Magazine article Kennedy School Review

It's about Grades, Not Popularity: Michelle Rhee: Rhee Undertakes Austere Measures to Tackle Underperformance in D. C. Public Schools

Magazine article Kennedy School Review

It's about Grades, Not Popularity: Michelle Rhee: Rhee Undertakes Austere Measures to Tackle Underperformance in D. C. Public Schools

Article excerpt

Ask Michelle Rhee, the thirty-eight-year-old chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system, how many of her employees she plans to fire before the end of her first year on the job, and she hedges a little at first.

"It's going to be a significant number."

But when pressed, Rhee doesn't hesitate. Out of the roughly 800 people who work at the central office, "we're talking hundreds." And after meeting individually with each of the district's more than 150 school principals, how many will she replace by the beginning of next year? "It may be as high as 30 to 40 percent."

The firings may not win her many friends, but Rhee says they are an essential part of her strategy to turn around the troubled school district she has been running since June 2007. Rhee's frankness and confidence belie the fact that until she took this job she had never run a school, let alone a 50,000-student district. That didn't stop Adrian Fenty, Washington D.C.'s mayor, from tapping Rhee to be the new chancellor, an offer that she initially turned down. When she finally accepted the position, Fenty made it clear that he wanted Rhee to "shake things up." So far, she has delivered.

Sitting behind her desk at the district's headquarters in Washington, Rhee occasionally checks her B1ackBerry and glances at her laptop screen as she speaks about her plans to end the district's history of, as she says, "incompetence." To get a sense of Rhee's approach to the job, look no further than her sense of interior design.

Shortly after taking over, Rhee cleared out most of the furniture from the chancellor's spacious ninth-floor office, including a comfortable couch, chairs, and a coffee table. "What was I going to do, sit there and watch TV?" she says. In their place she brought in four desks-one for her, one for her personal assistant, one for the press secretary, and one for a scheduler. They share the space--no need for corner office frills, just efficiency.

Rhee was born in Ann Arbor, MI, and raised in Toledo, OH. She attended the Maumee Valley Country Day School, an elite private high school in Toledo, excelled in sports, and spent some of her afternoons tutoring. Rhee studied government at Cornell University, graduating in 1992, and later earned a master's degree at the Harvard Kennedy School. In between, Rhee spent three years in the Teach for America program at an inner-city elementary school in Baltimore, MD.

In 1997, at the age of twenty-seven, Rhee founded a nonprofit organization, The New Teacher Project. It recruits and trains high quality teachers and sends them to urban classrooms across the country. So far, The New Teacher Project has helped prepare and place roughly 28,000 teachers and has worked in more than 200 districts nationwide. It was through this nonprofit work that Rhee first attracted the attention of Fenty.

But having worked with so many school districts, including Washington, D.C., during her ten years as president of The New Teacher Project, Rhee was familiar with what a bureaucratic nightmare a public school system could be. And that was why she was so reluctant to take the top job when Fenty offered it.

"Running The New Teacher Project, I could do whatever I needed to," she says. "If I had an incompetent employee I would fire them. I could make decisions very quickly. We were very nimble."

In order to win her over, Fenty promised her a measure of the independence she had in the nonprofit world. "I've worked in urban education for fifteen years, and I've seen how superintendents have their hands tied; they're basically hamstrung," Rhee says. In her discussions with the mayor, she recalls, Fenty said all the right things. "I just didn't know whether he was the real deal and whether I could trust him or not." Rhee eventually decided she could.

Arriving in Washington, Rhee had no illusions about what she was up against. …

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