Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools, spoke Monday at the Kimmel Center as part of the Widener Speaker series, co-sponsored by WHYY. Read the transcript of Chris Satullo’s live blog.
Rhee slaloms down the school-choice hill, weaving between the liberal and conservative gates, hewing to a middle path.
Question: Should private schools that take voucher kids have to report test scores the same as public schools?
“I don’t believe in choice for choice’s sake. I believe in better outcomes for kids. So if we’re giving public dollars to a private school, we should be measuring whether the money spent is producing results. If it’s not, they don’t deserve a voucher.”
Took a while, but here comes the question about the cheating scandals in D.C. schools.
“The vast majority of teachers in this country would never sacrifice their integrity and encourage cheating on tests. But a minority, sadly, will.”
Those teachers should be fired.
Rhee objects to notion that high-stakes testing “makes people cheat.”
No, she says. We give students high-stakes tests like the SAT, but we don’t act as though that makes it OK for them to cheat.
Rhee does have some fans:
Question: Have you ever been approached by the Obama administration or a governor about a job as secretary of education? And, we have an opening in Philadelphia, are you interested?
Rhee says she started StudentsFirst because she believes a national school reform effort is needed.
“For the time being, that’s the most important work I could be doing.”
“There are no magic bullets. I don’t think we’ll find a 100-percent solution. We need to find 50 2-percent solutions.”
She also says: If a school is doing well, spare them the rulebook. Give them more autonomy and leeway. “If a school is succeeding with a single-sex approach, I’m all for it.”
Question time with WHYY’s Tracey Matisak.
Does Rhee favor a longer school day?
Yes. Time is an underappreciated resource, next to money. So why didn’t she lengthen D.C. school day. You have to improve quality of instruction first, she says. “More time with a crappy teacher won’t do any kid any good.”
How to curb violence in schools?
Rhee replies with a long, funny story about visiting a dysfunctional school with low attendance, which a teacher explained by saying, “It’s Friday, and it’s raining.” Kids at the school, she says, got up early and went to school to attend a class by a good teacher, then cut out for the rest of the day because their others teachers were poor.
In other words, she says, good teaching helps curb violence, as much as violence thwarts good teachers.
That said, she says, disproportionate amounts of a good teacher’s time can go toward dealing with one or two problem kids in a class, whom the administration does little about.
Rhee challenges everyone in Verizon Hall not to just leave tonight and say, “Oh, that was thought-provoking.”
“You have to figure out what you can do to help some child succeed in school, then do it,” she says.
Otherwise, she predicts, this current crop of kids will be the first generation to have a worse education than their parents.
She ends on a pitch for great education in public schools. Strong applause.
Warming up for the big close, Rhee says let’s not have a Republican school policy or a Democratic school policy. “Let’s have on that puts kids first,” she says.
Rhee describes herself as a “lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool” Democrat, which meant, she says, that when she arrived in D.C., she had a predisposition against school vouchers.
D.C. had a voucher program that was up for renewal, so she had to form an official position.
She says long conversations with moms whose kids were stuck in bad D.C. schools changed her mind. She couldn’t look at mothers, she says, and say, “Suck it up for a while; just give me five years to fix this thing.”
So, she came out for vouchers, and people “went ballistic.” Including many supporters of her other initiatives, who thought vouchers would sap the money she needed to execute her plans.
“My job is not to preserve, protect and defend a system that has not been doing the job for children,” she says.
Her job is to be “agnostic” about how education is delivered, and to focus on how well it is being delivered.
Sensible position. Tepid applause.
Rhee references S.B. 1, the measure in Harrisburg that calls for vouchers, and Waiting for Superman, the celebrated documentary about school choice.
Smattered applause as Rhee goes “Tiger Mom,” saying that we’ve gone soft as a country, coddling children for the sake of their esteem.
She dimes out her own kids as “sucking” at soccer, but says that if you looked in their rooms, the trophy collection would “make your think I’m raising the next Mia Hamm.”
Then she goes all Malcolm Gladwell, extolling the “practice it until you master it” message of Outliers.
She’s riffing with great energy, to titters and chuckles, about the American obsession with giving awards to every last, blinking kid in the school.
“This is very different from cultures you see around the world,” she said, noting her culture shock when her parents sent her to school for a year in South Korea.
Rhee says she really isn’t a “Tiger Mom.” She’s not that demanding of her kids. “More like a Gerbil Mom.”
The final point: Be honest with your children about what greatness really looks like.
Only modest applause for that line.
Rhee is telling a long story, whose point is that differences in teaching style make a huge difference in atmosphere and achievement. It’s a good and pungent story that makes her point.
Not to be catty, but the payoff of the story includes a mention of the ancient instrument called the lyre. She mispronounced it.
Rhee gets her first big bit of applause by saying something in praise of teachers, who do “the hardest job in the world.”
Rhee: “Education is one of the greatest tools we have to combat poverty.”
Gee, ya think?
Personal aside to explain the burst of cynicism above: Maybe I’ve been covering education reform too long (since 1976). It’s been a long time since I heard any would-be reformer say anything startlingly original (that was also sensible and true).
