Education activist Michelle Rhee

The pioneering advocate and Radical author offers lessons learned in her efforts to reform schools in the U.S.

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 1997, 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 from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She also serves on several education-related advisory boards. In her text, Radical, she draws on her own life story and offers her plan for better schools.


Tavis: Michelle Rhee has been called a warrior for putting herself front and center in the battle to reform public schools. When she took over the struggling Washington, D.C. school system, she challenged teachers on accountability, closed schools that she deemed redundant, and ultimately backed charter schools and vouchers as roads to positive change.

She is now president of an advocacy group called StudentsFirst, and has written a new book about her work on behalf of reforming public education. It’s called “Radical.” Michelle Rhee, we always seem to have these radical conversations when you show up, so it’s good to see you again.

Michelle Rhee: Nice to see you.

Tavis: There’s so much in the book that I want to get to. I think I want to start, though, with what might seem an unorthodox place for some, given the other conversations you’ve had about the book. But it always fascinates me – I’m always interested in back story.

I am curious as to how your upbringing, how your relationship with your parents, how your educational journey impacts the Michelle Rhee that we now know as an education reformer.

Rhee: So I think that’s part of the reason why I wanted to write the book, is to tell people about my upbringing and what I think people don’t know and folks have told me a lot over the last three weeks that has surprised them is I come from teachers.

My grandfather was a teacher, my grandmother on my mom’s side, four of my aunts, my sister-in-law, my best friend. So I’ve always, my entire life, been surrounded by teachers, and because of that I’ve had a tremendous respect for what teachers can do, the power that they can have.

My parents were extraordinarily focused on education. It was the topic of every dinner conversation, is are you number one, are you getting all As, if not, why not. You need to do better. So my entire orientation and focus growing up was around doing your best and making sure that you were going to get the best education possible.

Tavis: Was that – my word, not yours – that pressure, one could say, or that interest, that extreme interest on the part of your parents, was that because of the fact that they were teachers, or because of the culture that you grew up in, or a combination of both.

Rhee: I think it was probably a combination of both. I think that my parents immigrated to this country from Korea, and they came from an environment where everyone knew that the way to be successful was to get a great education, and that was going to be your ticket in life.

If you could succeed in education then you would succeed in life, so that was sort of the driving force behind my parents’ upbringing, and therefore kind of how they brought us up.

Tavis: How has that impacted – I’ll fast-forward and go back – so how has that impacted the way you parent your two daughters?

Rhee: (Laughs) I try to have a little bit maybe more balance than my parents did. My parents were extraordinarily hardcore. If my brothers didn’t do well, then they would punish me. If my brothers came back with a not-so-good grade then I got grounded and that sort of thing. Which I always thought was totally wack when I was a teenager. I’m thinking, how does this make any sense?

So I try to have a little bit more balance with my kids, but it’s interesting, because my kids – so I try to set very high expectations for my children. I’m not a Tiger Mom or anything like that, but the other week my younger daughter came home with a really not good grade on her math test, and so for weeks it was every night, no TV.

I was just giving her math problems, et cetera, and a few weeks later she came back and she said, “I got the second-highest grade in math in my class,” and I said, “That’s good.” She looked at me and she said, “All that drilling that you did,” she said, “That was worth it.”

I think that is what I want to teach my kids, is that you may not do well, necessarily, up front, and in order to be the best, you’ve got to work hard.

Tavis: I’m laughing inside, thinking whether or not your parents would have said to you, “Only the second-best grade in the class?” (Laughter)

Rhee: They probably would have.

Tavis: You mentioned earlier that you come from a family of teachers. There are any number of things that you’ve heard before that your critics have to say about you.

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: How do you respond to critics who say that part of the problem with Michelle Rhee is that she only spent – she may come from a family of teachers, but she only spent three years in the classroom and then went off to Harvard, and that qualifies you to talk to the rest of us?

Rhee: (Laughs) Well, I mean I think that’s a good point, and that’s the reason why when I was the chancellor in D.C., now that I’m doing my work at StudentsFirst, I think that we’re not going to be successful in education reform in this country unless teachers are engaged and involved.

