Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee

Originally aired on March 29, 2011

Former chancellor of the DC school system addresses the USA Today investigation that questions the integrity of standardized test scores at schools under her watch.

After resigning her high-profile position as chancellor of the DC public schools, Michelle Rhee founded StudentsFirst, with a goal of catalyzing education reform in the U.S. In '97, she founded the New Teacher Project, which became a nationally recognized leader in developing innovative solutions to the challenges of new teacher hiring. Rhee taught school in Baltimore as a Teach for America recruit and holds a master's degree in public policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She also serves on several education-related advisory boards.


Tavis: Michelle Rhee served as chancellor of the D.C. public school system from 2007 to 2010 and jump-started a national debate with her ideas for reforming our schools. She is now the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst and she joins us tonight from Washington. Michelle Rhee, an honor to have you on this program. Thanks for your time.
Michelle Rhee: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Let me start first with the news of the week, the story that everybody saw front page yesterday of “USA Today” that talked about whether or not when these test scores apparently soared in D.C. under your leadership, “USA Today” raising a question as to whether or not those test score gains were, in effect, real.
Put another way, unusually high erasures, we are told, was taking place in the district, and so maybe these test score gains weren’t so real. Would you mind commenting on that first?
Rhee: Sure. We put in place when I was in the District of Columbia, very strict testing security protocols, and part of what we ensured was that when we got data back about erasure rates and irregularities that we hired an investigation company to come in so that the district wouldn’t have to be involved in that. We could actually have a third party look at it.
The third party did come in, they ran the investigations. If you look at the “USA Today” article, the vast majority of it is about one school in particular that the test investigation company came back and said, “Actually, we did the investigation and there’s no need for further inquiry.”
So I think that we followed all of the right protocols. We brought an external expert in to do the investigation. What I think is the really unfortunately piece is that oftentimes when the academic achievement rates of a district like D.C. go up, people assume that it can’t be because the kids are actually attaining higher gains in student achievement, but that it’s because of something like cheating, which in this case was absolutely not the case.
Tavis: Are you suggesting, then, that this story is much ado about nothing? That this is lacking in integrity, this story in “USA Today?”
Rhee: Oh, absolutely. If you look at the story overall, I think it absolutely lacks credibility. Again, focused on for the most part one school and all of the schools that we were asked to investigate we brought a third-party investigator in. This is something that is unusual. Most districts just take the investigation on. The district does it themselves.
We took the extra precaution of bringing a third party in to do it because we wanted to meet a higher bar. What that investigation company found, we actually followed all of the protocols, did everything that they asked, and again, it was highlighting a school which in particular the testing company – the investigation company came back and said that they found nothing in their investigation.
Tavis: Obviously, no righteous chancellor, certainly not Michelle Rhee, would condone any school cheating. Nobody condones these erasures, but let me just ask what kind of pressure these school administrators, these teachers, these principals, what kind of pressure are they under, given that we rely so heavily and increasingly now on these test scores to meet the number?
There must be some extreme pressure for people to feel that they have to cheat. For what purpose?
Rhee: So yeah, I certainly do think that there is pressure on our school administrators and our teachers to ensure that there are high levels of student achievement growth going on, and we want educators to feel that pressure, right? When I was the chancellor I felt that every single day, knowing that the education of 45,000 kids was dependent on how well I ran the school district.
So we want that pressure to be there, but I don’t think that pressure is so intense that you’re talking about professionals who for the most part have a tremendous amount of integrity, that you would begin to question that they would take disingenuine actions because they felt pressure.
On the flip side, we were very clear with our teachers, for example, that if we found any improprieties in the testing, meaning we found that there was cheating going on, that we would be very, very swift with the consequences. So I think they felt pressure not to actually cheat on the tests.
Tavis: I was on a plane the other night, Michelle, flying to Washington and just happened to be literally on the same flight with former Mayor Adrian Fenty. He was headed back home to Washington, I was headed there on business, so we had a chance to chat on the plane the other night.
It reminded me that when he first asked you to take on this assignment you told him then that you were going to be a political liability. Did you think that you were going to be the kind of liability, politically, that you turned out to be?
Rhee: Yes. That’s exactly why I told him that when he asked me to take the job. I said, “Sir, you do not want me for this job,” and he said, “Yes, yes, I do, why are you saying that?” and I said, “Because for the kinds of things that we would have to do to turn this district around, it will cause you tremendous political opposition and headaches.”
He said, “You know what? As long as we knew that what we were doing was going to increase the quality of schooling that the kids were getting, I have no problem taking the heat on all those things.”
