Print Friendly and PDF

Radical Thinking

Michelle Rhee taking education reform head-on

By James MartinezPage 36-37

After being named Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) in June 2007, Michelle Rhee gained national recognition for her efforts to turn around one of the nation’s worst performing school districts. Following her work with DCPS, Rhee formed StudentsFirst in 2010. StudentsFirst is a bipartisan, grassroots organization based in Sacramento, Calif., designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators and citizens throughout the country to produce meaningful results in education and meet the demand for better American schools.

What drove you to become such a strong advocate for education and school reform?

The primary experience that really got me involved in education was my going to Teach For America right out of college. I was assigned to teach in Baltimore, Md. and taught second grade. And my first year, like most first year teachers, I had a really, really tough time. My second and third year, I team-taught with another teacher and brought 70 kids in a classroom and saw kids soar. It was a life-altering experience in a lot of ways because the kids that I taught were kids that lots of people in society … thought that they were performing poorly because they were coming from less than ideal home environments. (People thought) that we couldn’t possibly expect them to learn at the highest levels and they were. When we have high expectations for our kids, they will absolutely rise to them. And so having had that experience seeing kids grow in such a significant way, it set me on this trajectory in terms of my career — knowing that if we put kids in the right schooling environments there really is no end to what they can accomplish.

What drove you to start StudentsFirst?

After the experience I had in D.C. That’s where I saw we had this politician who was putting his entire political career on the line for the opportunity to make schools better and saw tremendous progress. And yet it was a situation where the special interests didn’t like what was going on and invested tremendously in trying to oust him. After the election campaign, it struck me at that point that I could go and work in school districts in another district or state, but at the end of the day the same thing would happen unless the (schools movement) started developing some political muscle.  So that’s why I decided to start StudentsFirst. You have all these interest groups out there who have tremendous resources and they use those resources to influence the kind of laws and policies that go into place. There’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. The problem is not with those organizations. The problem is that, until now, there has been no organized national interest group with the same heft of the teacher unions advocating on behalf of the kids. I felt like that was missing in the equation.

What is it going to take to ensure that students across the country have access to high-quality schools?

We focus on three areas that we think are the most critical. The first is making sure that every kid is in a classroom with a highly qualified teacher every single day. So all of the policies that we have around teacher culpability and principal culpability — rigorous evaluations, getting rid of “last in, first out policies” — the things we think are critical. The second is that we think all states and parents, in particular, should be empowered and have choices so no family feels they are in a situation where they are trapped in failing schools with no better options for their kids. (So we support things like better charter laws) that are going to give those options. The last realm we focus on is to make sure there are government structures, fiscal accountability in the system, to ensure we’re spending our taxpayer dollars in places where they are going to have the most impact on kids. So you’ll see things like pension benefit reform, fiscal transparency and things like that.

Following President Reagan’s study in the 1983 “A Nation at Risk,” a rising tide of mediocrity and plummeting test scores in U.S. public schools was identified. Why do you think the U.S. has failed to address our country’s education crisis?

A few years ago I had the good fortune of meeting the prime minister of Singapore. And Singapore, based on lots of different measures, is doing quite well as a country. But what was interesting about what he said, was that when they set their sights on becoming a real (global) force, that they made education their top priority. I thought that was interesting because in many ways it’s opposite to what we see here in this country. We treat education as a social issue and not an economic issue. So when it comes time to do a budget cut, it’s the first thing that gets cut, as opposed to understanding that if we  want our economy to thrive and be a force in the global marketplace, we have to make sure we have the best schools.

In “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First,” you reiterate your sentiment that America sees education as a social issue rather than an economic one. How does that attitude impact our ability to educate our children?

It puts people in a certain mindset. Everyone knows right now that the economy is the number one issue in this country. The unemployment rate – ensuring the economy improves – is the thing that is top of mind. In my opinion, (that equates to) education being the number one issue. Because how we compete in the global marketplace is by making sure that we have the best education system. We cannot continue in a world in which employers are saying that they can’t find people from our schools to fill mission-critical jobs in their company.  With this unemployment rate, to have employers say that there is an absolute mismatch out there between the education we’re providing kids and what is available in the jobs sector (is unacceptable). That mismatch is the biggest detriment that is going on right now.

During your time in Washington, D.C. you were at the center of the nation’s debate on education reform.  How do the politics of education impact the quality of schools?

For anybody who has had the misfortune of going to a school board meeting, you go to these meetings, you listen to  the discussions and there is very little  talk of children, of schools, of student  achievement. The vast majority of the arguments and debates that are going on are about adult interests. Then you have the special interests weighing in heavily, and I think what gets lost in the equation is a focus on what’s in the best interest of kids. What are the kinds of policy decisions we’d be making for our own kids. And I think unfortunately these political dynamics (interfere with that).

So much of the education debate unfortunately becomes centered around anti-teacher and pro-teacher. How can we create a more positive dialogue?

I think we have to be having real conversations. Right now I think so much of the debate in public education is set to these polarized extremes where actually nobody is. What critics will say about me and education reformers is that they’re trying to privatize education and this is the corporate agenda. That’s ridiculous. All it’s meant to do is to raise fear in people’s hearts about what is going on, instead of having a real discussion. What is it that we’re having disagreements about? Is it, for example, vouchers? Then let’s have a real conversation about vouchers. If it’s teacher evaluations: if we think 50 percent of the evaluations should be based on student achievement, and you  think 30 percent, then let’s have a real conversation about the difference in those percentages, instead of throwing out wild crazy accusations that only serve to scare people from having those conversations. Let’s focus on the real substantive policy debates.

What is the key message you’d want to get across to the business leaders in Michigan about education?

To the business community, my number one message is always, if we’re going to improve the economy, everything at the end of the day is reliant on education. So as business leaders they also have to become leaders in education reform.

James Martinez is editor of the Detroiter.