Interviews November 2008

Crusader of the Classrooms

Michelle Rhee, the young chancellor of the D.C. public school system, talks about her career path, what makes a good teacher, and her efforts to transform a struggling school district

Michelle Rhee stepped into the D.C. public schools in the summer of 2007, just as I was stepping out. After two years teaching 11th grade English in Washington, D.C., through Teach for America, I was ready to pursue opportunities outside of the classroom. At my age, Rhee did the same thing: one of the first Teacher For America corps members, she left teaching after three years to study at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and then started The New Teacher Project, an organization aimed at teacher recruitment. Now, she is chancellor of the D.C. public schools, and the focus of national attention for her take-no-prisoners approach to fixing what is arguably the worst school system in the United States.

While much of the press that Rhee receives focuses on such accomplishments as closing 23 under-enrolled schools, restructuring 26 others, and firing 46 principals and assistant principals, it is her long-term emphasis on boosting teacher quality that  stands out for many educators—some of whom are quite critical of her readiness to blame ineffective teachers for problems in the District’s schools.

In his recent Atlantic profile of Michelle Rhee [“The Lightening Rod,” November, 2008], Clay Risen describes Rhee’s belief in the primacy of the teacher’s role in raising student achievement:

Many people believe that teachers and the classroom are only one part of a vast web of relationships and environments that determine educational success. … In [Rhee’s] opinion, external factors simply underline the need for better educators. … “As a teacher in this system, you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring your children are successful despite obstacles,” she told me. “You can’t say, ‘My students didn’t get any breakfast today,’ or ‘No one put them to bed last night,’ or ‘Their electricity got cut off in the house, so they couldn’t do their homework.’” This sort of moral certitude is exactly what turns off many veteran teachers in Washington. Even if Rhee is right, she seems to be asking for superhuman efforts, consistently, for decades to come. Making missionary zeal a job requirement is a tough way to build morale, not to mention support, among the teachers who have to confront the D.C. ghetto every day.

But for a certain kind of educator, Rhee’s ideas about teaching hit home. Many younger teachers, particularly the kind coming from programs like Teach for America, decide to go into teaching for reasons having to do with social justice and empowerment. And while these programs have been criticized as “band-aids,” because the teachers make only a short commitment, Rhee sees them as important sources of motivated and ambitious educators—people who might not ordinarily have been encouraged to go into education. Rhee certainly wasn’t—as a government major at Cornell, her family was surprised and more than a little disappointed when she announced her intention to join Teach for America instead of attending law school.

Today, Teach for America recruits from among the best students at top colleges and universities, and an Urban Institute study last spring found that high school teachers in the program were actually more effective than veterans with longer experience. Risen draws a distinction between the new generation of educators and the old, writing that “traditionally, a good teacher was considered to be someone who had trained in education schools, been certified by state boards, enlisted in unions, and committed to a lifetime career—elements tightly interwoven with any district’s political structure.” Rhee has set out to change those structures, beginning with her proposals to tie teacher pay in D.C. to student performance, rather than the existing seniority-based scale defended by the teachers’ unions. To her, changing the way teachers are paid and are held accountable is an essential part of making schools better, and those who support or oppose the plan are largely split along generational lines.

When I was a teacher, fresh out of college with my whole future ahead of me, I spent a lot of time thinking about what a career in education could or should look like, particularly in comparison with fields like business and law. What would it take to make teaching just as prestigious a career? What would it have taken, for example, to keep someone like Michelle Rhee in the classroom? It’s true that those young, talented educators whom politicians and principals crave have options that are significantly more rewarding in terms of status and compensation. Yet perhaps merit pay and the other steps being advocated by reformers like Rhee will encourage a profession that rewards results over seniority, and consequently builds better teachers.

I sat down with Michelle Rhee in early September to discuss the changing teaching profession and how her time in the classroom influenced her ideas about education.


—Rachael Brown

In this piece, Clay Risen writes that you first heard about Teach For America on a PBS program while in college. What initially attracted you to the program and inspired you to join?

You know, I’ve often asked Teach for America to go and track that down, so I could watch it again and see what I thought. They can’t seem to find it. In my mind, the most interesting thing was that it was people who were my age who literally were trying to change the world, and wanted to do that through public education. In the special, they showed people who were failing miserably—I mean one of these guys got fired in the middle of the year—and then they showed other people who were just doing great things, who were amazing teachers. And I just found that to be really inspiring.

