Former chancellor of D.C. public schools, Michelle Rhee, in the Sacramento,… (Max Whittaker / Reuters/REUTERS )
Jennifer Howard, a former contributing editor of Book World, is a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
If you are, have been or might soon be the parent of a school-age child in Washington,you have an opinion about Michelle Rhee, who ran the city’s public schools from 2007 to 2010. In a town full of divisive personalities, Rhee polarized opinion more than any other public figure I can remember, with the exception of a handful of officials. (Here’s looking at you, Marion Barry.) Either you admire her do-whatever-it-takes attempts to overhaul a system that had become a national embarrassment, or you loathe her as a power-mad, union-busting, school-closing dictator who trampled over teachers, parents and public servants.
I’m a Washingtonian with school-age children who are not currently enrolled in D.C. Public Schools. I watched, closely but from the sidelines, as Rhee set about the overhaul she describes in “Radical.” Her supporters and detractors could probably agree on one word to describe her: formidable. There’s no whiff of regret in “Radical.” By her reckoning, Rhee came in to do a difficult and politically dangerous job, and she did it the way she thought it needed to be done. Once she couldn’t do it effectively anymore, she moved on to bring her message of “radical improvement” to the national stage.
“No more mediocrity,” she writes in what could be a career slogan. “It’s killing us.”
I’ll leave it to others to argue whether Rhee did the right thing here in D.C. But even the fiercest Rhee-haters among my friends and neighbors agreed with her that DCPS needed help. Some schools, especially in the richer parts of town, enjoyed good test scores and high graduation rates. Elsewhere, in my Southeast neighborhood and in other wards, students trailed far behind their peers nationally in math and reading. Many kids didn’t stay in school at all.
“The dropout rate was above 50 percent,” Rhee writes. “The achievement gap was a canyon.” Teachers weren’t sure they’d have the textbooks and other materials they needed. School buildings suffered from a lack of maintenance and repairs. The system was a mess — “a whole different level of bad,” Rhee calls it.
Rhee rode into town in 2007, hired by another lightning rod, then-mayor Adrian Fenty, to clean things up. What she did and how she did it take up about half the book. For all the dust she kicked up, the story as she tells it is not a rodeo of drama. Radical change apparently involves a lot of meetings and negotiations, punctuated by surprise visits to schools, pep talks with confidantes and reminders that kids should come first.
Before Rhee gets into all that, she revisits her first-generation childhood in Toledo as the daughter of strict Korean parents. Respect for teaching ran in the family; close relatives were educators in Korea, a country Rhee’s father calls “education crazy.”
The family emphasis on education sometimes went a little far. Rhee remembers when her little brother, Brian, came home with a lackluster grade. “My mother immediately grounded me,” Rhee writes. Why? “It is your responsibility to make sure that he is doing what he needs to do.”
She tells the story to get at the imbalance of gender roles she grew up with, but it’s tempting to see in that moment the beginnings of her insistence that schools and teachers be held accountable for how their students perform.
In public, Rhee has never lacked for confidence. Those put off by her ego might be surprised by the uncertainties she felt in her early career as a teacher. The word “struggle” turns up a lot. She nearly flamed out during her first year as a Teach for America fellow at an inner-city Baltimore school in 1993. “Day in and day out, I struggled with my students,” she writes. “They simply wouldn’t listen. I would routinely spend the day alternating between screaming at the children, bribing them, and giving them the silent treatment for their misdeeds. None of it worked.”
She stuck it out. From more experienced teachers she learned how to manage a classroom and keep students engaged. “It was then that the light went on for me,” she says. If her students didn’t achieve, it wasn’t “about their potential or their ability or anything else. It had to do with what I was doing as a teacher, what we were doing as a school, and the expectations that we set for them.”
After teaching for three years, Rhee founded a nonprofit called the New Teacher Project, which worked with school systems to recruit more and better teachers. That’s where she got her first taste of DCPS. “The school system was one of the worst bureaucracies we’d run across,”she remembers. Last-minute hiring and staffing decisions made DCPS almost impossible to work with, Rhee says, and the New Teacher Project canceled its contract with the system.