What's Michelle Rhee's legacy in D.C. schools?
Michelle Rhee visited the Noyes Education Campus in Washington, D.C., in 2009.
January 8th, 2013
04:40 PM ET

What's Michelle Rhee's legacy in D.C. schools?

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

(CNN) - Michelle Rhee hasn't run the Washington, D.C., public schools since 2010, but her time in charge, and her every move in education since, still draw cheers from some and ire from others.

"Rhee is one of worst friends and best enemies of public education," user david esmay commented on an opinion piece by Rhee and former New York schools leader Joel Klein on CNN's Schools of Thought on Monday. Rhee and Klein wrote about a new report from StudentsFirst, the non-profit Rhee heads, which graded states' education policies.

"She's only a standout because she has the political backing to make her so. Her policies in Washington area schools are falling apart now that she and her drive to find funding are gone," William commented.

"I don't see how anyone can take this report or Ms. Rhee seriously," commenter Christine wrote about the StudentsFirst report.

"The Education of Michelle Rhee," a documentary airing Tuesday night on PBS, follows Rhee's time leading Washington, D.C., schools, and examines her legacy there. "Frontline" correspondent John Merrow followed Rhee on her trip to a school warehouses filled with hard-to-get supplies, to the firing of a  school principal and to rallies celebrating higher test scores, some of which are now in question.

Through it all, Rhee still speaks boldly about education and her ideas. Here are five quotes from the film that offer a taste of how Rhee ran the D.C. schools, and what she's done since.

“I am Michelle Rhee. I’m the new chancellor of the D.C. public schools ... and no, I have never run a school district before."

This is how Rhee introduced herself to teachers in Washington, D.C., in 2007. Rhee had spent a few years teaching in a rough Baltimore neighborhood and a decade in education reform, but was a "virtual unknown," when Mayor Adrian Fenty picked her to run the D.C. schools. Her style was direct and her objectives clear - make Washington's school's better, even if it meant changing laws, firing people, closing schools and making adults unhappy.

"We’re not running this school district through the democratic process."

Indeed, after some initial excitement, many adults were unhappy. Scenes show parents angry about school closures, district leaders angry that she defied their instructions, teachers angry about layoffs and firings. Teachers interviewed for the film said Rhee didn't consider that some kids live in extreme poverty or have fallen so far behind that they'd need more than one year to catch up.

In the film, Rhee abruptly explained that she listened to what people said, but she'd still do what she thought was right.

“How can you possibly have a system where the vast majority of adults are running around thinking ‘I’m doing an excellent job,’ when what we’re producing for kids is 8% success?”

Some of Rhee's major - and lasting - initiatives tied teacher and principal performance to student achievement on standardized tests. The documentary features video of Rhee meeting one-on-one with principals, asking for guaranteed increases on tests. She's shown lobbying district leaders to change rules to allow her more control over central office staff. She fires one principal on camera and announces big payouts to educators whose schools post major gains on standardized tests. Her evaluation systems have remained in use in the district.

"In isolated places, could something have happened? Maybe.”

Even now, there are questions about the validity of the huge test score gains D.C. schools had during Rhee's tenure. The documentary pulls together allegations, investigations and evidence that suggest some of the score increases were, as Merrow puts it, "phony." Investigations didn't determine whether cheating occurred, but did reveal a high rate of wrong answers erased and corrected. In some cases, investigations weren't thorough, or were limited to one campus. In the documentary, one Noyes Education Campus administrator reports seeing staff members at school after hours, test books open and erasers in hand. She said she reported the incident, but it wasn't investigated.

In response, Rhee pointed to schools that continued to show steady, or even huge, gains. But "Frontline" reports that with increased security in place, test scores plummeted at several schools - including schools Rhee had rewarded for "unbelievable" improvements.

“I lost the job that I loved.”

Rhee stepped down in 2010, after Fenty lost his re-election bid and Rhee lost her most prominent champion. In the "Frontline" documentary, Merrow points out that Fenty lost his job, along with George Parker, the union leader that so often opposed Rhee's policies. Rhee, he said,  came out "smelling like a rose," running the non-profit lobbying group, StudentsFirst. Her voice remains prominent among education reformers, and she turns up frequently on TV and in magazines.

It's important work, Rhee said, but it's not all rosy.

"Would I rather be in D.C. as the chancellor?" she said. "Absolutely.”

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. spectrum borealis

    Not for thing but.....I find students complaining about the fact that they can't understand what their teachers, instructors or professors are saying because many of them have heavy foreign accents and are mainly focusing and teaching things that have to do with their countries or either comparing America with their cultures. I have also found through research that many parents are illiterate and cannot or have minimal knowledge of today's working knowledge of the high tech expectations in the educational arena. For instance schools are teaching Chinese, calculus,and GRE type multiple choice questions, not to mention computer technology to children in elementary schools. How can parents help their children with homework and studies of this magnitude without being scholars themselves?

