Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools
MIAMI – Looking back, Michelle Rhee says there are a few things she didn't do successfully during her three years as chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools.
One: She failed to engage and mobilize parents, residents and community leaders who supported her ambitious education reform agenda, but were never vocal about it.
"The people who were vocal were the people who were opposing," Rhee said in an interview with The Associated Press, three months after announcing her resignation.
The opposition was, in fact, quite loud: Teacher unions and even groups of parents balked at her ideas to close schools, fire teachers, and get rid of tenure.
District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had selected Rhee for the position and supported her reforms, lost re-election.
Rhee, who has been featured on the covers of magazines, on Oprah, who famously called her a 'warrior woman,' and in David Guggenheim's recent documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman,'" resigned shortly thereafter.
Now Rhee is continuing her fight to improve the nation's classrooms through a new organization, Students First. This time, she's hoping to better tap into discontent with the state of public schools across the country.
Thus far, she's raised $1.4 million and attracted 140,000 members, she said. The goal: Raise $1 billion in a year and organize 1 million members.
On Monday, she'll announce the group's agenda, focusing on three areas: the teaching profession, empowering families with information and choices; and developing more accountability.
Many of the ideas are similar to those she pushed as chancellor, though the agenda also adopts practices that have been put in place elsewhere, including parent participation in restructuring schools.
But will this reformer be able to drum up support nationwide?
She'll need to take a different approach, said Emily Cohen, district policy director at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
"Working from the outside in an advocacy organization, a reform organization, is very different from leading a school district from the inside," Cohen said.
Arguably the nation's most outspoken advocate on reform, Rhee, the daughter of immigrants from South Korea, took on one of the nation's most troubled school districts without ever having led a school. She had worked as a teacher at a distressed Baltimore district, and created the New Teacher Project, which works to bring strong teachers to the weakest schools.
She closed schools that were under-enrolled, fired teachers and principals deemed ineffective, and reached what's been described as a landmark contract with teachers, offering steep financial rewards for those who boost students scores.
"She really shook up this city," Cohen said. "People are much more aware of the problems in education because of her."
The changes have been widely praised in education circles, but critics say she didn't work hard enough to collaborate with teachers.
"You either liked her or you hated her," said Jackie Alvarado, co-president of the parent teacher organization at the Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, where Rhee enrolled her own daughters. "There was no middle ground."
"I definitely think we did not do as good a job communicating as we could have," Rhee acknowledges.
Rhee wants her organization to support states and school districts adopting policies that enhance the teaching profession. Rhee argues that 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation should be based on measurable student achievement growth. She said a teacher's contribution to the community should also be taken into account.
Her group will support rewarding effective teachers with higher pay and eliminating tenure, the lifetime job protections that critics say protect mediocre and even incompetent teachers. It also supports allowing the number of good charter schools to expand, while closing those that don't work.
In the area of accountability, Rhee says the organization will push for promoting board and education structures that put students first — including considering mayoral control, as was done in D.C.
Rhee says that Students First, in the long term, could bring resources to districts willing to adopt the organization's agenda. It will also work on informing people on education policy topics that effect many families.
"These policies are a major disruption to the status quo," Rhee says. "But at the same time, we believe it's really hard to argue against the things that we are pushing."
While many districts share similar troubles, there are distinct differences between pushing for reform in the District of Columbia and in communities in other parts of the country.
Mike Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, notes that with districts under even greater fiscal restraint in the year ahead, they may be reluctant to take on costly reforms. He added that Rhee's natural strength is making the case for reform with elites, but that she struggled to do the same in Washington's most disadvantaged communities.
"I would leave the grass-roots organizing to someone else, someone who might have more credibility in the community," Petrilli said.
Rhee says her group will only go into communities where they are invited, and that they've already gotten a strong amount of interest, though no official collaborations have been announced.
For now, her staff is slim — just six full-time workers. She's also serving on the education transition team for Florida Governor Rick Scott. The schedule, Rhee says, has been hectic.
In Washington, she was known for responding to tens of thousands of e-mails each year, and keeping long, 18-hour days. Her current schedule hasn't changed that much.
"Since we announced the launch, I've pretty much been traveling nonstop," she says.