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.
Michelle Rhee
Rhee in her office, and in her element
(Photo credit: David Deal)

Rhee’s L-shaped desk sits just inside the door of a large, noisy room on the top floor of the D.C. Public Schools headquarters, a few blocks north of the Capitol. Three of her close aides have desks nearby, and a TV tuned to CNN blares from the opposite wall. The door is open, and people passing by poke their heads in to say hi. Only a change in carpet color, from mottled gray in the hall to off-pink, signals an executive presence. Rhee doesn’t stand on ceremony, and she doesn’t expect her guests to, either. During our interview, I sat on a chair crammed between her desk and the door.

Rhee is an obsessive worker, the type normally found in consulting firms and medical schools, up at 6a.m. and often awake until after midnight. She rarely works from notes, and usually shows up at meetings without handlers, speaking with the rapid cadence of a high-school debater and peppering her sentences with words like crappy and awesome. And she does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. When I asked her how she would characterize her ideal relationship with parents, she replied, “That’s a great question. So often reporters ask me stupid questions. I had one interview yesterday, and I was like, ‘Okay, you are not smart.’”

On paper and in public, Rhee comes across as passionate and talented, armed with a casual, biting wit. Those qualities win her praise in newspaper profiles and applause at Sun Valley conferences. But as you get to know her, people say, it’s easy to wonder whether there’s anything besides the image. “There doesn’t seem to be any difference between her on- and off-camera personas,” says Kevin Carey, of Education Sector. I’ve heard some of Rhee’s supporters call her and her staff “Rhee-volutionaries.” Her opponents call them “Rhee-bots.”

There is more to Rhee than that. She is intensely committed to her two daughters, something even her occasional adversaries in the community will readily point out. “She’s a great mother,” says Cherita Whiting, chair of the city’s Ward 4 Education Council. Rhee’s way of speaking with kids was frequently trotted out in my conversations as an example of her people skills: “She’s very personable,” says Claire Taylor, co-chair of a local PTA. “Whether you’re a kindergartner or a student in a high school, she gets down to your level.” (No one mentioned her ability to relate to adults, except in strictly business situations.)

Rhee is very close to her parents, both of them Korean immigrants—her father is a retired doctor and her mother owned a clothing store. They sent their daughter to a posh private school in Toledo, and also to spend a year living with relatives in Seoul. She excelled academically and majored in government at Cornell. Teaching was not in the picture. But during her senior year, she saw a show on PBS touting Teach for America, a then-new program that placed recent college graduates in low-income, low-performing schools. She applied and was accepted. The decision changed her life. She met Kevin Huffman, a fellow idealist and Ohio native, at a TFA summer training session in 1994, and they were married in 1996 (they are now separated).

After three years of teaching second and third grade in Baltimore, Rhee left to pursue a master’s at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with plans to return to education, though she didn’t know where or how. She had made enough of an impression on Teach for America that its founder and president, Wendy Kopp, called her in the spring of 1997, just before graduation, to see if she would return to the fold. Kopp wanted her to quarterback the launch of a spin-off, the New Teacher Project, which would contract with school districts to find and train people looking to jump from their old jobs—scientists, journalists, lawyers—into education. “We brought her on to develop our business plan and get the project off the ground,” Kopp told me over coffee at a downtown Starbucks, “but it soon became very clear that she could run the whole thing.”

It’s no surprise that Kopp likes Rhee. The two are almost identical in their zeal and relentless message delivery. They are both obsessive e-mailers. I got the feeling that they spend long hours prepping for every possible question. Not all reformers are so singularly focused—Andrew Rotherham’s Education Sector blog often veers into discussions of fishing—but the movement is such that it attracts people who will build their lives around their jobs, and whose assessment of other people begins and ends with their work ethic. It’s something they don’t apologize for: personal sacrifice is necessary to any revolution. Relentless pursuit is a catchphrase at Teach for America, and the people who use it mean it. When people say that Rhee, Kopp, and others eat, breathe, and sleep education reform, the only doubt is whether they actually sleep.

