The controversial education reformer on improving mobility, the gap between the U.S. and other developed countries, and why she’s optimistic.
Michelle Rhee is possibly best known for her offhand candor in the documentary Waiting for Superman, or possibly the Time magazine cover that depicts her wielding a reformer’s broom (“How to Fix America’s Schools”), or maybe as the confounder of anyone naïve enough to suppose that the title of the excellent account of her three years as chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school district (The Bee Eater, by Richard Whitmire) is a reference with only figurative meaning. (The full effect of the reference won’t be spoiled by mentioning that it has to do with Michelle Rhee’s improvisational skills in the classroom.) It’s a good bet that any American parent with an interest in the problems of the U.S. public school system is familiar with Michelle Rhee in one way or another.
In fact, a montage of Michelle Rhee’s appearances in Waiting for Superman might serve as a useful overview of key issues in U.S. public school reform. There’s Michelle Rhee confidently, perhaps defiantly, announcing as she assumes the role of chancellor that she’s never run a school district before—a reflection in miniature of the fact that the problems in the public school system are so deeply entrenched that a tradition has developed of bringing in outsiders or relative novices: length of experience is seen as related in inverse proportion to the promise of success. (Rhee had actually spent only three years as a teacher before being appointed chancellor.) There’s Michelle Rhee striding through the cluttered, dreary hallway of the D.C. system’s central administrative offices, a glimpse of infrastructure in need of overhaul. Michelle Rhee working a laptop and two handheld devices simultaneously in the back of a car. Michelle Rhee shown on PBS “The Newshour” firing a poor-performing principal. And most poignantly, a dejected-looking Michelle Rhee, standing alone in an auditorium crowded with angry teachers after the voiceover narrator has just described how Michelle Rhee had cut over 100 jobs in the central office and fired a quarter of all the principals in the D.C. system.
No moment in Waiting for Superman is as plangent and unexpected as when Anthony, who is in fifth grade, utters the word “bittersweet.” (That moment alone, incidentally, is a reason to see the movie, if anyone already hasn’t.) “Bittersweet” also characterizes the ending of the movie, when Anthony, one of the five students whose progress the movie tracks, wins admission to his school of choice; three of the five don’t. This bittersweet ending might serve as well as a précis of Michelle Rhee’s transition from chancellor to her post-chancellor career: mingled gains and losses, challenges behind, challenges ahead. Rhee resigned in 2010 after Mayor Adrian Fenty, who’d appointed her as chancellor and championed her reforms, was defeated in a contentious bid for re-election, quite possibly (to borrow a qualifier from Richard Whitmire’s description of events) because the American Federation of Teachers supported his opponent as a way of ousting Rhee. Whitmire, who presents a balanced picture of Rhee’s accomplishments while chancellor, and isn’t sparing of criticism, has this to say: “However, other than teachers’ union leaders, there are few national education experts who don’t consider Rhee’s D.C. reforms to have been the most important recent education experiment in the country.”
Not long after resigning as chancellor, Rhee founded StudentsFirst, a national political advocacy group which she leads and which, in the week before the interview that follows, celebrated the milestone of growing its membership to the one million mark. She also married Kevin Johnson, former NBA star and current mayor of Sacramento, California.
Friendly but no-nonsense, Rhee spoke to me by phone from New York on her way to a meeting with New York members of StudentsFirst.
—Fortunato Salazar for Guernica
Guernica: The New York Times published an article a few days ago about the striking lack of upward mobility in the United States. How much does K-12 public education figure into the mobility problem, and how much can reform of education improve mobility?
Michelle Rhee: In the past in this country, education was seen as the tool to upward mobility, right? So, if you grew up in a lower-income community, or less well-off, the belief was that the way to change that circumstance was through education. Now we have a circumstance where people are saying, “Well, schools can’t make up for what parents won’t do,” or, “Poverty is so significant that we can’t expect to overcome the impacts of poverty in schools,” right? And it’s very interesting because if you look at one of the countries that is having the most success in education right now, that country is Finland.
