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.
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.
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.