The Controversy of Michelle Rhee

The Controversy of Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee's name seems to garner press as often as Education Secretary Arne Duncan, but Rhee has her equal share of critics and supporters. Learn about Rhee's controversial reforms and plans for revolutionizing education in this country.

Michelle Rhee has a conflicting legacy that she is leaving to the Washington D.C. public school system. On the one hand, Rhee has been touted for her efforts to revive a failing school system in the documentary film, "Waiting for Superman." On the other, Rhee has been portrayed as an abrasive personality that has set out to transform education without much research or anecdotal evidence to back up her efforts. Since Rhee has no plans to leave education (she is now launching a non-profit organization to transform education across the country) and her ideas appear to be on par with other innovative educators rising to the forefront, it is worth looking at her legacy more closely to see how it could change the face of education in the future.

In this video, FRONTLINE examines the legacy of Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools.

Rhee's Teaching History

Rhee came to Washington D.C. in 2007 to serve as chancellor under Mayor Adrian Fenty. Prior to this post, Rhee had spent time teaching at a school in the Baltimore City Public School District, Harlem Park. According to a report at the Washington Post, Rhee was in a team-teaching assignment at the school. During her tenure at Harlem Park, Rhee cited test results of her students that demonstrated her superb teaching ability. However, questions have been raised about these results by two different Washington Post reports; the one mentioned above and another that explains test result findings by retired D.C. teacher G.F. Brandenburg.

At best, the data from this testing window seems to indicate that some of Rhee's students at Harlem Park did seem to improve their performance in math and reading. However, the improvements were not earth-shaking; in fact, the results did not show anything above a standard deviation. According to Baltimore City test specialist Benjamin I. Feldman, the data he produced on those test scores could neither support nor refute Rhee's claims of her educational abilities.

Rhee's Time in Washington

When Rhee was first asked by Mayor Fenty to take on the position of chancellor for Washington D.C. public schools, Rhee informed him that she was probably not the candidate he really wanted. In a report at Newsweek, Rhee told Fenty, "If we did the job right for the city's children, it would upset the status quo – I was sure it would be a political problem." Rhee added that Fenty assured her that he was prepared for the risk and would back her efforts 100%, and so she accepted the job.

One of Rhee's first points of business was to slate almost two dozen D.C. schools for closure - a move that didn't bode well for teachers, parents or students in the district. Rhee also wanted to offer teachers a new contract that would raise teacher salaries while abandoning the tenure system. This idea also met with its fair share of controversy.

Abrasive or Effective?

Many of the education professionals around Rhee complained that the new chancellor was too abrasive and didn't work well with others. Rhee herself admitted that she could have done a better job of encouraging good teachers in the district and keeping parents in the loop as changes were being adopted. However, Rhee did not see her job as building consensus. Rhee told Newsweek, "I don't think consensus can be the goal. Take, for example, one of our early boiling points: school closures. We held dozens of community meetings about the issue. But would people really have been happier with the results if we had done it more slowly?"

Rhee said that despite complaints about her interpersonal skills, the results she obtained in the Washington D.C. school district were impressive. However, not everyone agrees with Rhee's assessment.

Criticism of Rhee

In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reports on some of the problems she saw with Rhee's management decisions. First, Strauss states that Rhee disregarded the advice of many professionals and community leaders who had a strong history of working to improve Washington schools. Instead, she went to "unelected billionaires and conservative ideologues without any education expertise." This group, recruited by Rhee, donated vast amounts of money to school programs that were not backed up by measurable evidence or research.

Strauss also states in her editorial that Rhee hired graduates fresh out of college to take on the challenge of educating the Washington D.C. youth, without any knowledge of inner-city communities or even a true desire to make teaching a profession. In regards to Rhee's claims that she made significant improvements to the physical conditions of school facilities, Strauss acknowledges that most of those improvements were authorized by the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, which is a separate agency from the rest of Washington D.C. public schools.

Rhee's New Project

Despite the controversy surrounding her tenure both in Baltimore and Washington D.C., Rhee has set out on a new project since leaving her post as chancellor. StudentsFirst is a non-profit organization that Rhee has started to transform education across America. The program will focus on supporting effective teachers, helping families make choices of schools and ensuring public money goes to high quality instructional programs.

Rhee has seen more than her share of controversy since entering the field of public education. However, this former educator does seem to have a passion for the education system and initiating the necessary innovations and transformations to make the system the best it can possibly be. Whether she is equipped with the necessary skills and abilities to make this dream a reality remains to be seen.

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