'Radical': Education reformer Michelle Rhee argues that tough love is best

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Michelle Rhee headed the District of Columbia public school system from 2007 to 2010. She launched her administration by closing 23 schools, laying off 266 teachers and firing 36 principals, 22 assistant principals and 98 district office workers. She resigned in 2010 when the mayor, her political backer, lost his bid for re-election.

Not surprisingly, she has come under withering criticism. Teachers and education activists have called her anti-teacher, ineffective and authoritarian.


By Michelle Rhee
Harper ($27.99).

But it is hard to argue with her assertions.

Students must come first in education, she says in "Radical." This statement may seem simple, but from it flow views about the role of teachers unions and the use of school resources that are bound to ruffle more than a few feathers.

Ms. Rhee wants to distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers. She wants to reward effective educators and let go of poor ones. And she wants to see measurable progress in students' ability to read and do math.

The idea of treating teachers differently based on merit is anathema to such union heads as Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, who favor job security and higher pay for all teachers equally. Ms. Rhee and Ms. Weingarten battled like gladiators. Round one went to Ms. Rhee when a teachers union contract was signed that did not include the usual job security provisions. Round two went to Ms. Weingarten when Ms. Rhee resigned. But the battle continues, now with Ms. Rhee working nationally for an education reform organization called StudentsFirst.

"Radical" is part memoir and part policy blueprint. Its first part deals with Ms. Rhee's background. This is instructive because it charts the evolution of her vision.

Michelle Rhee is Korean-American. She thought her mother was too strict -- until she spent a summer going to school in Korea and seeing what other Korean mothers were like. This experience taught her that children in other lands were learning how to compete in school, while her American peers were being told they were doing a great job.

During her junior year of high school, Ms. Rhee worked for a summer camp for Native American children in Canada. After two months, she thought she had made an impact on the children's lives playing games and having fun with them. But the children didn't remember her a week after she had played with them. She realized then that playing games with impoverished children did nothing lasting for their lives.

She joined Teach for America and ended up teaching in the Baltimore public school system. "Bars on dingy windows. Trash blowing up against chain-link fences." That was the neighborhood her new school was in. A veteran teacher greeted her with, "Look, baby, you gotta know what you're getting into here. ... You can't look as scared as you do now."

Ms. Rhee was unable to keep order in her class, which devolved into chaos. "There's nothing I can do," she wrote of her thoughts at the time. "I work my butt off. ... But it doesn't matter."

But she had an awakening when she observed one of her student troublemakers being quiet and obedient in another teacher's class. "It's not her [the student]; it's me," she wrote. "It's not just about kids who come to school hungry, from families who don't care about education, through streets with a gantlet of drug dealers. I was creating the kind of environment where they could act up and be crazy, but if they were in a different environment with a different teacher, they could be calm and learn."

Ms. Rhee learned how to instill discipline in her students: "My mistake the first year was trying to be warm and friendly with the students, thinking that my kids needed love and compassion. What I knew going into my second year is that what my children needed and craved was a rigid structure, certainty and stability."

After that experience, she had no patience for the mindset encapsulated in a sign she saw at one D.C. elementary school: "Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do."

The second part of the book is about Ms. Rhee's experiences in D.C. She won several victories, including opening the schools on time, getting more control over which teachers to retain and hire, raising student test scores, getting basic supplies to the classrooms and closing under-utilized schools.

These victories were not without controversy, and not only with the teachers union. Residents objected strongly to the closing of neighborhood schools, often the only stabilizing force in their neighborhoods. To Ms. Rhee, however, closing poorly performing, half-full schools was necessary to make sure that each student had access to good teachers, a librarian, a nurse, music, art and a school counselor, all things she considers requirements for a good education.

Her students' test scores also came under scrutiny when USA Today found an unusual number of erasure marks on the D.C. students' standardized tests during her administration. Subsequent investigation found no evidence of systematic cheating.

Additional criticism has claimed that D.C. test scores were rising even before Ms. Rhee came aboard and that the rise in test scores during her time in office cannot with certainty be attributed to her (although she achieved those higher scores with fewer staff members and fewer schools).

Ms. Rhee is clear-eyed about why she and then-Mayor Adrian Fenty weren't able to keep their posts: "[M]any Washingtonians saw Adrian Fenty as remote, dismissive and arrogant." These impressions also carried over to Ms. Rhee. "We failed to build a grass-roots following," she writes.

Ms. Rhee's critics sometimes paint her as a tool of the right -- in line with people trying to weaken or destroy the public school system. She refutes that assertion.

She notes that when she began advocating for school vouchers, some Republican politicians were delighted with her. A voucher is a certificate issued by the government that parents can use to pay for private school tuition or home school expenses rather than to fund the public school to which their child is assigned. When Ms. Rhee made clear that she believes vouchers must be strongly regulated to ensure accountability, "the honeymoon [with Republicans] ended quickly." Interestingly, she calls herself a Democrat, although she expresses disappointment in the party's "union-beholden" policies.

Detractors may criticize Ms. Rhee on various points, but her bottom line cannot be refuted: Students must come first in education ... and by extension, some adult interests will be hurt.

This is a compelling book, well written and well argued. Anyone interested in public education should read it.


Laura Malt Schneiderman is a Web content producer for post-gazette.com: lschneiderman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1923.


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