I do not – I don’t pretend at all to know all the answers and have all the answers, and that’s why I’m constantly talking to teachers and we’re constantly engaging teachers in these conversations, because unless they are part of the reform movement, we’re not going to be successful.

Tavis: But is there any credence, though, you think, to the argument that your approach might be different, the response to your approach then might be different if you had spent more time in the classroom to learn what these other teachers who’ve been there 10, 15, 20 years know, or is that just a red herring?

Rhee: Well, I think that you can have different levels of experience, and I think that as long as you’re listening to teachers and engaging with them and understanding what their challenges are.

So for example, when we put together our new teacher evaluation system, and you probably know that this is a very hot topic in the country right now, we held hundreds and hundreds of focus groups with teachers to understand what they thought was wrong with the current system, what they wanted to see happening.

There were lots of different opinions, so even if I had taught for 20 years, I would have had one opinion on things. You’ve got to hear multiple opinions about things.

I think the second point is that I’m a mom. I’m a parent, and I view this education reform debate and sort of all these policies from the viewpoint of having two little girls and knowing what I want for them.

Honestly, what I want for them is no different from any other mom that I’ve met anywhere across the country. We want our kids to have the best education possible, which means that they have to have a great teacher in their classroom every single day.

We have to have options for high-quality schools, and we have to know that our taxpayer dollars are going to things that are going to have the most benefit for kids.

Tavis: I want to talk in a moment, Michelle, about how, in fact, we do deliver an equal, high-quality education for every child in America, and I want to do that by going inside the text to look at the way you deconstructed Finland.

You talk about great education systems, Finland is always the country that comes somewhere, if not at the beginning. Somewhere in the conversation you’re going to get a conversation about how they do it in Finland.

Rhee: Right, yeah.

Tavis: You break that down in the book, and we’ll come to that in a second. But before I go inside the book, back to this cover here, the title is “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First.”

When this book came across my desk, I thought that was a fascinating title. I know what you meant by it, because we’ve talked so many times before.

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: But why is it that we have to fight to put students first? I’m not being naïve in asking this question, but you would think that in an education system, what matters most would be the students. We seem to talk about everything – about charter schools, about private schools, about money, about this, about that – how is it that we have gotten to a point where we are fighting to put students first?

Rhee: That’s a great question, and it’s exactly what I try to talk about in my book. But we have gotten to this place where if you listen to education policy reform debates and discussions in this country, the vast majority of them are about adult issues, right?

What’s good for the district, what about the jobs, this, that, and the other thing, and very, very little of the conversation is about the kids. I think that if we focused more on the children that we’d end up with wildly different policies and laws in place than we do right now.

I’ll give you a quick example. I talk in this book about a very hot topic that causes a lot of consternation, which is vouchers, right? The idea that for low-income kids who would otherwise be trapped in failing schools, should they have the opportunity to take a voucher, a publicly funded voucher and attend a private school.

People just go nuts when you talk about this issue, right? When you hear them, the people who are against vouchers, you hear them talking about it, they say, “Well, you’re taking money away from the schools that need it the most. You’re only helping some of the kids. There’s a failing school that needs to get better,” et cetera.

I always sort of start from the prospect of saying, “Okay, so if you were a parent and your house was zoned to a failing school and you had the opportunity to participate in a program that would allow you to take the money and send your kid to a great private school, would you do it?”

There’s not a person anywhere that I have met who said, “No, I’m going to keep my kid in the failing school because it’s better for the system.” No, heck no. Every parent out there in America is going to say, “Of course I’ll do that, because that’s what’s better for my kid.”

So if that’s what we’re willing to do for our kids, then that’s what we should be thinking about for everyone’s children.

Tavis: See, we’re on the way to Finland now. (Laughter) We’re on our way to Finland, because Finland has figured out a way to do this without having public and private and better or worse, and everybody in the country gets access to an equal, high-quality education.

So we’ll come to Finland in just a moment, but respectfully, if I were one of those parents in that auditorium where you were lecturing or talking to you about this issue and you asked me that question, my response would be this.

“Ms. Rhee, what I want is not school choice. I want choice schools.” All the schools ought to be choice.

