Former DC schools chief Michelle Rhee

The former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools and founder of StudentsFirst explains why education reform is often such a vicious political game.

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: Tonight, though, I’m pleased, having said all that, to kick off this week with Michelle Rhee. She is, of course, the former chancellor of the DC public school system who ruffled quite a few feathers during her efforts to reform education in the nation’s capital, now the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, a nonprofit designed to transform public education in this country.

Michelle Rhee, nice to have you here and thank you for your patience [laugh].

Michelle Rhee: Absolutely. My pleasure.

Tavis: Well, we did all of that stuff to let people where we’re headed. But I’m glad to start this week, as I said, with you. Let me start by asking your thoughts about that experience, the DC experience, now because the calendar says it’s been just over a year since you resigned, just over a year since you stepped away.

I know you’ve been asked this question before, but now that you have a full year in the rear view mirror, any new assessments you want to share?

Rhee: I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything new, but I continue to be incredibly proud of what the children of DC accomplished during the time that we were there.

The teachers, the administrators, the parents in that city really did rally together for three and a half years and we set a new precedent for what education reform can look like. You know, it wasn’t something that went without controversy.

Clearly, there were a lot of opposition to some of the things that we did, but overall, if you look at the gains that were seen over that period of time, they really were tremendous. I think it’s a testament to what can happen when an entire city focuses on fixing the schools is the number one priority.

Tavis: As simplistic and naive as this question might sound, there’s a reason why I’m asking in part because I want to get your honest assessment, why it is that education reform in this country is so controversial?

I actually want to back off the word controversial because it’s more than controversial. As you know, this stuff gets ugly. It gets ugly, it gets nasty, it gets personal.

There is animus, there is vitriol, so it’s more than – you and I both use the word controversial. It’s more than just controversial. What is it about education reform that causes the worst in us to come out?

Rhee: It’s a good question and I’m not sure that I actually know the answer. But I know that it really impacts the way that people from superintendents to school board members to even state legislators, how they act and what actions they’re willing to take on behalf of school reform because it does get so personal.

You know, during my time in DC, people used to say to me, “Oh, my gosh, you’re so brave for taking this one and sticking there” and, you know, “Don’t let these people drive you out of town” and all that sort of stuff.

It dawned on me during the course of the time that I was there that because it does become personal, because there are lots of personal attacks that come on you when you take these issues on, it was causing a lot of superintendents and other leaders in the city to say, you know what? This is just too much to take on.

But the result of that was that kids were getting a sub-par education because no one was willing to say, you know what, this is a broken system that needs radical change. Even though we’re gonna ruffle some feathers, it’s worth it to the kids to take it on.

So for me, I thought, you know what, you can yell at me all you want. You can call me whatever names you want. It really doesn’t matter to me because I cannot on my watch continue to allow another generation of kids in this city to be disserved by the school system.

Tavis: Did you ever feel or ever believe that you were in part – I say in part because people can legitimately disagree with Michelle Rhee on the issue.

Rhee: Absolutely.

Tavis: But did you ever feel in any way that you were being subjected to racial animus in Washington? You have a school district that’s overwhelmingly African American. You’re married to an African American, a wonderful guy named Kevin Johnson, mayor of Sacramento, California – “Hey, Kevin.”

So you’re married to an African American man, but you are not an African American. You ever feel that you were being victimized because of your ethnicity?

Rhee: Not really. You know, when I first got to DC, it was the subject of a lot of conversation and controversy. Does this 37-year-old Korean girl from Toledo, Ohio, what does she know about our city? What does she know about our kids? You know, that sort of thing.

But the racial issues after the initial sort of impression that people had and the concerns that they had, I think that dissipated over time. I think very legitimately people, as time went on, they disagreed with my policy choices sometimes.

My detractors, you know, didn’t like the actions that I was taking, but I didn’t feel that they were necessarily racially motivated.

Tavis: Let me advance now ’cause there’s so much to talk about in the time that I have. So the organization’s called StudentsFirst?

Rhee: Yes.

Tavis: Another question that I don’t ask out of naivety. But when you look at, when one deconstructs the debates that we have about education, the conversations to my mind are rarely about students.

Rhee: Hardly ever.

Tavis: Hardly ever about the kids in the classroom. They’re about everything but that. So why, again, why is it so controversial, so ugly, to put students first no matter what side of the ledger you’re on here?

Rhee: You know, when you talk about the concept of putting students first, you don’t get any disagreement from anyone across the board. People say, of course, we want to put students first. But then when you start to get to the specifics of it, that’s when you run into trouble.