    January 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  2. Dustin

    I just saw an article about her on PBS the other night not sure what thoughts I took away from her, I thought at first she had good ideas about how she ran her school systems, until the odd cheating allegations came forward, and how she fired so many teachers, I get you gotta weed out the weak, but this seemed a bit odd, either way she is one stern dictator, who knows what she wants. Even if she has to bend traditional morales to do so.

    January 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  3. Taiwan Teaching

    Fact: I taught 6th-8th grade English for 5 years in Seattle. For all five years, roughly 35 per cent of my students failed and were below grade level. They often came to school without basic supplies such as paper and pencils. Further, they did not do the work. Many missed roughly two weeks out of the school year due to reasons like, "not wanting to get out of bed" etc. I only received calls from angry parents because I "was not doing my job."

    Fact: I left the United States two years ago and now teach at an international school in Taiwan. I teach 8th grade English and history. My students receive half their education in English (they're fluent) and half in Mandarin. This is my second year in Taiwan and thus far I have:
    1. Never had a single student fail my class
    2. Perhaps had two or three students miss more than three days of school in an entire school year (200 days)
    3. Maybe been given late work from about 10 kids
    4. Had parents come all the way to school to thank me for my hard work
    5. Never had one severe behavior problem in my classroom

    Now, I cannot fathom to imagine what many of the commentators on this board are thinking (or will spew in self righteous indignation).

    I really don't even care.

    For those of you listening, what I want you to take away is this: the U.S. education system is failing because of our culture.

    There is hope for educators out there; find a country that values education and instills respect and responsibility in its youth. You'll love your job again and remember how wonderful it is to teach instead of entertain and manage misbehavior. You'll delight at your students' inquisitive natures, breadth of knowledge and skills, and desire to succeed and grow. You'll marvel at their work ethic and progress. You'll be flabbergasted by their respect. And then one day they will forget something or not quite meet your expectations, and you'll be reminded that they're kids and you'll remind them that they're just human and then they'll learn for it.

    And it's amazing.

    Do I believe there is hope for America's youth? Well, that would require a huge culture shift in parenting, societal values, and government funding.

    Suffice it to say, I am not holding my breath from Taiwan waiting for those things to happen.

    January 11, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • Dustin

      You are very correct, the education of our children should start in the home. America's children only spend apprx 25-30 hours in a school building /week, this leaves apprx 138hours of home time, it's the parent's job to get their child ready and prepared for school. it's a shame this isn't happening.

      January 11, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
  4. No Bull

    Whether you lile Rhees or not, the bottomline is that aamerican high schools and America ate going down the toilet. China will overtake the USA.

    January 11, 2013 at 8:19 am |
  5. Alice in PA

    Why does the media continue to report on this Paris Hilton of education? Where is the biography/thoughts of people like Superintendent Kuhn in Texas who are doing the real work of improving education? Ignore this woman and do some research instead of "rheesearch." Her suggestions have been proven not to work for anyone or anything but her and her bank account.

    January 10, 2013 at 10:16 am |
  6. Ted Cook

    I agree with Michelle Rhee that test scores matter.

    But then I see a person who holds no value for the integrity of numbers, which is a core value in science, engineering, and accounting. The integrity of numbers, is the bedrock value of pay for performance teaching.

    Since she put improvement numbers on her resume for her first three years of teaching, she should care very much that those numbers are accurate.

    Offering an $8,000 bonus based on test scores, and then having the people who get that bonus have custody of the tests, and the answers, was a morally bankrupt system that Michelle Rhee was responsible for.

    I respect her, but she seemed a little too carefree with numbers and ethics, two things that are just as important in education as spelling words or reading comprehension.

    January 9, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  7. Marie

    She isn't even at the district anymore and with the cheating scandal and all I think she's toast.

    January 9, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  8. John W Hobbs

    Rhee and her husband , Sacramento mayor and NBA alum Kevin Johnson, stole Sacramento High School, turning it into a "Charter" school . Phony test score improvements and reports of improved discipline led to Johnson's election as mayor ! Rhee's ambitions may propel the both of them to much higher office at all of our expense .

    January 9, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  9. Nunya

    To Rhee:
    It's about someone stood up for our children. Adults will complain, bicker, challenge your decision because they are only thinking of themselves. You get it and I send you my blessing to continue to do what you do. I will look out for your great work stories and hope you can sweep our country. Please let me know if you need help I would love to join your cause. For those who disagree with your methodology let me just say they are complacent because if we leave the school system as it is (which is what your opposers want) then our children will continue to grow up oppressed and uneducated. Perhaps this part of plan/scheme? hmm.....

