May 4th, 2009

Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC
Michelle Rhee in Washington DC Episode 9: Rhee is well-known nationally, but struggling at home

This program was made by possible by support from the Annenberg, The Eli and Edythe Broad, Bill & Melinda Gates, William and Flora Hewlett and Wallace Foundations.

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When we first met Michelle Rhee in the summer of 2007, the first-time superintendent was unknown to most outside of education circles — certainly to parents and teachers in Washington, DC, where she was charged with reforming the city’s struggling public schools.

Not so today. In just under two years, Rhee’s ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach to school reform and her candid discussion of ineffective teaching have attracted tremendous attention from the national press, including The NewsHour. Coverage has appeared on the CBS Evening News and Charlie Rose, and in the pages of Time, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Atlantic.

But to turn around Washington’s failing schools, Rhee doesn’t need national press. She needs local support — and her growing prominence may not be helping.

In this episode, we examine how Rhee’s media presence has affected her pursuit of a revolutionary new teachers’ contract.

(Originally aired May 5, 2009)

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You can watch the entirety of the Michelle Rhee series here:

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Rhee should use that broom even more; a perfect example of the caliber of our teachers today was given on this evening’s newscast, when one of the teachers interviewed made the statement that “our team did really good”. How can they hope to teach English when they can’t even speak correctly?

When I was in school, “education” was known as the “crip” course - an easy degree. Teaching was also considered an “easy job”, with short days, summers off, lots of vacations, and a decent wage. Is it any wonder that throwing more money at the school systems has had so little effect?

Watch it long enough, and the Newshour won’t fail to disappoint you. After a series of informative and thoughtful reports on Michelle Rhee, the Newshour finally stuck its finger in wind, and joined the chorus of Rhee’s detractors. Who is left to care about the education of black children? Just Rhee and a few noble souls like Darrin Slade, but certainly NOT the Newshour. After all, why would the Newshour take on the mighty teachers union, the Keeper of the Status Quo of Failure, and Most Reliable Donor to liberal democrats?

Unfortunately the two posters above do not know what they’re talking about. The vast majority of people with children in public schools DO NOT approve of what Rhee is doing.

Only Rhee cares about educating black children Karoly Meszaros? Give me a break. That question is condescending and ignorant.

Ms. Rhee needs support, but she also needs to have a sense of what is actually happening not what she wants to happen. Without knowing what is happening on the ground, she has made decisions that negatively impact children and teachers.

This woman was hired with no managerial experience, only ideological certainty. Her only prior experience was co-teaching a class for a few years and running a glorified Human Resources company.

While she certainly has ideas to contribute to improving education, she should not have been put in a leadership and management position. Rhee is in over her head. She is not a rock star. She is a fraud.

I agree wholeheartedly with PB and would ask the earlier commenters if they agree with the so called “noble soul” Principal Darrin Slade when he said, “Issues like that (discipline problems) arise from poor classroom management, poor relationships with students, and the big thing, poor instruction.”

If so, take a job at that school, knowing that if a student ever throws a book at you, it’s your fault.

In fact, if what he says is accurate and is accepted by Rhee and other high-level educators, then getting books thrown at teachers could be a quick and easy way of weeding out the bad ones. Forget those tedious performance evaluations. Let the kids determine which teachers are bad by throwing books at them.

I’ve known and worked with a lot of whip-smart young people like Michelle Rhee. They often have terrific ideas, but lack the wisdom and sensitivity that are crucial to bringing a group of people toward successful change. Her insensitivity is nowhere more apparent than in the astounding “broom” picture–which could very well have been only one among a host of shots taken during the TIME magazine “shoot,” but which any street-savvy executive would have refused to pose for. This kind of incendiary graphic confirms the brash, abrasive, smart-ass persona she is content to have adopted and maintained. All this in that most deadly of public policy environments–public education–that is itself notorious for the brittleness and rigidity of stakeholders (unionized teachers, hovering parents, marginally capable administrators, and remote/disconnected politicians). Yes, the system needs, as Sarah Palin so memorably said, “some shakin’ and some fixin’,” but Michelle Rhee is very unlikely to have what it takes to shake ‘n fix the D.C. public schools.

