Profile November 2008

The Lightning Rod

MICHELLE RHEE CHARGED IN as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools wielding BlackBerrys and data—and a giant axe. She has made a city with possibly the country’s worst public schools ground zero for education reform, and attracted a cadre of young zealots some critics call “Rhee-bots.” Now the changes that she insists schoolchildren need are colliding head-on with the political wants of adults.
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Photos by David Deal


Michelle Rhee is always on message and always on call. If she’s not speaking, she’s thumbing away on her BlackBerry, or working a cell phone, or flipping open a laptop. When I met with her recently, she sat at her desk clasping a BlackBerry and a cell phone in her right hand; in front of her was a sleek Sony Vaio laptop, which she monitored incessantly during our conversation, while off to her right was yet another computer, a desktop PC. Apparently there is a second BlackBerry somewhere. And it’s not for show. “Every e-mail a parent sends me, I answer,” she said, a boast that even her critics grudgingly concede.

Michelle Rhee

BlackBerry-wielding type-A personalities out to shake up the system are a common sight in Washington. Until recently, their habitat consisted almost exclusively of the halls of Congress and the K Street corridor—the think tanks, lobby shops, and congressional staffs most of us talk about when we talk about the capital. Rarely would you find them in the “other” Washington, the one most Americans would prefer to forget: the perennially dysfunctional city of 580,000 people, many of them poor and black; the city of the Marion Barry machine, of sky-high murder rates and voter disenfranchisement and the 1968 King riots. And, of course, the city of abysmal schools.

But thanks to Rhee and her boss, the young and charismatic Mayor Adrian Fenty, the city government is awash with the sort of überprofessionals once found exclusively in congressional committee rooms and white-shoe law firms. Fenty is a big part of the rush. Like a number of young mayors—Newark’s Cory Booker and, until he moved to the governor’s office, Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley—Fenty is a data-focused decision maker, less interested in politics as usual than a politics of results. Soon after taking office, in January of last year, Fenty focused his energy on wresting control of the city schools from the all-powerful school board, as New York’s Michael Bloomberg did in 2002, a move that has gained the interest of many fellow mayors around the country. By last July, the city council had approved the mayor’s appointment of Rhee as Washington’s first schools chancellor.

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Interviews: "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.

Since her arrival, in the summer of 2007, Rhee, just 38 years old, has become the most controversial figure in American public education and the standard-bearer for a new type of schools leader nationwide. She and her cohort often seek to bypass the traditional forces of education schools and unions, instead embracing nontraditional reform mechanisms like charter schools, vouchers, and the No Child Left Behind Act. “They tend to be younger, and many didn’t come through the traditional route,” says Margaret Sullivan, a former education analyst at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. And that often means going head-to-head with the people who did.

Rhee, responsible not to a school board but only to the mayor, went on a spree almost as soon as she arrived. She gained the right to fire central-office employees and then axed 98 of them. She canned 24 principals, 22 assistant principals, and, at the beginning of this summer, 250 teachers and 500 teaching aides. She announced plans to close 23 underused schools and set about restructuring 26 other schools (together, about a third of the system). And she began negotiating a radical performance-based compensation contract with the teachers union that could revolutionize the way teachers get paid.

Her quick action has brought Rhee laudatory profiles everywhere from Newsweek to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, and appearances on Charlie Rose and at Allen & Company’s annual Sun Valley conference. Washington is now ground zero for education reformers. “People are coming from across the country to work for her,” says Andrew Rotherham, the co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. “It’s the thing to do.” Rhee had Stanford and Harvard business-school students on her intern staff this summer, and she has received blank checks from reform-minded philanthropists at the Gates and Broad foundations to fund experimental programs. Businesses have flooded her with offers to help—providing supplies, mentoring, or just giving cash.

But a lot of people who live in long-neglected neighborhoods are nervous—particularly those who see her as the vanguard of a gentrified, post-black Washington. In this city, every­thing revolves around race, class, and neighborhoods, and it makes no small difference that Rhee is an upper-middle-class Korean American from suburban Ohio, overseeing a system that is more than 80 percent black and overwhelmingly poor. “One of the things I see Rhee’s reform going hand in hand with,” says Lee Glazer, a D.C. Public Schools mother and co-founder of Save Our Schools, an activist group that has opposed Rhee, “is a much larger gentrification plan that’s been at work in the city for many years”—an understandable fear, given the rising cost of living in Washington and the condo developments pushing into formerly depressed parts of town. “It’s hard to tell if they just don’t know what the hell they’re doing or they’re evilly brilliant.” Community pressure has, in turn, translated into political pressure from the city council, which is searching for ways to rein in the very chancellor it just empowered.

