Rhee And Opinions: Who Cares?

From The Duke Chronicle:
Rhee pushes contentious education reform policy
By: Ryan Brown
Posted: 11/18/08

When it comes to school reform, Michelle Rhee doesn't care what you think.

The chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system has had about enough of adult opinions and adult priorities.

"It's our kids who have no due process," she said. "We still allow the color of a child's skin and their zip-code to dictate the quality of their education, and that's the biggest social injustice imaginable."

Rhee, 38, has set off a firestorm of controversy among education reformers with her bold plans to overhaul the school system in D.C., widely regarded as one of the worst districts in the nation. But Monday night, she played to a different crowd.

Filling every level of the building, members of the Duke community packed the Fleishman Commons at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy to hear Rhee speak about her experiences in the field of urban public education, and to ask their own questions of the young leader who has made a name for herself in the education world as a scrappy, no-nonsense reformer.

"Her parents hoped for her to become a doctor or a lawyer or at worst an investment banker," President Richard Brodhead said in introducing Rhee. "But in spite of that, she became a teacher."

Rhee's meteoric rise to the chancellorship took her down a path familiar to many Duke graduates. After graduating from Cornell University in 1992, she joined Teach For America, a program that sends recent college graduates to some of the nation's worst schools to teach for two years.

The program currently counts 3,800 first-year teachers among its ranks, and 10 percent of Duke's Class of 2008 applied for a spot last year, said Caroline Davis, a senior recruitment director for the program. This year, there are 43 former Duke students teaching in the program, which has for several years been one of the largest employers of recent Duke graduates.

As for Rhee, she jumped from TFA to graduate school at Harvard University to a job organizing a TFA off-shoot called the New Teacher Project.

Then one day last spring, she got a call from D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. He had a request: He wanted her to take the reins of his city's struggling schools.

"I said, are you kidding me?" Rhee recalled to the Sanford audience. "There was no worse job I could think of than being an urban superintendent."

But Fenty wasn't prepared to give up that easily. He and Rhee eventually struck a deal. He would dissolve the school board and give her nearly full autonomy to run the district, and she would come to work in the D.C. schools.

Rhee didn't waste any time. Only weeks into her tenure, she began to slash the jobs of a group of teachers and administrators who she said were "egregiously incompetent." Almost immediately after, parents and teachers began to complain, but Rhee was unphased.

She charged forward, unleashing a controversial idea: a pay-for-performance plan that would reward teachers whose students made marked improvements in state and national standardized tests.

"We have lots of teachers in our system who are heroic, who go beyond what they have to do every single day, but the current system doesn't reward them," she said.

Her comments generated a stir in the Sanford audience as well. When moderators opened the floor to questions, audience members asked questions about the economics, sustainability and practical implications of Rhee's plan.

But Jacob Vigdor, an associate professor of public policy studies and economics whose research focuses on education reform, said however her initiatives play out, her creativity as a reformer should be lauded.

"There's only so much you can figure out sitting around talking about hypothetical situations," he said. "The more people try things, the more we'll learn."

Sophomore Nikhil Taneja said he walked away from the speech inspired by Rhee's tenacity.

"She's not afraid to say what has to be said," he said. "She's putting kids first and that gives me confidence."

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