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.
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Rhee seems an unlikely candidate to reform public education. Before moving to Washington, she was running an education nonprofit from her home in Colorado. Rhee had never run a school district – or even attended public school much.
While growing up in suburban Toledo, Ohio, she attended the private Maumee Valley Country Day School. From there, she went to Cornell University. When she graduated, she entered Teach For America (TFA), which is like the Peace Corps for young teachers.
“I was actually surprised when I heard she was going to do Teach For America,” says Erik Rhee, her older brother. Growing up in a community of hyper-achieving Korean-Americans in Toledo, Erik says “the basic expectation was doctor, lawyer, something like that. It was generally understood that you were just going to be successful.”
After joining TFA, Rhee spent three years teaching elementary school in Baltimore. It turned out to be formative for her. “I was incredibly frustrated by what I saw happening,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to do something that would have a broader impact on public education, and I knew that teacher quality was the biggest lever to that.”
In 1997, Rhee founded her own nonprofit, The New Teacher Project, which trains people to go into urban classrooms. A decade later, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who became the governing authority over the Washington school district in June 2007, offered Rhee the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to lead a well-funded but underperforming school system.
The statistics were stark. Washington’s eighth-grade students ranked lowest in the nation in math – only 8 percent scoring “proficient” or better in 2007. When it came to reading, the district was ranked last out of 52 jurisdictions. Still, Washington spends some $13,000 per student, among the highest rates in the country, though large amounts go to special-needs kids.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, Rhee’s education reform experiment won’t fail for lack of effort. She regularly works from 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., up to seven days a week. Somewhere in there Rhee spends time with her two young daughters.
After the Anacostia incident, Rhee attended a community forum where she discussed the district’s five-year plan for several hours. The next morning she was closeted with the City Council for seven hours.
Her brother knows the regimen well. He frequently gets e-mails from her after midnight. “You need to go to bed,” he will write back. Her usual response: “Yeah, soon.”