So I did know that the changes that we made would absolutely cause a lot of rancor. There’s no way that you can take a dysfunctional system like the one that we had in Washington, D.C., where when we inherited the school district 8 percent of the city’s eighth graders were on grade level in mathematics – 8 percent.
So you don’t take a system that’s that broken and radically change it quickly over time and not have a lot of push-back.
Tavis: I was about to ask a question and preface it with what I have read and heard, but I don’t want to do that. Let me come straight to you to ask your opinion.
Rhee: Sure.
Tavis: As you look back on your time as chancellor, what mistakes do you cop to on this side of it?
Rhee: Well, I am far from perfect, so I made mistakes all the time and there are certainly some things that we wished we would have had more time to really try to crack open.
For example, one thing that we were not as good at was communicating directly with teachers. So we wanted to ensure that teachers were held accountable for their jobs that they were doing every single day. We wanted to ensure that the most highly effective teachers were recognized and rewarded and valued for their work.
But also that teachers who were not effective were either quickly being professionally developed or that they were finding another profession to move into. As we were going through that process we heard a lot in the media of oh, gosh, well, they’re trying to move current teachers out and that sort of thing, and we did not do a good enough job of saying to the vast majority of our teachers who were effective in the classroom every day and who were working extraordinarily hard, this is not something that you have to be worried about.
You’re the kind of professional that we want to keep in our schools because of the great things that you’re doing for kids. So we absolutely could have done a better job of communicating directly with our effective teachers about that. That’s just one example of some of the mistakes we made along the way.
Tavis: But vis-à-vis public policy, you don’t have any regrets about the programs and policies you instituted?
Rhee: No, I think in terms of the actual policies, we feel very, very confident that the policies that we pursued were ones that were going to result in higher gains in student achievement, or that were ones that even if they hadn’t been proven to do so yet that we thought had very high potential.
So for example, one of the things that we did in partnership with Dr. Roland Fryer from Harvard University is we put in place a program that rewarded students for doing well in school. So this was middle school students and we actually paid them for doing well in school, for having higher attendance, better behavior and better academic results.
That was not something that had been widely done anywhere across the country. We didn’t know for certain whether it was going to work. But what we did know was that what we had done in the past as a district hadn’t worked and had resulted in very, very low achievement rates amongst our middle schoolers; so we knew that thought we might not have any silver bullets, that we needed to think outside of the box and try some new and innovative solutions.
Tavis: I know Roland Fryer’s work pretty well at Harvard and I’m fascinated that you raise his name now. Do I take from your raising of his name that you think that something that we ought to try in this country? That would be to say compensation students for their work?
Rhee: I definitely think it is something that we have to think about as a nation, because when Dr. Fryer and I started this initiative in D.C. one of the things that we heard from people, and I got a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls, a lot of letters from people.
I remember one person saying, “It is a sad day, Chancellor Rhee, when you have to pay children to do what they’re supposed to be doing anyways.” I said, “No, yesterday was a sad day, when we had 8 percent of our eighth graders on grade level in mathematics and we weren’t trying to think outside of the box about different solutions to try to overcome those significantly poor results.”
The bottom line is that if you look out in the suburbs, right, in Fairfax County and Montgomery County, which are our neighbors here in D.C., kids get rewards and incentives all of the time. You bring home a great report card, you get $20 for every A, you get a shiny red convertible on your 16th birthday if you’re doing well in school, you get taken out to dinner, et cetera.
We really felt like the situation that many of our children faced is that they had all of the incentives to do the wrong thing out on the streets, and what we wanted to do is counterbalance that with incentives to do the right thing in school.
Tavis: You’ve talked about compensating students as a way, perhaps, to radically alter education in this country. Let me ask you now about compensation for teachers.
A couple weeks ago on “60 Minutes,” there’s a lot of folk I’m sure saw the report that “60 Minutes” did about paying teachers, and if you pay them well, teachers are more interested in coming into that is to say certain environments and wrestling with the kinds of students that you were trying to help in Washington.
So that’s a long way of asking what you think about the fact that part of this problem has to do with a lack of respect – specifically respect where their money is concerned – for teachers.
Rhee: Well, I think the bottom line is that most teachers do not come into the profession because of compensation. They don’t do this for the money, obviously. So that is not what drives the vast majority of effective educators that I know.
That said, I do think it’s incredibly important for us to build a culture amongst the teaching profession where we’re recognizing and rewarding the most highly effective teachers. The people who are coming into school every day with our most challenged populations and absolutely knocking it out of the park, they deserve to feel valued as a part of our school districts, as a part of our community, as a part of our country in very real ways.
I don’t think that compensation is the only way that we can do that, but it is certainly a way that can help.