Rhee: Yes.

Tavis: Why should my kid have to make a choice between this school or that school?

Rhee: That’s right.

Tavis: Why have we not found a way to make all schools choice, as opposed to having school choice, where you’ve got to get a voucher or this – I saw the movie, of course, and you know it well, “Waiting for Superman.”

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: That thing broke my heart. It broke my heart.

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: I literally cried when I watched that movie.

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: To watch these kids’ futures depend on a bouncing ball in a machine –

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: – to see if their lottery number came up.

Rhee: That’s right.

Tavis: If they could get one of the few seats – that’s not a way to educate a country.

Rhee: That is absolutely right.

Tavis: That you’ve got to be lucky enough to have your number come up in a lottery machine to get a good seat in a good classroom. So now we’re on the way to Finland. But before we get there, why school choice as to making all schools choice?

Rhee: Well, that’s the goal, right?

Tavis: Yeah.

Rhee: The goal is to ensure –

Tavis: Oh, I’m not sure it’s the goal. I could debate you on that.

Rhee: Okay.

Tavis: I am not sure, with the way the education system is set up, and with the money that is made off the educational system – I’m not a cynic here, but I am skeptical about this argument that the goal in this country really is to make all schools choice. I’m not sure I believe that.

Rhee: Well, it’s my goal.

Tavis: Right, and that I accept.

Rhee: My goal is to make sure that every parent is in a situation where they can send their kid to the neighborhood public school and know that they are going to get a great education. Because that’s what most people want.

Most people don’t want to put their kid on the bus for an hour and a half or this, that, or the other thing. Most people would, when given the choice, want to send their kid to the neighborhood public school and know that they’re going to get exactly what they need.

That’s the dynamic that we should create. However, that is far from the dynamic that we have right now, right? So the question that we have to ask ourselves is given the inequity that exists in the system right now, given the fact that poor minority kids are disproportionately trapped in failing schools that have been failing for decades, while we’re trying to fix the system, what happens with those kids and families?

What I would argue is that you cannot create a situation where you are forcing those families to remain in those failing schools while you’re fixing them, in the hopes that something different will happen, because again, I would never put my child in that situation.

So I can’t ask any mother to say, “You know what, just hold on, okay? So suck it up for five more years while we fix this, and hopefully we will, but I can’t give you any guarantees. Your kid may not learn how to read, but that’s what we need to do for the system.”

It’s just – that’ not the way that most parents are going to want to deal with the situation of their kids today.

Tavis: So I’ve said it three or four times, let’s go to Finland, because you do a pretty wonderful, I think, deconstruction of what is working in Finland and why it’s working, and how we compare to Finland, how we could replicate what they do. So tell me about Finland.

Rhee: So Finland is a country that I think is interesting to look at, because 20, 30 years ago Finland was not doing nearly as well as it is doing now, and they went through one phase of reform that looked pretty similar to what our country is doing right now.

But where they are now, because they’ve come so far, is actually very different from what the U.S. is doing now. So lots of people say well, we should do what Finland is doing, but they’re at a different place in their growth.

We have to look at what Finland did when they weren’t doing so well, and how they got out of that. The three things that they did was one, they had a heavy focus on teachers and teacher quality. They knew that that was the most important in-school factor that they could deal with.

The second thing they did was they had very clear and rigorous curriculum, standardized curriculum that everyone was focused on and that all kids were expected to learn. Then the third was they had a very strong accountability system, so they had a centralized body that would go out to all the schools and look at the quality of the schools and sort of rate them.

So those were the first three things that they did, and that catapulted the country from being not so good to at where it is now, which is very good. Now when you look at what Finland is able to do, they’re trying to go from good to great now, so they’re tweaking around the edges and that sort of thing.

I think it’s a lesson, I believe, in what is possible. If a country puts its entire focus on making sure that the education system improves, then that’s the kind of progress that you can see.

Tavis: So your book is very teacher-centric. To your point now, the first thing on your list of what the Finnish people did was to look at the kind of teachers that they wanted.

Rhee: Yes.