Had you previously considered teaching? Where had you envisioned your career going?

Not really. I would say that coming up through high school and college, I had done a lot of work with kids, but was never encouraged to go into education—most high-achieving people are not. But when I heard about Teach for America I sort of thought, OK, I can do this without necessarily getting a teaching degree and all that sort of stuff. I felt like it made sense to do.

I know that when I joined the corps, Teach for America had a bit of reputation by that point and people seemed to be more interested in the fact that I was doing the program than that I was teaching. In the early years, what was the reaction of your family or your peers?

People were not happy. I mean, I think my peers liked it; they just didn’t know what it was. I joined in ’92, so I was early on and I think most people didn’t know about Teach for America. In terms of my parents and family members, I wouldn’t say they were thrilled, necessarily. My dad was generally supportive, though, and probably more supportive than my mother was.

What about your teaching experience drives or informs your decisions as chancellor, beyond a larger understanding that all students can achieve?

I don’t know that it’s anything beyond that. Everyone sort of spews the rhetoric about “all kids can learn” and that sort of thing, but I actually experienced that. I saw these kids in my classroom who were at the absolute rock bottom in terms of achievement. And people said, “You can’t do this—their home lives are too bad.” This and that. They had all sorts of excuses for the kids. And over a two year period, I saw them grow exponentially. So for me, it’s not just this nice idea that kids can learn, it was my actually experiencing it and seeing it first-hand.  That’s what drives my work every single day.

And why did you decide to leave classroom teaching?

That’s a good question. I feel like I could have stayed, and when I was thinking about leaving and going to graduate school, my principal at the time said, “Well, we’ll make you a mentor teacher, we’ll set you on the trajectory to become an administrator or something like that.” But for me, I really felt like I could have potentially a greater impact on public education doing something outside of the classroom. I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be, but I was kind of intrigued by the possibility.

Do you believe that your approach to teaching, that kind of round-the-clock relentless attitude, is something that is sustainable? Is it something you feel like you could have kept doing?

Oh, absolutely. I don’t think it’s for everyone. Someone was asking me the other day about whether people can keep that pace and that sort of thing. Well, last year I went into the classroom of a 43-year veteran of this system. It was one of the best classrooms I went into last year. She wasn’t overly over the top; she probably wasn’t working 18 hours a day, but she was just an incredibly solid teacher. The kids were learning, they were engaged, she had very clear and high expectations. So I think being an effective teacher doesn’t necessarily mean you have to operate the way I operated. Every person has to do their own thing in their own way. I think that’s the most important thing.

So along those same lines, what characteristics do you think describe an effective teacher, and are they things that are measurable by data?

I don’t think they’re all things that are measurable by data. A lot of things that people generally think describe a good teacher—Are you working 18 hours a day? Are you really enthusiastic? Are you bounding around the classroom?—aren’t measurable. But they’re also not things that all effective teachers have. In my mind, the bottom line is, if you can show through data that you’re moving student achievement levels, then it really doesn’t matter. How you go about doing it is less important to me. Now, some of the commonalities that I’d say exist among the most effective teachers are incredibly high standards, engaging the parents and the community in what they’re doing, and just working the kids relentlessly. One of the things I’ve been talking about a lot is time and how you treat time. In so many of the classrooms I go into, it’s like people are just biding time until the end of the day. They’re just passing it.

Like packing up to go five minutes before the bell?

Yes, or saying to the kids, “OK, let’s just get through 20 more minutes, we only have 20 more minutes and then you can go.” And that just sends kids the wrong message. Great teachers squeeze every second they can out of the school day and they don’t waste a single moment.

Right, right. Now what about administrators? What characteristics do you think distinguish effective administrators?

You know, I think some of the most important things are that you have to have a really clear vision, and you have to have the ability to manage adults. What I’ve found in this system, with a lot of the administrators we have, is that they’re very loath to have the difficult conversations. So they know that a teacher is ineffective but they don’t want to go through the whole rigmarole of giving them a negative evaluation, so they’ll evaluate them as “meeting expectations,” when in fact, they don’t actually consider the teacher effective. And I’m like, “You know what? You’ve got to have those tough conversations. I realize that person might come into your office ranting and raving, I realize that parents might get upset. You’ve got to make the hard call, that’s what being a leader is about.” And so I think that for a lot of our principals that’s a lesson they have to learn.

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Rachael Brown is an Atlantic staff editor.

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