In two years, Rhee has managed to take the system to new lows. We have yet to see her reform efforts. She has only fired experienced administrators, replaced them with inexperienced administrators, created the greatest teacher shortage ever, created such an atmosphere that 5,000 children left the public school system this year alone and has failed for two years to produce a comprehensive budget to fund any school or program sufficiently. Violence has increased during her tenure. No substantive plan or action has occurred to improve student discipline or safety issues for staff and children. She has taken away all autonomy for schools. The only thing that she has successfully demonstrated is her disrepsect for the principals and teachers via her constant teacher/principal bashing on a national stage. She has also demonstrated her disrepsect for the oversight authority (city council)by not showing up to hearings and her refusal to be responsive to parents and communities. She has successfully re-created a bloated central administration that does not support the local schools and she has mastered divide and conquer among the ranks of teachers. No where in the above stated can you find creativity, base knowledge or leadership as it relates to academic improvement.

Here’s Rhee back in August ’08 describing her impressions of City council hearings: “There’s this crazy dynamic [at City Council meetings] where every agency head is kowtowing. They sit there and get beat down. I’m not going to sit on public TV and take a beating I don’t deserve. I don’t take that crap.”

Please note, these are verifiable direct quotes from Rhee. She is not being misrepresented. This is how she has chosen to present herself.

In her Time cover article, she said “Have I rubbed some people the wrong way? Definitely. If I changed my style, I might make people a little more comfortable,” she says. “But I think there’s real danger in acting in a way that makes adults feel better. Because where does that stop?”,9171,1862444,00.html

The Washington Post quotes her as saying “…cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated.”

In the 11/08 Newsweek article, she prides herself on being antisocial: “[My mother] said, ‘You know, when you were young, you never used to care what people thought about you, and I always thought that you were going to be antisocial, but now I see this serving you well. ‘I was, like, ‘Yeah. ‘”

It’s hard to imagine that this attitude serves as a good example for our children or that this management style could result in effective school reform in a democratic society.

Chancellor Rhee was interviewed on News 4 Washington a few days after her 2/9/09 op-ed praising DC teachers was published in the Washington Post. When asked about her column, she said “I think that what the purpose of the op-ed was to be clear about my positions. And I think a lot of the time in the media, people have said, ‘Oh, she wants to fire teachers and she thinks teachers are the reason why DC schools are so bad’ and that’s actually not the case at all. We do have abysmal situations for kids. I mean, if you look at the data, you know that our school district is the worst performing school district in the country. But that is for a number of reasons. And the only way that we’re going to get out of this situation is if we have great teachers. That is the only solution that we have, and so that’s why we’re really focused on it.”

Notice that she never mentions what the reasons are, but that she is convinced that the only solution is “great teachers.” She should list the reasons and explain how great teachers alone are going to solve all the problems.

Then she says, “I think that the talk about ineffective teachers is overshadowing the fact that we have thousands of teachers everyday who are going into classrooms and doing absolutely heroic things with kids.”

Note the above two very forceful and supportive pronouncements she makes about DC teachers:
1) It’s “…actually not the case at all” that “…teachers are the reason why DC schools are so bad”
2) “…we have thousands of teachers everyday who are going into classrooms and doing absolutely heroic things with kids”
Then align them with what she says is the only solution for improving education in DC:
“…the only way we’re going to get out of this situation is if we have great teachers.”

This raises numerous questions: What does she consider heroic? How does she know thousands of DC teachers are doing these things (where is the data)? Why haven’t we heard about these thousands of heroic teachers before? Are teachers expected to do heroic things everyday to be effective enough to keep their jobs? These are extraordinary claims and a person in her position needs to be able to back up her words. Success of our educational system depends on it.

She made another extraordinary claim on her resume about raising her Baltimore students’ reading scores from the 13th percentile to the 90th percentile and used that to form her core belief that “teachers are everything.” However, she was never able to back up that story of rising scores with statistics, later describing it less precisely (but just as dramatically) as “at almost rock bottom on standardized tests” to “absolutely at the top,” She subsequently scaled it down to “most at or above grade level.”,9171,1862444,00.html Clearly, though, she hasn’t scaled down her expectations for teachers, now saying “teachers are the only solution.” But if there are thousands of heroic teachers in the system now and if great teachers are the only solution to improving DC schools, why aren’t the schools good already? Is “heroic” not the same as “great?” It’s very confusing. It’s also frightening to think she has one arrow in her quiver and it’s “great teachers.” It appears that the whole DC school system riding on the Chancellor’s unfounded belief and faulty memory.