Washington, in other words, is a battlefield and national testing ground where upstart young reformers are pitted against an establishment unwilling to give ground to what it sees as reckless social experiments. “Anything that happens in D.C. tends to matter beyond D.C., because the school system is held up as an example for education,” says Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager at Education Sector. In the past, the city’s failure was taken as proof that urban public education wasn’t working. Rhee’s goal is to make Washington a showcase proving that view wrong. If she succeeds, she could have a stunning impact on American public education.

For decades, an establishment of Democratic politicians backed by union leaders has ruled the Washington public schools, which by almost any measure—test scores, attendance, safety—are among the worst in the country. All sides—unions, reformers, parents, and politicians—agree that substantial change is needed. What they can’t agree on is the how. Reformers call for closing failing schools, deciding salaries on merit, and giving parents the choice of where students go to school.

Community activists may applaud these changes in the abstract, but they criticize the means, viewing reform plans as having been concocted by think tanks and nonprofits to be tested on disenfranchised poor minorities (they offer no dramatic proposals of their own). They fear that closing and consolidating schools will create administrative and security nightmares, as students from rival neighborhoods are thrust together. They worry that the new chancellor is cutting vital staff. “People are concerned, morale is low,” says Candi Peterson, a board member of the Washington Teachers’ Union, which engaged in a protracted struggle with Rhee over the new contract. But mostly, Rhee’s opponents are coalescing around the charge that her reforms have run roughshod over the community—that she is less a chancellor than a dictator.

The problems Rhee faced when she arrived went beyond the classroom. Washington’s $1 billion schools budget gave the system the third-highest per-pupil spending in the country, but much of the money fed a bureaucratic monstrosity that relied on disorganized paper files, kept paying ex-employees while missing paychecks to current teachers, let new textbooks and equipment languish in warehouses, and lacked even a firm enrollment count. “I’m not against reform,” Peterson says. “I know we need reform.”

Only 43 percent of students entering the ninth grade in a D.C. public school graduate within five years, and only 9 percent get a college degree within five years of leaving high school. In 2007, Washington ranked last among 11 urban school systems in math and second-to-last in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Not surprisingly, the system has hemorrhaged students: the current estimate of the student body, 46,000, is less than half what the 1960 total was. Many of those losses have come since Congress, which has oversight of the school system, approved charter schools for the District in the late 1990s.

Things weren’t always so bad. Up to the mid-1960s, Washington had some of the country’s best black public schools, including Dunbar High School, which produced Senator Edward Brooke, the civil-rights lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. The schools were a magnet for middle-class black families who wanted a quality education but were largely shut out of white-majority schools, either by law or by residential segregation. By 1960, Washington was a center of black intellectual and cultural life. “People talk about Harlem, but in terms of a professional class and intelligentsia, Washington was on par,” says NPR’s Juan Williams, who covered education for The Washington Post in the 1970s.

Like many urban districts, Washington thrived because it could rely on a class of educators—in this case, African Americans—who were mostly kept out of other professions. But as barriers eroded in the 1950s and 1960s, experienced black teachers began leaving for better opportunities. At the same time, rising crime and the calamitous 1968 riots reversed the flow of black middle-class families, particularly after the 1968 Fair Housing Act encouraged them to decamp to the suburbs. Combined with the white flight that had by the late 1960s largely run its course, black flight left behind a core of socially isolated, desperately poor families, who suffered as the crime and joblessness rates climbed steeply through the 1970s.

Black flight also left behind a power vacuum, which was eagerly filled by a new generation of activists fronted by the civil-rights leader Marion Barry. Though he later became the butt of late-night-TV jokes, Barry is a political genius, and in the early 1970s he was one of the first in his generation to see the school system’s political potential. Until Congress granted the city limited home rule in 1973, the D.C. school board was the only elected body in Washington, and thus one of the only paths of political ascent for the city’s black leaders. In 1971, Barry won a landslide election for a seat on the board; he was so popular that his fellow members immediately made him president, a position he held until moving to the city council in 1974 and to the mayor’s office four years later.

Barry quickly grasped that the school system could do more than just facilitate his own rise. With its thousands of well-paying jobs, it was an ideal way to rebuild the black middle class—and, not incidentally, it was a limitless source of patronage. Barry’s climb coincided with that of William Simons, the fiery head of the Washington Teachers’ Union. Simons was a sort of black equivalent to Albert Shanker, then the voluble head of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, and he led his union in two lengthy, debilitating strikes during the 1970s. Through it all, Barry played the go-between, working the city and Congress around to Simons’s position. A new political base was emerging, populated by teachers and led by Barry. “It’s no longer about educating the best and brightest of black Washington but about establishing the schools as a place where blacks can get better jobs, higher salaries, and more benefits,” Williams told me.

A generation later, the result was a system that was overstaffed, inefficient, and resistant to change, even as it got worse at its primary role of educating students. Into this mess stepped Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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