Tavis: Again, back to your critics. Your critics would take that same Finnish example and say to you that teachers in Finland are treated with the respect of anybody else.

Rhee: Absolutely.

Tavis: Doctors, lawyers, Nobel laureates. The people of Finland have such a high regard for how they treat their teachers.

Rhee: Yes.

Tavis: One would then argue that in this country that we do the exact opposite, that we demonize teachers, we make movies – back to “Waiting for Superman -” we make movies that demonize teachers and demonize teachers unions.

So how do you respond to people who say, okay, fine, great example of Finland, but why don’t we treat teachers that way in our society?

Rhee: Well first when you say that, I don’t think that movies like “Waiting for Superman” demonize teachers. I don’t –

Tavis: There was a part in the movie where they went after – and I’m not saying it should not have been part of the film.

Rhee: Right.

Tavis: Because I’ve said many times it’s not that all these kids can’t learn.

Rhee: Right.

Tavis: It’s that some of these teachers can’t teach.

Rhee: Right.

Tavis: So I believe that.

Rhee: Right.

Tavis: But there was a part in that film where they made a mockery in New York of teachers who were sent to the discipline hearing and what they got – that part of it was pretty crazy.

Rhee: But that’s the reality.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) yeah.

Rhee: In New York you’re shown the rubber room, which is where we –

Tavis: That’s why it’s called the rubber room, exactly, yeah.

Rhee: – pay teachers who we don’t think are good enough to be in the classroom and to be with kids, but we pay them to come to work every day because we can’t fire them from the system. That’s just insane, and that should be brought to light, because it is not a good use of taxpayer dollars.

But back to your point – the bottom line is absolutely right, is that we have to respect and honor teachers for the incredibly heroic work that they do every day. We, I think, in our society, have a totally wack perspective on what teachers do and their value to our country.

I was having a conversation with my husband the other day. My husband used to be a professional basketball player.

Tavis: A very good professional basketball player.

Rhee: A great one, a great one.

Tavis: A great basketball player.

Rhee: And we were watching a game, and I said to him, I said, “It is so crazy to me that these men get paid $12 million a year for dribbling a basketball around,” I said, “and adding very little value to society,” in my opinion. I said, “We should be paying the best teachers in our country $12 million a year, because we know what they’re doing. We know the power that they have to actually move this society along.”

The fact that they’re paid, the best teachers in this country are paid as little as they are says something about how we value –

Tavis: See, I totally agree. I’ve said that many times – we don’t value teachers enough, and I think that the question for the American people, though, is what comes first, the chicken or the egg.

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: Because we wouldn’t mind, perhaps we could make the argument that we should pay teachers $12 million a year if the students were performing like LeBron James. (Laughter) I don’t mind paying a teacher –

Rhee: But you know what? There are teachers out there who are performing like LeBron James. There are teachers out there in this country who if you look at the data, they’re taking kids who come into their classroom operating three, four grade levels below where they’re supposed to be.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Rhee: Within a one-year period, their kids are soaring.

Tavis: I’m just saying the societal perception is that our school system is failing.

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: Not just the perception; the numbers indicate – that’s why you’re doing this work – that our system is not what it ought to be.

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: So it’s hard to make the case to pay teachers that kind of money if we don’t see the end product.

Rhee: It is, and it’s also hard to make that case when we have protections and different laws and policies in place. Here in Southern California last year there was a legislator who tried to introduce a bill that would have made it easier to remove teachers from the system who were sexual predators.

Come on, that’s low-hanging fruit. That should be a given. But it didn’t even pass out of the committee in the legislature, much less go to a vote, because the teachers unions wanted to protect the jobs of – so when you’re an average taxpayer and you see the profession and you say, “Yes, there are some great people, but there are also some people who are not performing well,” and if it’s a profession where we can’t even remove sexual predators, that’s a problem.

So what we’ve got to do is put laws and policies in place that are going to respect and honor the best teachers, make sure that for those who are not performing well we can either quickly get them better or we find them a different profession.

But we have to create an environment where we know that the policies in place are going to lead to there being a highly effective teacher in every single classroom every single day.