I think that, in large part, is because there are very personal feelings that are involved. When you start to talk about the changes that need to happen, oftentimes the people who are currently in the system or who have been working in the system for a long time, they start to take that personally.

They say, well, if you’re saying that the system is broken or that changes need to be made, they feel sometimes like it’s a personal attack on them. I think that we have to de-couple those things.

The fact that the system and the bureaucracy is broken doesn’t necessarily mean that the people in the system aren’t good people, aren’t doing good work, necessarily. So that’s, I think, one of the reasons why it does get so hot sometimes because people take the things that are happening very personally.

Tavis: But systems are made up of people, so it’s impossible – I hear your point and I respect it about de-coupling these things. I know what you mean by that, but at a certain level, you can’t do that.

If schools are under-performing, they are under-performing not because some mechanical model isn’t working per se. People are the system, so how do you de-couple the people in the system from the system not working properly?

Rhee: Well, that’s tough and it’s one of the things that I faced in DC. When I came into the system, I said, for example, the central office, right? There was this huge central office staff of 1,000 people and it wasn’t serving kids well.

We were spending almost more money per child than any other city in the entire nation, but the results that we were getting were at the absolute bottom. So I said something is not working here.

I actually cut the central office in half. We used to have 1,000 employees, now we have less than 500 employees, and arguably it’s operating much, much more efficiently now than it ever was before. You know, sometimes there are connections, right?

That huge central office bureaucracy was made up of lots of individual people. But I think it’s also important to understand that the rules and regulations, the policy, the culture that was set, did not also necessarily set people up for success.

Tavis: You said something now that I didn’t know would come up in this conversation, but I’ve thought about it so many times. I’m glad you raised it because I want to ask you about it now. This is not a Michelle Rhee question as much as it is a question for every one of us as human beings who care about any particular issue or set of issues.

I think it is the case that we don’t oftentimes accept the reality that our Creator – I happen to be a believer, a Christian. But I believe that our Creator gives us a challenge, gives us a gift. We’re supposed to use that gift. But the reality is that, so often, we can only advance the ball so far down the field. I think you know where I’m going with this.

You can only advance the ball so far down the field. How do you decide? Where do you get the courage and the conviction to commit yourself to doing something that you know is going to be controversial? Oftentimes, there’s no way, again, you can get it all done, but the person running the school system now was one of your deputies.

So to your example, you cut the bureaucracy in half. Well, you end up resigning and all this controversy erupts, but she at least has inherited a bureaucracy that’s half of what it was when you got it.

Rhee: Right.

Tavis: I’m being long-winded about this, but the point I’m trying to get at is talk to me about where you develop the kind of constitution to take on a project when you have to know in the back of your head that you’re not gonna get all the way there, but it’s still worth engaging? Does that make sense?

Rhee: Oh, absolutely. You know, when I was in my first year in DC when we decided to close about 15% of the schools, it caused tremendous, tremendous pushback in opposition. The whole city was talking about it.

So my parents had come to visit me one day. They woke up in the morning, they turn on the news. There’s pictures of people protesting out in front of my office. They open up The Washington Post. There’s a two-page spread of all the schools that I’m closing, all the people that are mad at me, etc. They watched the hearings on TV.

So I get home at 11:00 at night. My mother says, “Are you okay?” I said, “Yeah, I’m fine,” making myself some dinner. She said, “You know, when you were young, you never used to care what people thought about you. I always used to think that you were going to grow up to be antisocial, but I see now that that’s serving you well.” [Laugh]

I think it’s true that, if you spend too much of your time worrying about your favorability ratings or how much people are gonna like you, how popular you are, etc., then you’re gonna make very, very different choices, right?

Mayor Fenty, who was my boss at the time, and I decided when we took this on that, despite whatever political pushback we were getting and potentially the opposition that we saw to the reforms, we were always gonna do what we thought was in the best interest of kids, which is very counter to how some school districts in cities are run.

That way we could always sleep at night knowing that even if people are upset at us, we know that the decisions that we’re making are gonna have a better impact on kids.

So that made it actually pretty easy for us because it allowed us to have a really clear north star and it didn’t hurt that we saw the results come along with us. We saw more academic gains in the three-year period that we were there than the city had seen in, you know, more than ten years before then.

Tavis: The flip side to my previous toothy question is that it does, though, require a certain amount of favorability. There has to be a certain level of likeability to get something done. I know you didn’t mean it in this way, but you can’t just not care what people think.

Rhee: That’s right.

Tavis: Because if you don’t have any sort of rapport with them, you don’t get anything done.

