Michelle Rhee's effort to change education

  • Article by: DENISE JOHNSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 18, 2011 - 1:24 PM

Michelle Rhee

Photo: Susan Walsh, Associated Press

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Michelle Rhee shook things up during three years as chancellor of the Washington, D. C., public schools.

Among her early actions: closing 23 schools and firing dozens of teachers and administrators.

Rhee gained more national recognition — and provoked more controversy—- last year with an appearance in the documentary “Waiting for Superman.’’

The movie told the stories of several students and their families who tried desperately to get into good schools through lottery systems. In some quarters, the film was seen as an anti-teacher union diatribe, with Rhee helping to lead that charge.

But after talking with Rhee, you realize that her campaign to educate children isn’t about teacher bashing.

In fact, she wants to  increase the ranks of good teachers (and pay them more) because they are key to improving student learning.

But like many education reformers, Rhee believes that educators who aren’t doing the job should go, and that their salaries should be redirected to effective programs and teachers.

“I’m a lifelong Democrat, I believe in collective bargaining, and I’m not anti-teacher or against teacher unions,’’ Rhee said during a visit with Editorial Board members this week. “Teaching is a very hard job —  not everyone can do it."

“When I speak around the country, I often have teachers come up to me and say ‘I’m with you!,’ but they just can’t say that publicly…No one is less tolerant of ineffective teachers than really effective teachers.’’

Rhee was in Minneapolis to talk about education reform at a meeting of the Economic Club of Minnesota. She does a lot of traveling these days, spreading the word about her latest endeavor, Sacramento-based StudentsFirst.

Its mission is to encourage state and federal policies that ensure great teachers, provide access to strong schools and promote the effective use of the billions in public dollars that are spent on education.

Nearly 20 years ago, Rhee’s experiences as a Teach for America educator in Baltimore helped her understand what disadvantaged kids need to thrive.

In 1997, she founded the New Teacher Project to improve the way change teachers are recruited and trained to work in struggling schools. The organization has placed 23,000 high-quality teachers in urban schools around the nation

Between 2007 and 2010, Rhee was chancellor of the C.C.  schools, a system widely known as one of the worst in the nation.

During her brief tenure, D.C. became the only major urban system to see double-digit student growth in reading and math (although an investigation continues into allegations of cheating on some standardized tests).

The district’s graduation and attendance rates rose for the first time in decades.

Today Rhee is focused on StudentsFirst, and her goal to help build a national movement to defend the interests of students and put their needs on the same political footing as other education groups such as unions, textbook producers and testing services.

Whether or not one agrees with every change Rhee’s group wants to embed in state education laws, the group’s  work adds thoughtful, research-based support to the growing chorus of reformers who want improved student achievement sooner rather than later.

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