    January 9, 2013 at 10:19 am |
    • Roman

      This is insulting. You imply that Rhee is the first and only person to ever try to "improve" our education system. Her methods have led to cheating, corruption, and scandal. Real teachers are out there fighting everyday to improve the system, constantly beset by administrators, politicians, and people such as Michelle Rhee and yourself.

      January 10, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  10. TeacherInCa.

    Rhee needs to teach. There's nothing more irritating than someone who thinks they know all the answers, yet has no experience doing it on a daily basis. And I mean longer than a year in Boston. She thinks she's some kind of hero for firing people!

    January 9, 2013 at 12:41 am |
    • TeacherInCa.

      Baltimore. Not Boston. 🙂

      January 9, 2013 at 12:43 am |
    • orly

      So if teaching experience will fix the problem, why do we even need someone like Rhee? There are a lot of teachers out there who are plenty "experienced" and our school system is still miserable. Why arent they fixing the problem if they are the only ones you consider appropriate to do it? I think Rhee makes a valid point, if all the teachers are so good at their jobs, why aren't the kids learning anything?

      I wish Rhee had come to my town. Currently I'm looking for new housing because I have a child that will soon be school aged and live in a district where he would attend a school given the lowest ranking possible by my state. This school was slated to be closed due to it's poor performance, but the community rallied together to "save" it. Now we have a group of parents with a smug sense of satisfaction, proud that they worked hard to ENSURE their kids went to the worst possible school. I'm baffled. Rather than acting like possessive toddlers screaming "BUT ITS MINE, YOU CANT TAKE IT" maybe it's time to look at things from the long haul perspective. Yes you might like Miss Teacher, you might think she's a really nice lady and enjoy chatting with her, you may really not want her job to be in jeopardy, but if your children arent learning from her she needs to go. No one benefits from trying to be "nice" in these situations. You have kids being denied an education and a teacher being denied the satisfaction of being good at her job. Sometimes telling people they aren't doing a good job is the truly compassionate thing to do. The mark of a true educator is having the wisdom and emotional maturity to take that criticism as the gift it is and improve rather than stamping their feet like a petulant child and whining "but its not myyyyyyy faaaauuuuuult"

      January 9, 2013 at 10:00 am |
      • Roman

        In the four schools I've spent a year or more working with, I have never once met a teacher who didn't appreciate criticism and constantly seek to develop. Yes, there are many teachers who have their old school "this is what works" mentality, but they're not opposed to trying new things, either. I've watched a teacher try her own thing, notice it isn't working, and try something else. There are a million factors colliding together to make a child's education potentially poor, and yes, poor teachers is one of those things, but most poor teachers get run out.

        A lot of people complain that good teachers become bad teachers because they burn out, and yet they get too much vacation time and retire too early. Honestly? Teachers burn out faster than a great many occupations - the solution isn't to get rid of those teachers, it's to figure out why they're burning out and address that. I'd rather have one car for 10 years than 5 cars over the same time frame.

        January 10, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  11. Mark O

    Rhee seemed honest and sincere. Going up against a union in a Democratic city she got what she deserved. I'd beg her to come to a city that appreciates her efforts, like mine!

    January 8, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
  12. Scott

    Rhee taught a "few years" in a rough Baltimore school....and now she is telling us all how to improve schools. Another joke making too much money and getting credit for knowing so little. Sarah Palin?

    January 8, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
  13. empresstrudy

    The point that's so unfair is that Americans think any sort of improvement can ever be made and they upbraid people who can't deliver what is impossible to do. American education will never be very good. Mediocre at best. That's it. This is as good as it will ever be and all you're arguing about is how much money to waste and how quickly it gets even worse. After 50 years of these debates nothing's been fixed, no one was saved, nothing improved. America's educational standing has done nothing but dropped. If anything the solution is to give up on all of this and stop having mandatory education past the 8th grade. Most jobs in the US can now be done with no more than that and frankly, a good slice of jobs can be done with less. So aim low, Americans. You can't miss.

    January 8, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
  14. Abby Vaile

    Thank you for the information about the PBS program. I will be closely watching it as I believe Rhee's "campaign" as D.C.'s chancellor to be one of the worst follies in U.S. education history. Even more destructive, however, is that most schools are still being governed with many of the same practices as Rhee championed. I hope this will energize the conversation on the tremendous failure this system has had and continues to have on our children.

    January 8, 2013 at 5:16 pm |