Rhee: That’s right. And that’s why it was so important for us to be out in the community. You know, I would do community listening sessions. I would do sessions with teachers a couple of times a week.

It was interesting because oftentimes people would come up to me and say, “You know, I wasn’t sure about you, but now that I’ve heard everything that you have to say, you’re not so bad.” Not that they agreed with everything that I said, but they understood at least where I was coming from.

So the willingness to go out and talk to people and to have people disagree with what I was doing and saying, I mean, I think that it’s important to have that feedback loop, to have the people have the opportunity to say, you know what, I disagree with you and this is why, and for me as a leader to say, okay, I hear you, but at the same time, here’s why we’re making the decisions that we are. Sometimes it managed to open peoples’ minds a little.

Tavis: As I said earlier, it’s been just over a year now since you left that position in DC to start the organization StudentsFirst. When I last spoke to you, the goal then was to get a million members, to raise a billion dollars. So how you doing so far?

Rhee: We’re doing pretty well. We’re particularly pleased with our membership. We have close to 900,000 members, so we are on track right now to being able to meet our goal by the end of the year of hitting a million members. Our members are incredibly active. They are a diverse group of people from all over the country.

We have parents, we have teachers, we have students, we have grandparents, business owners, lots of people who are frustrated with the public school system. But they’re not just sort of sitting around and stewing in their own juices. They want to do something about it.

So over the last year, we have been working heavily in seven different states across the country and we’ve managed to change more than 50 laws in those states to become laws that are more focused on kids and making sure that we’re putting the interests of kids first. So we’re thrilled with how we’re doing so far.

Tavis: You’ve heard this a thousand times, no doubt. There are people who believe that the problem of education in this country is not a money problem. Put another way, you can’t solve the problems of education by throwing more money at the problem.

My view is we ought to try that one time to see how that actually works, but that’s my own view. What’s your sense of – and I ask that because when someone hears that you’re trying to get a million members, okay, I get that. A billion dollars? Like what do you do with a billion dollars in education?

So the question, again, is, for those who think that the problem is not a money problem, you say what?

Rhee: You know, to a certain extent, I actually agree in that, if you look at how much money has been spent on public education over the last few decades, that amount of money we spend per child over the last couple of decades has more than doubled in this country, but the results have gotten worse.

So the problem is not necessarily just that we need more money. It’s that we need to spend that money wisely.

I think that what you see in cities like Washington, DC, a city like Newark, New Jersey where they spend $22,000 per child and their graduation rates, their achievement rates, are at the absolute bottom, I mean, that’s a clear sign that just money alone is not gonna get you the results that you need.

So what we believe is that you’ve got to focus on investing in the right places. You cannot continue to spend money on programs, on initiatives, on strategies, that have been proven not to have a positive impact on kids.

You know, my example earlier about the sort of huge bloated central bureaucracy of Washington, DC public schools, I mean, that was one example, right?

The money belongs in the classrooms with the students and with the teachers. That’s where it’s gonna have the most impact, not in a bloated central office that, you know, is not listening properly to parents, to even teachers and principals in their own district.

Tavis: Your thoughts on – and these are my words, not yours, of course – the attack that teachers across the board have been under over the last year or so. I cite as examples, as you well know, Wisconsin. They were in fact successful in Ohio, the pushback on collective bargaining.

I’m open to your assessment of it, but there is this sense that I feel, a palpable sense in the country, that teachers are being scapegoated, that teachers are to blame, that teachers are being attacked. I don’t take exception to your point that, if you can’t teach, you ought to be out of the classroom.

But this notion, though, of teachers in our political discourse being attacked. I mean, teachers get attacked domestically like we attack China globally because you got to beat up on somebody. But what’s your sense of the assault that teachers at least feel that they are under?

Rhee: Well, I think it’s definitely real. I mean, I go around the country. I talk to teachers all the time and a huge number of them come to me and say, you know, we feel like we’re being blamed.

I think the problem, though, is that there aren’t necessarily people who are saying teachers are the entire problem. The problem is that we have a dynamic in this country where, if you begin to question some of the policies and rules that exist, you get labeled as anti-teacher and then it becomes sort of, oh, you’re teacher bashing, etc.

For example, what you just said. You said, if there are ineffective teachers in the classroom, they should leave, right? I don’t think there is anybody in this country who would disagree with that notion. If there are people who are not effective with kids, they should not be in the classroom.

But oftentimes what happens when you say those things and you go out in public and you say, you know what, there’s ineffective teachers and they should probably find other jobs, there are lots of people who would say, well, you’re being anti-teacher. You’re blaming teachers for things that they, you know, don’t have control over, etc. That’s where the problem is.

