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Is Michelle Rhee the new face of education reform?

The chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools puts teacher performance at the center of a controversial bid to remake one of the nation’s most troubled urban school districts.

By Sean J. MillerCorrespondent / January 27, 2009

Mingling: Michelle Rhee visits with students in Washington, D.C., where the chancellor is trying to turn the embattled school system into the "highest-performing" district in the country.

Alex Tehrani

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Washington

On a recent afternoon, Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, came out of a meeting to find an e-mail on her BlackBerry describing a problem at Anacostia High School. Two students had gotten into a fight while being dismissed from the cafeteria. A short time later, another student, who was smoking in a stairwell, started a small fire with his cigarette. It set off the fire alarm.

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While the school evacuated to the football field, a third student ran down the hall jabbing his penknife into three kids, randomly.

“You know high school kids: When something happens it sort of causes a [chain reaction],” Ms. Rhee tells me, sounding casual, as we sit in her office. With the fire out and students milling around the 50-yard line, Rodney McBride, the Anacostia principal, calls Rhee to ask whether he should send the students home early.

Get them back in class, is her resolute response. Don’t waste the rest of the day.
The incident illustrates Rhee’s no-nonsense approach to turning around one of the nation’s most troubled urban school districts.

Since she was appointed chancellor in June 2007, the young Korean-American has brought sweeping changes and a stern hand to the Washington public school system. She has fired hundreds of teachers, principals, and administrators, as well as shuttered 23 underattended schools.

At the core of her strategy is a conceptually simple but politically complex maxim: improve learning in the classroom by improving the people who hold the chalk. To do that, she advocates recruiting and retaining good teachers by paying them higher salaries – but cleaning out those who don’t perform.

Her tough approach and willingness to take on “untouchable” issues in education have earned her a reputation as a nonideological crusader who might be carving out a new model for school reform. But critics, including many teachers, see her tactics as heavy handed and capricious. Is she education’s new White Knight or just a Michelle the Knife?

•••

What Michelle Rhee isn’t anymore is anonymous. In the nation’s ultimate media town, she’s become something of a celebrity. On this day, she chats in a TV studio with local talk-show host Bruce DePuyt. A meteorologist at the station strolls in and laments that he didn’t bring in his copy of Time magazine that features her on the cover. He wanted her to autograph it.

“She can sign mine for you and then we can swap,” says Mr. DePuyt. Rhee smiles politely. It is the third time she has been on his show. “She’s one of my all-star guests,” DePuyt says. Rhee rolls her eyes.

The young chancellor doesn’t like to talk about her new klieg-light status or how it affects her job. “I really frankly don’t care all that much about the media,” she says. Rhee is similarly dismissive of Washington’s political rituals, saying at one point: “I’m not a politician, but I am an administrator who has to deal with politics.”

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