Rhee reports billionaire Warren Buffett’s tongue-in-cheek, two-step plan for fixing public education:
1. Make private schools illegal.
2. Announce that all children will be assigned to schools by random lottery.
Then watch how fast well-heeled, well-educated parents make sure the public schools get everything they need.
Much like moral philospher’s John Rawls idea of the determining the most just arrangement of society: Ask people to imagine that they are a soul in heaven about to be assigned to a newborn body, and that assignment will be done by lottery. They then will devise a system for society that is fair and limits the impact of birth luck on life chances.
Rhee is clearly speaking off the cuff, with no written speech, just a few notes. These are obviously oft-told, much-rehearsed anecdotes.
She’s talking about how the politics of the District stood in the way of logical, cost-saving steps.
In her first year, she proposed closing 23 schools, and discovered how hard and unpopular a thing closing schools is to achieve.
She reports that Council people would tell her that they knew schools had to be closed, and each told her they supported the concept, as long as none of the schools targeted for shutdown was in their ward.
Told that a high-performing school in an affluent district should be closed, because that would make the plan seem “fair, like it was sharing the pain,” she replied, “That is the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
Observation: Lines like that, which play well on the lecture circuit, may actually show a lack of maturity in leadership. Telling people the issues of class and race they care about are “the dumbest thing you ever heard” may not be a prescription for building broad support.
If you’re planning on getting run out of town inside three years, however ….
Rhee describes herself as a CEO in a turnaround situation.
“So I did what any CEO confronted with so many people who refused to take responsibility for their work would do: I started firing people.”
She describes a tense meeting with the district’s counsel, who tried to explain how district policy on bad behavior deserving of firing contrasted with her sense that anyone not doing their jobs well should be on the block.
In short, you’d have to catch an employee in the act of hitting a child or robbing the till. And there had been no performance evaluations on district central staff for 10 years, meaning their was no paper basis for a terminatoin.
So, Rhee says, she told incompetent employees to stay at home, where they could do no harm to children.
Rhee complained to Fenty about the rules, who said, “Well, let’s change the rules.”
Fenty and Rhee sought to make all district staffers “at will” employees, meaning they could be fired more easily.
That was a firestorm, she says. But during a 14-hour Council hearing on the measure, she claims, there was much talk of “due process” for adult employees, but no talk of doing right by children.
The District’s poor academic results were not just the result of poverty, she says. Kids in D.C. were two grade levels, on average, behind kids in Harlem.
When Fenty named Rhee as schools chief, the reaction was strongly negative: “What on earth has Adrian Fenty done hiring this 37-year-old Korean girl from Toledo? Of course, I was thinking the same thing.”
Her No. 1 job, she says, was figuring out “where is all the money going?” Average per pupil spending was not low, compared to other urban districts, but schools seem to have no supplies, no equipment.
“We were spending $18,000 per kid per year on transporation. I thought we could buy each kid a Saturn, and give them a chauffeur each year, for that amount.”
But her hands were tied by a consent degree reached in court; she couldn’t cut the cosdts.
Rhee went on: “That’s the craziest thing I ever heard, “I said to the manager who told me that. “That’s because I haven’t told you the next tidbit,” he said.
Because of having failed so many kids with special needs, the District was sending lots of kids out of district to other schools, where it had to pay tuition plus specialized busing costs.
Rhee tells the story of Adrian Fenty’s shoe-leather approach to achieving his upset win as mayor of Washington, D.C., and how on his first day, as his first act as mayor, he introduced legislation to give him direct control of the District’s schools.
Why? Because the No. 1 message voters gave him as he knocked on door after door in his campaign: “You’ve got to fix the schools.
At the time, the D.C. schools had a performance gap of 70 percentage points between black and white students. Minority students had a 9 percent rate of going to college, she says.
Rhee starts with a joke, noting the unusual situation with people sitting behind her in Verizon Hall’s “conductor’s circle” seats. “If anyone behind me decides to throw somehting at me, I hope you’ll give me a head’s up,” she says.
Moderator Tracey Matisak reviews Michelle Rhee’s biography: Korean-American, born in Michigan, raised in Ohio, undergrad work at Cornell, masters from Cornell, successful stint with Teach for America.
As Tracey notes, she is controversial because of her aggressive style.
It will be interesting to see how the Kimmel crowd greets Michelle Rhee. The first event in the series this fall, a talk by popular historian Ron Chernow, was a genteel lovefest.
But Rhee, who ran the Washington, D.C., school for three controversy-filled years while still in her 30s, is a figure who elicits strong emotions. Now 41, she runs a nonprofit called Students First, but she has critics who doubted that she lived up to those words in her years in the District.
Most of the questions that NewsWorks’ readers suggested to tonight’s host/interviewer, Tracey Matisak, ranged from the critical to the downright hostile.
Philadelphia, a city now licking wounds from the barbed tenures and messy departures of its last three schools chiefs, is an interesting stop along Rhee’s speaking tour. Some education advocates in this union town have a lot of cynicism about the steps Rhee, along with other school reformers, have pushed: reducing union prerogatives; a stress on testing and accountability; openness to charter schools and vouchers.