When the newscaster asks her about teachers who “put their feet up on their desk and read the paper while their students run around the classroom,” she doesn’t answer directly, first commenting on generally on “ineffective teachers.” When the newscaster tries to pin her down, asking again if there are actually teachers who do that, she responds, “We have teachers, you know, who are out there who do, you know, do some things like that.”

The casual listener could easily hear, “Yes, we have teachers who do that.” But listening more closely, it’s evident that she is being both vague and emphatic. Why be vague? If such teachers exist, it’s doubtful that anyone would defend them. It’s also simple behavior to change – order them to put their feet down and start teaching. Problem solved, without the extreme measures of dropping teacher tenure and changing the compensation system. Also, principals who allow such behavior should have been reprimanded by the Chancellor long ago. She blithely fires principals who don’t “fit,” but apparently tolerates principals who let teachers read the paper while the kids run around. Who’s ineffective now?

If Weingarten, Rhee et al. are heading for “pay for performance” rather than to give up tenure, we’re in big trouble.
“Performance” has not been defined anywhere, and the fact is it CAN’T be defined. Reasons include
— different goals for different subjects,
— disparate factors affecting outcomes (the nature of the student population, teaching styles, parent involvement and support, etc.),
— whether tests exists for a subject and whether these should be included in the assessment of some subject teachers and not others, and most importantly
— whether there are checks on a principal’s ability to intimidate, punish, or malign a teacher in retaliation for outspokenness and union activity.

You can talk about what you’d like to see a math teacher achieve, but you can’t define it in stone.

And if you can’t define it in stone, you certainly shouldn’t be thinking about paying extra for it.

You can’t even tell when a “merit pay” scheme even works. Take the one the UFT installed in some NYC schools. Is it working? Most doubt it. Many good teachers won’t see any extra money and many of perhaps lesser “quality” (in quotes) who will get some extra cash. But as a system, it’s by definition a minefield of inequity, fake accountability, and erratic outcomes. A pretty stupid way to turn things around.

Michelle Rhee was served up to the DCPS as a by-product of the “global economy”. Globalization is at the very foundation of business model for schools, charters, vouchers, data driven instruction, merit pay, standardized testing, and most perversely of all, paying students to consume their version of education. It was the reason the Business Roundtable and Bill Gates were interested in public education at all. The CEO’s wanted a profit making private school system and Gates wanted visas for Indians and Taiwanese who work for less.

Lacking any discernible qualifications, her shocking appointment as Chancellor of D.C. public schools, can be understood only when you realize that Michelle Rhee was brought in to inflict maximum damage on the district’s public schools and its children. And as a cultist (Teach For America, New Teacher Project) and true believer she came at a bargain basement salary. Really qualified superintendents were courted (Mayor Fenty even visited Miami with several members of the D.C. commission to interview Dr. Rudolph Crew) but those candidates would have asked questions. They could not be counted on to mindlessly take a club to D.C.’s public schools. The havoc and chaos that Rhee caused was no accident. It was the plan!

But in the midst of the global economic wreckage Rhee looked around the other day and her financial backers were in trouble. Melinda Gates’ and her husband lost $18 billion of their personal fortune last year, and Eli Broad’s KB Homes and his insurance division of AIG are in freefall. The Gateses and Broad have gone to see about their own survival.

The recent Time magazine profile provides great insight into Rhee’s true mission. In it she denigrates every other adult in the D.C. school system including her staff. She mocks teachers that dare speak of building an emotional connection with their students. She clearly and coldly exploits a true leader at Anacostia High, young Mr. Rhodes, to advance her agenda. She seems to have no use for children being nurtured emotionally in the classroom. Just teach them to read for the test! And make sure there’s no poetry involved!

When the history of Michelle Rhee’s brief tenure in Washington, D.C. is written one of the last chapters will describe Randi Weingarten’s futile attempt to save her and the heroic resistance of the WTU rank-and-file.

Blessed are the union teachers, for they shall inherit the public schools.

