On a recent afternoon, Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the
District of Columbia Public Schools, came out of a meeting to find
an e-mail on her BlackBerry describing a problem at Anacostia High
School. Two students had gotten into a fight while being dismissed
from the cafeteria. A short time later, another student, who was
smoking in a stairwell, started a small fire with his cigarette. It
set off the fire alarm.
While the school evacuated to the football field, a third student
ran down the hall jabbing his penknife into three kids, randomly.
"You know high school kids: When something happens it sort of
causes a [chain reaction]," Ms. Rhee tells me, sounding casual, as
we sit in her office. With the fire out and students milling around
the 50-yard line, Rodney McBride, the Anacostia principal, calls
Rhee to ask whether he should send the students home early.
Get them back in class, is her resolute response. Don't waste the
rest of the day.The incident illustrates Rhee's no-nonsense approach
to turning around one of the nation's most troubled urban school
Since she was appointed chancellor in June 2007, the young Korean-
American has brought sweeping changes and a stern hand to the
Washington public school system. She has fired hundreds of teachers,
principals, and administrators, as well as shuttered 23
At the core of her strategy is a conceptually simple but
politically complex maxim: improve learning in the classroom by
improving the people who hold the chalk. To do that, she advocates
recruiting and retaining good teachers by paying them higher
salaries - but cleaning out those who don't perform.
Her tough approach and willingness to take on "untouchable"
issues in education have earned her a reputation as a nonideological
crusader who might be carving out a new model for school reform. But
critics, including many teachers, see her tactics as heavy handed
and capricious. Is she education's new White Knight or just a
Michelle the Knife?
* * *
What Michelle Rhee isn't anymore is anonymous. In the nation's
ultimate media town, she's become something of a celebrity. On this
day, she chats in a TV studio with local talk-show host Bruce
DePuyt. A meteorologist at the station strolls in and laments that
he didn't bring in his copy of Time magazine that features her on
the cover. He wanted her to autograph it.
"She can sign mine for you and then we can swap," says Mr.
DePuyt. Rhee smiles politely. It is the third time she has been on
his show. "She's one of my all-star guests," DePuyt says. Rhee rolls
The young chancellor doesn't like to talk about her new klieg-
light status or how it affects her job. "I really frankly don't care
all that much about the media," she says. Rhee is similarly
dismissive of Washington's political rituals, saying at one point:
"I'm not a politician, but I am an administrator who has to deal
Lately, in fact, she has been embroiled in some politicking with
the local teachers union over a new contract. At the heart of the
dispute is the most radical element of her reform plans -
performance-based salaries for teachers.
Rhee would like to see people in the classroom paid a lot more -
six figure salaries in the case of some veteran teachers. It's a
prospect many teachers relish. But in exchange for the highest
salaries, she would like teachers to surrender their coveted tenure
protection so they can be fired if they don't bring up test scores -
something most don't like.
As Rhee sees it, money will motivate teachers to do better and
those who don't will be (and deserve to be) let go. She sees bad
teachers, bad administrators, and in some cases bad parents as main
problems. "It's the adults," Rhee says. "There's nothing wrong with
Yet quantifying teacher performance, especially in a poor
district like Washington D. …