backed her surprise appointment in 2007 and testified on her behalf. The spotlight on this pair may only intensify as Republican congressmen continue making noise about the firing of the federal inspector general who pushed for charges to be filed against Johnson, and the alleged role of Rhee in the case, if any.

With lawsuits, potential scandals and media scrutiny, it’s almost understandable that Rhee struggles to answer a question about what she does for fun—the only time she breaks from her laser focus.

“Um,” she said, laughing. “This is bad. I don’t have hobbies or anything like that per se. Don’t laugh at me,” she said to her executive assistant Shawn Branch.

“What do I do for fun? I go out to eat,” she said.

“Shop,” chimed in Branch.

“Not very often though. Only when I have to.”

“You do,” he joked.

“If I was a 50-year old white guy, the district would not have gotten half as much attention as it has,” noted Rhee. “I think it’s just such a stark picture of a Korean woman coming into a mostly African American community. I think there’s too much of a focus on me and not enough of a focus on what we’re trying to do and the kids.”

There. She said it again: it’s all about the kids. With the futures of thousands of children at stake, Rhee knows that’s a message worth repeating.