Some of the best scenes in the movie “Waiting for Superman” star Michelle Rhee, acting in her now-former capacity as chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools. In one, she’s simultaneously walking and typing, her tablet computer balanced on one hand and her aides loping to keep up.
In another, she fidgets more than the pupils in a class she’s observing, eventually sidling up to one and whispering, “What do you think of your teacher?” It’s pretty clear she thinks he’s a dullard, why wouldn’t the disengaged kid?
A few weeks back when I saw “Superman” — the acclaimed film that follows the five families trying to find decent schools for their kids — I remember thinking that Rhee was probably one of those attention-challenged innovators we have love-hate relationships with in real life: A whip-smart, effective change agent, but probably h-e-double-hockey-sticks to work for.
And: What did her own grade-school teachers do to lasso that, um, firecracker intelligence?
In October, after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his primary bid for re-election, Rhee stepped down as chancellor. During the three years she had the job, Rhee repeatedly made national headlines by closing two dozen schools, firing hundreds of poor-performing teachers, cutting central office staff in half and proposing a new wage scheme under which teachers could earn up to $140,000 a year but had to agree to give up tenure.
Oh, yeah — and she fired the principal of the popular school her kids attend without explanation or ceremony.
Double-digit increases in test scores
Although her style earned her plenty of detractors, the double-digit increases in test scores achieved on her watch made her a darling of the education reform movement. Since her resignation, job offers have been pouring in.
Rhee signed on to help Florida’s governor-elect make the transition to office, but eschewed the rest in favor of starting her own reform movement, StudentsFirst. She wants to recruit a million members and raise $1 billion in the next year — a tall order, even for a one-time Teach for America recruit who founded The New Teacher Project.
Rhee announced the start-up in a snappy reflection on her efforts in D.C. published in Newsweek. In it, she defends her brisk pace, arguing persuasively that decisions like school closings would have been no less painful if drawn out, but gives herself poor grades for communication:
“I did a particularly bad job letting the many good teachers know that I considered them to be the most important part of the equation,” she wrote. “I should have said to the effective teachers, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about. My job is to make your life better, offer you more support and pay you more.’ I totally fell down on doing that. As a result, my comments about ineffective teachers were often perceived as an attack on all teachers. I also underestimated how much teachers would be relying on the blogs, random rumors and innuendo.”
It’s a great read, and I think it’s particularly relevant to those of us who are interested in education in the Twin Cities. Administrators in Minneapolis Public Schools, for instance, have twice announced plans to close North High School, which has lost 75 percent of its students over the last six years, only to respond to the ensuing uproar by saying they would reconsider if the community recruited enough students to make it viable.
Nor has MPS been able to ink a contract with its teachers union for two years running, in part because of its ham-handed handling of a dispute over back pay. If the district can’t sweeten the pot for teachers, the union has no reason to cede some of the same ground Rhee demanded and give administrators mechanisms for staffing schools besides traditional seniority lists.
(What about St. Paul, you’re wondering? Public school brass and union leaders over there are holding hands and singing Kumbaya as they rush to improve city schools. Tellingly, the union designed the new peer-review teacher evaluation process and, state budget calamity notwithstanding, teachers actually got raises in the last contract negotiation.)
‘We can’t shy away from conflict’
Perhaps Rhee’s most salient observation is that education reform is inherently political, and not Minnesota Nice:
“We can’t shy away from conflict. I was at Harvard the other day, and someone asked about a statement that [U.S.] Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others have made that public-school reform is the civil-rights issue of our generation. Well, during the civil-rights movement they didn’t work everything out by sitting down collaboratively and compromising. Conflict was necessary in order to move the agenda forward. There are some fundamental disagreements that exist right now about what kind of progress is possible and what strategies will be most effective. Right now, what we need to do is fight. We can be respectful about it. But this is the time to stand up and say what you believe, not sweep the issues under the rug so that we can feel good about getting along.”