It’s this polarized debate instead of people coming together and saying, you know what, everybody acknowledges the fact that there are some unbelievably effective teachers and those teachers should be recognized and rewarded for the work that they’re doing. There are some people who are not doing their jobs particularly well and, for those people, we either need to quickly make them better or they need to leave the classroom.

So if we can all agree on that, then how do we hone in on the steps and strategies then that will get us there? I think that would be a lot more productive than just saying, oh, Tavis, because you said that, you’re anti-teacher or you’re a union basher.

Tavis: To your point now, Michelle, I wonder if there is to your mind two or three issues on which you think that those who think that teachers unions need to be pushed, need to be held a bit more accountable now?

I’m coming to the other side of my argument. If unions need to be pushed and teachers need to be held more accountable, are there two or three issues that you think in the coming years that we really can work to find some common ground on between teachers unions and those who want to blame teachers unions?

Are they two or three issues that we really ought to be trying to get to the middle on that might represent some kind of common ground?

Rhee: I think there are a lot of issues that we can find common ground on. For example, one issue that is linked to what we were just talking about is teacher evaluations.

How do we appropriately and effectively evaluate how good a teacher is? Both the unions and the reformers agree that the current evaluation systems are not good. So that’s actually something that people can come together and discuss.

Tavis: Okay.

Rhee: Another one is what we were talking about earlier which is the expenditure of dollars, right? Where should all of these taxpayer dollars that we’re spending on education, where should they be targeted?

I think the teachers unions would also agree that they’re best spent in the classroom with kids and with teachers as opposed to in a central office bureaucracy. So I do think that there are several places where we can come together.

Tavis: Here’s a more philosophical question, but it circles back to the point you made earlier about the system being broken.

Somebody said to me, I guess, earlier this year in one of our conversations that, if Benjamin Franklin were to come back now, the only thing in this country he would recognize would be our education system because it’s the only thing that hasn’t changed in terms of how we educate, you know, the school system, the school day. The stuff basically hasn’t changed a whole lot.

So philosophically, your thoughts, your sense, of whether or not the way we’re going, not about teachers per se or unions or administrators, but the way we go about teaching kids, the methodologies in the classroom. Is there something wrong with the way we’re doing this?

Rhee: We absolutely have to rethink the way that we’re educating kids. This is not an issue solely with teachers. It also has to do with us as a community and parents, right? I have two children, two daughters, and when my kids started school, I thought about, okay, what do I want to see in a classroom?

I thought I want a grandmotherly teacher, a kindergarten teacher who’s gonna put my kid on her lap and read to her and that sort of thing. That’s kind of the vision that I had. Nowadays that’s not necessarily what classrooms should look like.

For example, technology. There have been some early studies and some early looks at classrooms in schools across the nation that are effectively using technology in what we call a hybrid approach. So they have more kids in the classroom, say 40 or 45 kids in a classroom, but it’s completely decked out with new technology that helps to individualize instruction for kids.

So some parents think about, okay, my kid’s gonna be in a larger class size, maybe they’re not gonna get the attention they need and they’re gonna have headphones on and be looking at a screen.

Is that necessarily what you want? Some parents think no, but if you actually look at the data, it shows that classrooms in schools that are running like this can see huge results.

So I think part of it is sort of a cultural and mindset shift that the school that our kids go to is not necessarily gonna look anything like the schools that we went to, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Tavis: Just a minute to go here. So the Obama administration has given school districts a way to opt out of these No Child Left Behind laws that are on the books currently. Quickly, what’s the future of No Child Left Behind?

Rhee: Well, I think everybody is in agreement that No Child Left Behind needs to be changed and modified. I think where the disconnect is, there are lots of people who believe that the positive part of No Child Left Behind was that it shined a spotlight on how individual groups of kids were doing.

So you couldn’t have your African American kids or your low socioeconomic kids or your special ed kids doing a lot worse and still be considered to be a good school or a good district. You had to serve all of your kids well.

So the question really is how are we going to change the things about No Child Left Behind that need to be modified, but at the same time, have a strong level of accountability where we have high expectations of all kids?

Tavis: Michelle Rhee has done just that herself, shined a spotlight on the issue of education in this country. She’s now the founder and CEO of an organization called StudentsFirst just now celebrating, I guess, its one-year anniversary.

Rhee: One-year anniversary, yeah.

Tavis: Right about now. Good to see you.

Rhee: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Tavis: Thanks for coming on.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: December 15, 2011 at 1:04 am