A clear case, in part, of lack of media savvy. The documentary is good and shows how much perception counts. It seems to me a slightly better approach might have been to really emphasize all the “other” things being done to improve the schools - accelerated math, etc., increased professional development for teachers, that teachers WILL receive all the support they need….and play down the increased accountability - word travels fast on accountability - no need to make it your rallying cry -

The thought that immediately came to mind with the 132 teachers on 90 day was the increased demand it will place on the support and training systems - trying to get that many teachers up to par -

In the related PBS podcast, Chancellor Rhee says: “A lot of things that were coming out in the press were sort of saying, you know, “Rhee wants to fire people. It’s all about firing people,” and I don’t think that it was a comprehensive sort of view of what I actually believe and so I thought it was important to be able to communicate that.”

A few days later, when the DC City Council denies some school funding based on unsupported projections of a 3,000 student INCREASE in enrollment (when as PBS knows, enrollment has been significantly decreasing), the Chancellor Rhee says this: [The decision will] “negatively impact school opening in August 2009″ and will “impact every school in the District and their ability to recruit and hire teachers.”

“Under the amendment, DCPS no longer has $27.5 million allocated to schools as part of the FY 2010 budget…While it may be restored well after the school year opens, it is simply too late to staff schools. As such, we have no choice but to reduce school budgets and eliminate positions now.”

So, the first thing Rhee thinks of when told she can’t have her way on something, is that teachers should be fired.

^ “when one of the teachers interviewed made the statement that “our team did really good”. How can they hope to teach English when they can’t even speak correctly?”

Seriously? If you think the problems in the DC Public Schools can be solved by using adverbs and adjectives correctly, you show your complete ignorance about education and about the situation in the District.

Clearly you think you could do better yourself, based on your mention of teaching being a “easy job,” so why don’t you come to DC and try it? Anyone can criticize Rhee, and the school system, and the teachers, but something tells me you are less insterested in fixing the schools than you are in arm-chair quarterbacking.

Life in a DC classroom is one that needs to be experienced for all to understand what the teachers really go through. Every new and present Administrator in each school and at the main office where Ms. Rhee works needs to experience a complete grading cycle in the classroom. Once you have that experience, I am sure a different point of view will be developed to truly assist the work toward a comprehensive plan to fix the school system. This comprehensive plan should include music and visual arts. Two areas that seem to always be left out until a plan for education reform is almost complete.

The data is in, if one wants to increase the reading and math scores of students. Teach the students music. Could it be that the overall plan in DC’s education reform is to exclude the main subject that helps students to develop critical thinking skills? Music is that subject and I have had personal communications with Ms. Rhee and she has not once agreed to support the idea that a comprehensive music plan is being included in her comprehensive education reform plan for the Nation’s Capital.

Yes, I am a music teacher and don’t leave Music out. Every student needs the opportunity to learn music. Not just having a once a week 45 minute musical experience. But, in order to develop the critical thinking skills that music helps one to enhance, a student needs more time weekly with a certified music educator. Don’t forget the muisc and the visual arts.

Michelle Rhee provides us with a perfect example of “unintended consequences.” She probably did want to help the children of DC, but by insulting the teachers of the District and uniting unions from across the United States, she has actually made things worse by causing motivated parents and the best qualified teachers to leave the district. DC is now having a difficult time hiring the “best and the brightest” and will probably revert to the tradition of hiring anyone with “a warm body” to fill classroom positions. Didn’t anyone tell this woman about the power of the teachers’ unions?

Did anyone else notice how much more articulate the teacher Randy Brown was than the principal of Ron Brown School? Mr. Brown is no longer teaching at the school. My guess is he’ll get a big fat settlement for the lump on his head and then accept an offer to teach at some posh suburban or private school. You can be certain those schools will know how to keep him happy.

First of all, thank you John for this great website. I watched Episodes 1 through 9 of “Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC” in succession this past weekend. I agree 100% with the Chancellor’s ideas. In general, employees must be held accountable and must produce results. Ladies and gentlemen…This is the real world! The Chancellor’s expectations of DCPS employees are the same as my company’s expectations of me. I must be accountable and must produce results, or else I get to look for another job.

Hello Aaron - I wonder if your company would expect the same results from you if there was a rock band practicing all day in the next cubical and you couldn’t leave.

That’s how it is for some teachers who have students with incredible discipline problems that the administrative does not address.