Tavis: I want to talk now about your organization, Students First, and I want to start by asking, one, what you are doing with the organization, but I also want to talk about the fact, as I’ve read, at least, your goal for this year, part of your goals for this year are to have a million members and to raise $1 billion. That’s a “B,” one billion.
Rhee: Right.
Tavis: Now, you are a bad sister if you can raise $1 billion in one year. If you can, I ain’t mad at you. I want to hang out with you and figure out how you do it. We could use some of that.
Rhee: Do you not want to hang out with me now, before I raise the billion?
Tavis: Of course I would. I don’t know what Kevin would say about that, but I’d love to hang out with you. (Laughter) But we could use some of that kind of money at PBS.
But seriously, though, a million members, $1 billion. I want to ask whether or not that suggests that the real crisis here where education is concerned is money. You’ve heard the argument time and time again that what’s wrong with the education system ain’t going to be fixed, pardon my English, by throwing more money at it. You’re trying to raise $1 billion in the first year of your work for what purpose?
Rhee: Let me be very clear that I actually agree with the people who say that money is not going to solve all the problems in public education, because if you look at the data over the last three decades, we’ve more than doubled the amount of money that we’re spending in public education on schooling for our kids per pupil, and the results have at best stayed the same and in some cases have gotten worse.
So money is not the solution to the problems, and if you look at Washington, D.C., where I was the chancellor, we were spending more money per pupil than almost any other urban jurisdiction in the country, and our results were at the bottom.
So more money does not equal better results. What we are talking about as an advocacy organization is utilizing money in a different way. Not just funneling it into the school systems, but if you look at the education agenda over the last three decades in this country, it has largely been driven by special interest groups.
You have textbook manufacturers, you have teachers unions, you have testing companies, right? These are very powerful groups that have a tremendous amount of influence. So the problem is that when you in education have all these interest groups out there but there is no national organized interest group with the same heft as a teachers union who’s advocating on behalf of kids, then you end up with a very skewed dynamic.
You end up with laws and policies and regulations that are skewed towards, for example, the teachers unions because they have millions of dollars and millions of people. They use those dollars very effectively on the political front, so between the NEA and the AFT, which are the two national teachers unions in this country, they have a budget of over $2 billion a year and they spend $500 million of that on political activities.
So we’re trying to raise $1 billion over a five-year period, which would mean that we would have about $200 million a year over the next five years, which is really just a portion of what we know the teachers unions are spending on these issues.
Tavis: Where is this money going to come from? I ask that because when you point out what the NEA and AFT have as their budgets every year, I’m no rocket scientist here but something tells me that if I were to look at your books at the end of the year from where this money came, there’s going to be some anti-union money coming in your direction. Is that a fight that you’re really trying to set up here?
Rhee: No, this is not anti-union at all. In fact, a large percentage of our members are teachers. So we actually are a membership organization, people pay membership dues, they contribute to the organization. That’s where the vast amount of our dollars so far have come from, is from our members. Our average contribution is $64.
Teachers are a lot of the voice that we want to bring to the forefront. Effective teachers in school buildings every day know that though they’re working hard that there are policies and rules that need to be changed. They know that things are not working well for kids right now in the vast majority of our urban schools across the country. They know we’ve got to do something about it. They want to be a part of an effort to make these changes. That’s why I think so many teachers have actually signed up to be a part of StudentsFirst.
Tavis: Given that this debate is under way now about No Child Left Behind and what’s going to happen to it this fall, your thoughts about that law that is the law of the land at the moment?
Rhee: I think that No Child Left Behind was an incredibly important law for this country because what it did was bring accountability to our systems, to say no longer can you have failing schools that are not succeeding in ensuring that our kids are getting an excellent education year in and year out with absolutely no ramifications.
But now we’re going to have some accountability to that system, and furthermore that we’re going to look at sub-group data, meaning you have to ensure that for your English language learners, that for your African American students, that for your low socioeconomic students, for every single subgroup, that every group of children are increasing their learning every year and their academic standing.
I think those are important things, so as we go into the reauthorization conversations I think it’s going to be incredibly important that people don’t say, “Well, let’s just scratch this and start all over again.” I certainly think that there are things about No Child Left Behind that need to be tweaked and changed, but overall, the accountability system is an important one and so I would hope that we are looking at modifying the existing law as opposed to scratching it and starting all over again.
Tavis: Since you’re so prominently featured, as I mentioned earlier, in “Waiting for Superman,” the documentary that got a huge debate kicked up yet again in this country, there are two issues I raised in this studio with Davis, Davis Guggenheim and Geoffrey Canada; both were here together when the documentary came out, Michelle.
There are two issues I raised with them that I now want to reprieve with you to get your thoughts on these two issues.
Rhee: Sure.