Rhee’s drive paid off. At its 10-year mark, the New Teacher Project had recruited some 28,000 new teachers, the bulk of them mid-career entrants, in more than 200 school districts, including in New York City and Washington. Today, the program operates in 25 U.S. cities, contributing in some up to 30 percent of all teachers hired annually. “She took something that could have operated at a lower level and turned it into something with real impact,” Kopp told me.

She did all this long-distance: the New Teacher Project is headquartered in New York, but soon after its founding, Rhee moved back to Toledo (with Huffman, by then a lawyer) to be near her parents; later she followed them to Denver, where they moved after retirement. All the while she was flying weekly to New York or the project’s client districts around the country. Somewhere in there she found time to give birth to two daughters.

Rhee might have maintained her marathon commutes indefinitely if it hadn’t been for a commitment Adrian Fenty made in the spring of last year. Rhee had already been approached about the chancellor job by several people in his administration, and she had demurred each time, citing family commitments. But Fenty kept pushing, and eventually she laid out her real concern: she saw herself as a “change agent,” and Washington as a graveyard for careers like hers. The school board was too powerful and too dominated by unions and special interests to give much of a chance to someone intent on closing schools and renegotiating contracts. Then Fenty laid out his vision: he would take control of the schools, and provide whatever political cover Rhee needed to completely overhaul them. The chancellor and the mayor would make the important decisions. The District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education would continue to manage the kinds of state-federal transactions handled by other state education departments, and would be headed by someone Fenty had already appointed. A few weeks after their meeting, she was scouting houses in Washington.

Now, Rhee is in a position to provide Fenty with political cover in return. She has become the focus of opponents’ anger, while Fenty has reaped the political goodwill generated by the first signs of improvement in the schools, and by the relief that at last someone is doing something. Her charge-ahead manner may be essential to getting reform done. “The reality is, if you want to make changes, it’s very hard to do that by committee,” says Kristin Ehrgood, a board member of D.C. School Reform Now, a group that has been generally supportive of Rhee’s efforts. “While we certainly need every voice heard, it doesn’t mean everyone is right.” But, though Rhee can turn on the charm when she needs to, she has at times seemed reckless in provoking teachers and even parents.

A case in point is her own children’s school. Last fall, Rhee and Huffman enrolled their two daughters, now 6 and 9, at Oyster-Adams, a bilingual public school. By all accounts, she kept a low profile, dropping off her kids three days a week (Rhee shares custody with Huffman, who has also relocated to Washington) and staying away from school politics.

She was, however, paying close attention to what she was hearing from other parents about the school’s principal, Marta Guzman. Guzman was popular with many Hispanic parents, who saw her as a role model for minority success, and she had met most academic benchmarks. But she had also reportedly been unresponsive to various faculty and parent concerns, some of which Rhee heard at a November 2007 dinner with several parents. “There were some people who said this woman was the best thing since sliced bread, and others who said she was the worst thing that ever happened to the school, and lots in between,” Rhee told me.

The following May, Guzman was among the 24 principals to receive nonrenewal notices from Rhee. “There was no reason given in the letter,” Guzman told me. “It simply stated that the chancellor had decided not to renew my contract.” Guzman accepted her termination, but dozens of parents didn’t. The story exploded, with accusations of racism and classism popping up in e-mails, listservs, and the pages of TheWashington Post. Mostly, though, parents complained about the lack of information coming from the chancellor’s office. Oyster-Adams was, after all, their school, and they felt they should have a say in its direction. “People were upset with the way it was handled,” said one pro-Rhee parent who asked to remain anonymous.

Rhee met with parents a couple of weeks later, and the controversy eventually died down (it helped that the teachers released a statement supporting her decision). “It’s hard to convey how charismatic she is,” Claire Taylor, the PTA leader, whose child attends Oyster-Adams, told me. “Her office will announce something to be done, like close a school. Everybody hates that. But when she goes and talks to the parents, many of them do a 180.”

Rhee probably made the right decision, and she carried it out efficiently. But at least at first, she paid too little attention to anticipating the inevitable worries of parents, and did unnecessary damage to her own image. Whether she recognizes it or not, her task is political as well as educational.

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Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and the author of the forthcoming book A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination.

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