Yes Arron , do you have clients who try to push you off a balcony ? ( this happened to me a few years back when I tried to take a student to the administration for telling me to get f”"”ked ) or who throw eggs at your house on the weekend . Do you have to work with people who are forced to stay on at work until they are 17 yet who are completely disinterested in what they do ? . Do your clients also stay away from work for days at a time ? Do they have to be constantly reminded to put away their phones or ipod and then when you try to take them off you they run out of the room - or worse throw things or perhaps shout and swear at you ? Do you live with the possibility that if you annoy your clients that they might just try to accuse you of molesting them or of hitting them ? Do your clients have parents who take no damn notice of your phone calls or letters and who then complain bitterly when their children fail ?
If you answer yes, then you are probably a teacher, but given that the content of your post is so lacking in any understanding of what it is like to teach in a tough school ( or possibly any school anywhere nowadays as my experience is in Australia ) you are far more likely to be an educational administrator like Ms Rhee …….

It was interesting to note that the principal of the school (a Rhee supporter) was in the room when Mr. Merrow was talking to the group of teachers after Rhee’s listening session. I wonder what they would have said without his presence? I know in our school, where we are also being pressured to follow a party line in educational “reform,” the presence of any administrator scares all but the most experienced teachers from voicing any objections. The veteran teachers, believing that they were protected by tenure, initially resisted group-think, but we quickly discovered that the principal had other ways to punish us, such as stocking a teacher’s room with the worst kids and then visiting the room frequently to observe the teacher’s “lack of classroom management skills.” As a result, a motivated, hard-working staff which genuinely cared about the kids and were dedicated to improving student learning, are now just going through the motions. We are not treated as professionals so it is very difficult to act like one. Students are less happy, and teachers are demoralized.

Secondly, regarding the statement of the principal that the book throwing was caused by poor teaching or classroom management. This is ridiculous on its face! First, do we excuse a man beating his children because the children misbehave? Do we excuse someone beating up another person because the first person is rude or unpleasant? NO!!!! We prosecute them for assault and battery. The batterer may receive a lighter sentence because he is provoked, but we do NOT excuse the behavior. Secondly, the statement is, tragically, reflective of a common “child centered” view among administrators (including mine). This view seems to be a remnant of Rousseau’s view of human innocence, asserting that kids are don’t mean to be bad, and so we should talk to them and encourage them to do the right thing, rather than punish them. Thus there are few real consequences to bad behavior. Any parent knows that if there are no real consequences, there will be no change in behavior. (State evaluations contribute to this by judging schools on how many students are expelled or suspended - so none are.)

In fine, my husband and I, both teachers, tell our daughter not to teach. In this system, how will we ever get our best and brightest to teach, knowing they will be abused on all sides and given no respect as the professionals they are by either their students or those in charge.

I’m going to respond to a comment saying something about Michelle Rhee not showing support for authority(City Council) and supporting the local schools. I say she is the authority and the reformation she is implementing well, how can she support a school that she feels is violating students. I praise and hope to follow in her foot-steps at my local school!! Thanks Michelle Rhee for standing up and taking notice and doing something about it!!

I’d like to add a few more things…sometimes the water has to get muddy after washing the floor before you get to the clean water to clean up the mess…If insults directed at the teachers and the union. I praise Michelle Rhee’s tenacity to get her hands dirty and clean up a system that just isn’t working and everyone wants to complaint about how she’s doing it!?! I’ve out and out told my Vice Principal of my son’s school that he was not doing his job and that I was going to see that he got written up along with the teacher!! If I’m “insulting” it’s because I’m telling it like it is! Michell Rhee shouldn’t have to hold back for your delicate sense abilities, sorry, but the frame of mind these teachers and parents have are misguided and can’t see the big picture. Start by supporting her ideas and how you can be involved in your child(s) education and how it can effect your child trajectory about life. Don’t look the other way when your students rights are being violated, the Federal Law NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND!! I believe that we as a whole can make a change that is and will be powerful. To stand up and have conviction for our children’s education, is to show your children that they matter.

[...] 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4 Episode 5 | Episode 6 | Episode 7 | Episode 8 Episode 9 | Episode 10 | Episode 11 | Episode [...]

[...] covered Michelle Rhee’s tenure as superintendent for three years; there’s no doubt that her celebrity became a big part of the [...]

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