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.