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Media Attention Hinders Rhee’s Efforts to Reach Out to D.C. Teachers

In just under two years, School Chancellor Michelle Rhee's "take-no-prisoners" approach to school reform attracted much attention from the national press. John Merrow reports on whether her growing media prominence is hindering her pursuit of a revolutionary new teachers' contract.

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    The high-profile school reform effort in Washington, D.C., is one of the nation's most closely watched, but the spotlight has also attracted more scrutiny for the school system's outspoken chancellor.

    The NewsHour's special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has been chronicling those efforts. He has this update.

    MICHELLE RHEE, chancellor, Washington, D.C., Public School System: No. That's yellow. Can you say "yellow"? Do you know what color that is? What color is that?

    JOHN MERROW, NewsHour correspondent: When Michelle Rhee assumed control of Washington, D.C.'s, struggling public school system in 2007, she billed herself as a change agent.


    I'd say that I have a tremendous will. When I know what needs to get done, very, very little, if anything, can stand in my way.


    The first-time superintendent has delivered. Rhee has closed 23 under-enrolled schools, fired more than 15 percent of her central office staff, and replaced over 30 percent of the city's principals, all in less than two years.

    The national media, including the NewsHour, has followed her every step of the way.

    Attention swelled as she lobbied for a controversial new teachers contract that she hoped would become a national model.


    We can actually begin to shift the dynamic in the city and eventually in the country of who should go into teaching.


    She'd like to offer teachers the chance to earn six-figure salaries, if they give up job security, tenure. To change the way teachers are hired, fired and compensated in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee does not need the national press. She needs support from D.C.'s 4,000 teachers. And her growing national prominence has created problems for her at home.

    In December 2008, Rhee made the cover of Time magazine. Her pose, standing in an empty classroom holding a broom, elicited of a strong reaction from D.C.'s teachers.

    CANDI PETERSON, District of Columbia Public Schools: It left a very unsavory feeling from everybody that I've talked to. And the blogs really blew up on this story.


    Special education teacher Candi Peterson writes a blog about D.C. schools.


    People were really upset. And I think it's turned the tables against her by doing this.

    GEORGE PARKER, president, Washington Teachers' Union: This one shot gave the picture of, "Look, just sweep them all out. Get rid of them all." It was an insult to the hard work that our teachers perform every day.