Tavis: In no particular order, number one, your thoughts about Race to the Top, the Obama program, and I ask that because we had a debate that night with Geoffrey and Davis. I was on one side, they were on the other side, about whether or not education in this country really ought to be a race or whether or not education is a right in this country.
So your thoughts about the Obama answer to the problem, given that the president gave a big speech yesterday about education; namely, to Hispanics. But what about the Obama administration’s answer to the problem; their answer, Race to the Top?
Rhee: Well, you’re absolutely right that education is a right. A high-quality education has to be the right of every single child in this country. It should not be a question as to whether some kids get it and some kids don’t. But I do think that what the Obama administration was trying to do with Race to the Top was the right idea, meaning instead of just continuing to funnel out our federal dollars without a lot of accountability and just sort of by formula, which obviously has proven not to be particularly effective, to say we’re going to use a carrot approach.
We’re going to put dollars out there to say if states can change their regulations, their laws, their policies to ensure that we can have more competition in the schools, to ensure that we are recognizing and rewarding high-performing teachers, that we’re closing down low-performing schools aggressively, et cetera, then we’re going to incent you to do that.
Whether you agree with Race to the Top or not, I don’t think anybody can quarrel with the fact that we saw more legislative movement on education reform because of Race to the Top than we had for the two decades before then.
Tavis: Here’s the other issue that I raised with Davis and Geoffrey. Geoffrey’s a long-time friend and Davis and I are cool as well, but I raised this issue because it concerns me.
The government can mandate through this program that kids have to be tested, so all across the country now, in 50 states we’ve got people anxious and energized – some people, at least – about testing these kids, and if they don’t meet the test, they get held back.
But testing seems to be the answer on the back end. On the front end is where the problem exists for me, because these kids across the country in all 50 states are not given the same resources. They don’t all start at the same place, but yet they’re all expected to end up passing these tests when the game ends.
Here’s my idea. I don’t mean to make you political, although with StudentsFirst you’re going to be political whether you want to be or not going forward, but I raise this issue, and I’m not the first person to raise it, obviously, but this country, for all the things that we guarantee students – guarantee Americans, that is – we do not guarantee every child in this country, by the Constitution, a right to an equal, high-quality education.
Now, whether you’re for changing the Constitution or not, I’ll set that aside. The question is if they have to be tested at the end, how do we mandate that they all have the same resources at the beginning? How does that happen in this country?
Rhee: Yeah, well, you’re absolutely right, and if you want to start that constitutional amendment I’ll be your first backer on it because I think that what is happening to a huge number of children in this country, and in particular for poor and minority children in urban centers, is an absolute crime. They are not getting the education they deserve.
You see parents across the country who are incredibly frustrated because of what they’re seeing happen in the school districts. You see, as I said before, teachers themselves who are incredibly frustrated with the system itself.
So should that be the right of every child in our nation? Absolutely 100 percent. I think part of the problem in talking about the resources is again, you look at places like Washington, D.C. or in Newark, New Jersey, where they’re spending $22,000 per child. That is a lot of money.
The problem with those places is not are the resources there, it’s a question of how the resources are being spent and how they are being expended. That, I think, is what we need accountability around, is making sure that when taxpayer dollars are being spent, they’re being spent on the things that are going to matter the most for kids.
Tavis: I want to close by asking why it is after what you have already endured, after what you’ve already been through, why do you remain hopeful about the fact that we can’t in this country ever get our arms around this education crisis?
Rhee: For two reasons. Number one, I believe in the children of this country. You cannot walk into any school anywhere in Washington D.C. and talk to any kid for more than 10 minutes and not believe that that child has the ability to succeed at the same high levels that any kid anywhere else does, as long as we are creating the right system.
As long as we have high expectations for them, as long as we’re putting the dollars where they’re going to matter most, which is in the classroom with the child. I have absolutely no doubt in the children of our country. I have the utmost of confidence in their ability. So that’s one of the things that drives me.
The second thing is I believe in America. The bottom line is Americans, we are competitive by nature. We want to beat the pants off of China and I have to believe that at some point, if we continue to talk about education and continue to bring these issues to light, that the American public is going to wake up and say, you know what? We do want to be number one in the world. We do want to have the best education system for our kids.
This is the ideals that this country was founded on, the idea that every kid, regardless of their race, their socioeconomic status, the ZIP code that they live in, can live the American dream if they work hard and they do the right thing. That’s not the reality that we have today, but I do believe that it is possible going forward because I believe it’s who we are as Americans.
Tavis: Michelle Rhee, former chancellor for the D.C. school system and now the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, a new national organization based in Washington. Michelle, thanks for coming on to take these questions. I appreciate your time tonight.
Rhee: Absolutely, thanks.
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Last modified: September 13, 2011 at 11:21 am