Tavis: I don’t want to believe that this is an intractable problem, and if you thought that you wouldn’t be doing the work that you’re doing.

Rhee: That’s right.

Tavis: Having said that, I think that there are many fellow citizens who think that this problem is intractable, because they don’t see how – not how. They don’t see what agency they have in solving the problem.

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: Somebody told me once, I heard somebody say once that if Benjamin Franklin came back the only thing he’d recognize is our education system, because it ain’t changed much (laughter) in a while.

But I sense that even though public education is taxpayer-funded, that the taxpayers don’t know what agency they have to fix it. So there are you and other people out here are doing what you’re doing, and we could argue and fight about who’s doing what and who’s right and who’s wrong, but what agency do everyday people have?

Rhee: That’s a great question, and that’s part of the other reason why I wrote the book, was to give a roadmap to the everyday mom or dad who’s out there who’s frustrated with the education system, who wants better for their kid. They often think well, it’s hopeless. I call the school, nobody returns my calls.

This is sort of a political black hole and we can’t fix it. That’s absolutely wrong. There are things that everyday people can do. We have laws and policies in place that are created and protected by elected officials, and these elected officials, like the folks I just told you about, usually they vote for something in a committee.

Their constituents aren’t paying attention to a committee vote that they’re having. Nobody knows that. If we are able to shine a light on that and say, “Your state assemblyman voted against a law to take sexual predators out of the classroom, what do you think about that?” the vast majority, if not all, the people would say that is a travesty.

We should say to them, “Great, then hold that person accountable for that vote, and know when you’re going to the ballot box next time. Or in fact call that person before the vote even happens and let them know that if they don’t vote for kids, they’re not going to get your vote next time.”

So there really is a way to change and shift this dynamic, but it’s not going to happen unless everyday people are getting active, are getting informed, understand what is happening right now in their community, in their state legislatures, and then voicing their opinions.

Tavis: On this program last week we had another Californian, Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor.

Rhee: Yeah.

Tavis: He has a new book out called “Citizenville,” and in his book he argues that one of the things we have to fix is a way to digitize, to make government digital.

Rhee: Yes.

Tavis: I’m thinking of him when you made that comment, that if these committee hearings that we are not aware of every day were available online, the result, if all this stuff were available online to everyday people, it’d be a lot easier to track what, in fact, happened in the committee hearing on issue X, Y, or Z.

Rhee: Absolutely.

Tavis: It’s just another reason to kind of push that out there. How do you assess where you are in your work right now, and not just assess; what for you is success when you’re in this sea of (laughter) drama?

Rhee: Well, I’ve been in this field for more than 20 years now, and it’s somewhat disheartening to me sometimes when I look at things. When I got into this as a college graduate and went to go teach in Baltimore, I thought, I want to change the world.

I want to improve the lives of kids in America through having great public education, and the reality is that in the last 20 years, not a whole lot has happened. If you are a poor kid of color who’s growing up in an inner city in this country, the likelihood is that you attend a failing school and that because of that, you will not be able to graduate from high school, go on to college, et cetera, at the rates that we would want and expect.

In fact, the U.S. has fallen towards the bottom on social mobility internationally, which means that if you’re a kid who was born into poverty in this country, the likelihood that you will ever escape poverty are slim to none. That, to me, is the saddest reality imaginable. It goes against every ideal that we have as Americans.

This is supposed to be the greatest country in the world. This is supposed to be the country where if you work hard and you do the right thing, you can live the American dream.

I think for what success looks like for me, it is a world in which you can look at the achievement scores, the academic scores, of any school anywhere in this country, and you wouldn’t be able to look at the score and determine what the racial makeup or the socioeconomic makeup of that school is simply because of the academic achievement levels.

That should be the goal, is that every kid in every neighborhood, despite whatever challenges they may face, are getting a great education in our public schools.

Tavis: The new book is called “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First.” It’s written by Michelle Rhee. Michelle, good to have you on the program. Tell Kevin, the mayor, I said hello.

Rhee: I will.

Tavis: It’s good to see you again.

Rhee: Good to see you.

Tavis: That’s our show tonight. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: March 25, 2013 at 12:50 pm