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.

Do you feel that having prior teaching experience is, or should be, a prerequisite for being an effective district leader or education policy maker?

Not necessarily, no. I think Joel Klein and Mike Bennet and Arne Duncan are some of the best superintendents around, and they were never teachers.

Ok. One thing that I did want to get into is that teaching tends to be a fairly limited profession in terms of advancement opportunities. But a lot of young college graduates want their careers to be on a trajectory that will keep moving up. It’s something that I definitely confronted and that some of my younger colleagues confronted when we considered leaving teaching. Is there a way teaching can allow for career growth, without assuming that growth means becoming an administrator?

I think there are a lot of ways. There have been programs across the country piloted to show how teachers can take on more responsibility within their own schools. Without moving out of the classroom you can become a mentor teacher to new teachers coming in, you can take increasing responsibilities with extracurricular activities, serve on school improvement teams and that sort of thing. You can take a free period off to direct a particular project in the school. So I think there are various ways that we can actually continue to push teachers to develop their skills outside of the curriculum and the classroom—to give them the sense that they’re learning and gaining new skills.

I guess the downside of that might be that a lot of times it seems like we take the best teachers out of the classroom, with top teachers being tapped to become administrators. Why do you feel like there is that assumption that a good teacher will make a good administrator?

I think that’s the case in any profession. When I was running The New Teacher Project, when we wanted to promote we always promoted from within, and we looked at the best site managers to make them partners and that sort of thing. So that idea is not specific to teaching and education. Any field that you go into, you take the best people who are at the lower rungs and you develop them and promote them up.

I hear a lot of talk among reformers about how teaching should be a “prestige profession” like law or medicine. What are the obstacles that you think may be preventing teaching from having that status, beyond the obvious differences in compensation?

I think that as long as we have a profession that does not at all differentiate people by what they’re producing, whether it’s through compensation or evaluation or certification, then we’re never going to be a profession like medicine or law. That’s the bottom line. You know, anybody can become tenured. And everybody does become tenured. There’s no aura of selectivity—there’s no gate that you have to pass through.

Pop culture portrayals of urban teaching often have this kind of teacher-as-martyr archetype. What do you make of movies like Freedom Writers, for example, or the 4th season of The Wire, which focuses on the Baltimore public schools?

I don’t watch any TV, I don’t watch movies, so you’re asking the wrong person. I used to watch a lot of TV, but…

What about older movies like Dangerous Minds or Stand and Deliver, or any of those portrayals of teaching as …

I haven’t seen any of those.


Sad little life I lead, don’t I?

Well, for example, when I was teaching, I taught high school, and I remember my students coming in after seeing Freedom Writers over the weekend and saying things like, “Hey Ms. Brown, would you give up your marriage for us?”

Hah, did she get divorced because of…?

I suppose so; I never actually saw it, either! Do you think that those kinds of portrayals of teachers are helpful, unhelpful, realistic?

Not having seen them I can’t really comment so much. But what I would say is exactly what I said to you before which is, people look at me, and they say a normal person couldn’t keep up this pace, or, you’re expecting all teachers to do what you’re doing, and that’s just not possible, and I disagree with that. I think that you can have a life, you can have work-life balance—you can have all of those things and be an effective teacher if you’re really clear on what your outcomes are and you use your time well.

Along similar lines, earlier this year, The Atlantic published an essay by the writer Sandra Tsing Loh, who is a public school mom in the Bay Area. She jokes that Pfizer should develop a special antidepressant—“Zokol: for when you’ve read too much Jonathan Kozol,” implying that focusing so much attention on what’s wrong with inner city schools and the achievement gap and so on can distract people from things that are working and improving. Do you think that’s the case?

Um, no. I do think it’s always good to point out the positive things that are going on—to highlight the bright lights, particularly in a dismal system. That said, I think that often falls into people trying to sugarcoat things. Whether it’s district leaders or principals or whoever, just sort of trying to put on the dog-and-pony show, when in fact, things still suck. For example, we saw a huge gain in test scores this past year, larger than the four previous years all put together, and it was important for us to say, “Yes, that’s great and wonderful, but, at the same time, two-thirds of our kids still aren’t on grade level at the secondary level. And that’s a shame.” So we can never forget or stop pounding home the realities about the significant challenges we’re facing at the end of the day. When all is said and done, that’s what really matters.

One thing that I’ve encountered personally in talking to a lot of veteran teachers is this idea that programs like Teach for America or the D.C. Teaching Fellows de-professionalize education. They see it as a kind of glorified internship.

I’ll tell you what de-professionalizes education. It’s when we have people sitting in the classrooms—whether they’re certified or not, whether they’ve taught for two months or 22 years—that are not teaching kids. And whom we cannot remove from the classroom, and whom parents know are not good. Those are the things that de-professionalize the teaching corp. Not Teach for America, not D.C. Teaching Fellows. That, I think, is a ridiculous argument.

Do you think that teacher prep programs—traditional ones, like what you see in schools of education, are even necessary? Or maybe just elements of them, like student teaching?

I wouldn’t say I think they’re necessary, though I think it’s fine to have programs like that. It’s also fine to have faster tracks, like Teach for America or The New Teacher Project. I’m much less concerned with the front-end pieces and much more concerned with ensuring that we have effective teachers in the classroom and being able to measure that in a meaningful way, early on in someone’s career.

One of the other concerns I’ve heard voiced about alternative selection models is that the teachers aren’t making a thirty-year, or even a ten-year commitment.

Nobody makes a thirty-year or ten-year commitment to a single profession. Name one profession where the assumption is that when you go in, right out of graduating college, that the majority of people are going to stay in that profession. It’s not the reality anymore, maybe with the exception of medicine. But short of that, people don’t go into jobs and stay there forever anymore.

So you feel like teachers can be effective even within a short term?

Absolutely, and I’d rather have a really effective teacher for two years than a mediocre or ineffective one for twenty years.

What frustrated you, when you were teaching in Baltimore? Were there ever any instances, for example, when a reform or an initiative was handed down from above and you felt it didn’t address what was really needed in the classroom?

No, but I know a lot of my colleagues felt that way when I was teaching. I taught in a school that had been taken over by a private company and I know a lot of teachers in the building didn’t like the program. They saw it as just the next thing they were being made do. I was much more open-minded—I went to all the professional development, paid attention, tried to implement those things and thought that they were extraordinarily helpful. I ended up being very successful — I think it was partly by virtue of me not knowing much, and not being jaded by how many initiatives had come before.

You’ve spoken about raising your students’ achievement to the levels you did while you were teaching. Would you say that was your greatest success as a classroom teacher?


And what about your greatest struggle or your greatest frustration?

Oh, my first year teaching I was awful. I was bad.

Any specifics?

I don’t know what the student achievement levels were like, I don’t know…I mean, I know I struggled with classroom management—I did not do right by those kids my first year.

Are you still in touch with any of your students?

One lives in my basement as a matter of fact.

Really? Going to college? Would they be that old?

Yes, she’s twenty.

So you keep an eye on her, give her books to read?

Ha. Yeah.

You’ve spoken about remaining with the District as long as Mayor Fenty is in office. Where would you go from there? What do you see for yourself beyond that point?

I have no idea. I haven’t given it a moment’s thought.

Have you ever thought about returning to the classroom?

(Laughs.) No, I have not.