In this country and as well as across the world, what do we believe truly is our greatest weapon to combat generational poverty?
So lots of people right now, including teachers unions, say, “Well, let’s look at Finland, let’s look at Finland, let’s look at Finland. Let’s look at what Finland does and try to model our school system off of them, etc.” But in Finland it’s very interesting; there’s an author named Amanda Ripley who’s writing a book about this, and basically what she found is that the attitude in Finland about poverty and education is the diametric opposite of what it is here. And that is that people here are now saying that the problems of poverty are so intractable, we can’t possibly expect the schools to do anything about it.
But in Finland, what the belief is, is that the problems of poverty are so intractable that only schools are able to do that. So those are two very different mindsets and two mindsets that I think are incredibly important in terms of understanding how much possibility or sense of possibility people have.
In this country and across the world, what do we believe truly is our greatest weapon to combat generational poverty? Is it going to be a social program here or there? I think that we, in the past in this country, have always believed that it would be education. In the last two decades that notion has changed and that now it’s sort of much more aligned with, “Well, schools can’t combat poverty. We can’t possibly expect schools to do the work to overcome poverty.” I think that notion which has changed over the last few decades is part, not all, but part of what is maybe leading to people feeling less of a sense of possibility.
Guernica: You mentioned the belief that schools can’t make up for what parents won’t do. One of the priorities of the StudentsFirst is to empower parents. What will empowered parents be doing that they’re not doing now?
Michelle Rhee: In an ideal world, you would have much more parental involvement in education than we currently do. If you look at the research, it does show that in schools where parent involvement is greater, you do have higher achievement levels and better functioning, better performing schools. That said, I think there’s a belief now that the problem with our schools is parents, that if we just had better parents we would have better performing kids and, therefore, we wouldn’t have a problem at all. But what’s missing in that equation is that you do have a lot of parents in this country who are very involved in their children’s education and who do want something better. They want to see better for their kids. They know that they’re in schools that aren’t performing particularly well and if you look at how we treat those parents, it is quite poorly.
So in the last, roughly, eighteen to twenty-four months in this country, we have had three very high profile-things happen in public education with parents. The first was the Waiting for Superman movie, where you had a profile of five families across the country, four of whom were low-income families, but every single one of those groups of parents were willing to do anything it took to get their kids into a high-performing school.
The second example was of a group of parents in Compton, California who were the first group to utilize a law that had been recently passed in the state called “The Parent Trigger,” where if 50 percent or more of the parents in a school signed a petition, they could trigger a turnaround in the school. And the third example was a mother in Akron, Ohio who falsified her residency documents to try to get her kids to be able to go to a school in a safer part of the neighborhood. And if you look at what happened in each of those cases to those parents, in the first case, the parents were told, “Sorry. Even though you’re willing to get on a train and travel an hour and a half each way to school, we don’t have any room for your kids at these higher-performing schools.”
The second group of parents were threatened. They were harassed. They were told they were going to be deported, etc., unless they rescinded their signatures from the petition. And the third woman, we throw her in jail. So I don’t think we’re sending the message to parents in America that we welcome their involvement in the schools. Do we want to encourage more parental involvement? Absolutely, but in order to do that, we have to create an environment where parents feel respected and they feel that their influence and their activism is going to make a difference.
Guernica: How optimistic are you about closing the wide gap in achievement between materially advantaged and materially disadvantaged children—between what Louis Gomez has called “growth America” and “decline America”?
Michelle Rhee: There are two things. There is, “How can we close the gap domestically?” and then there’s, “How can we close the gap internationally?” and they are not unrelated. So if we were to close the gap domestically, that would actually help to close the gap internationally, but it wouldn’t close the entire gap. There’s an interesting statistic which says that if you look at our richest kids, the richest kids in this country who are far more wealthy than the wealthiest kids in other countries, they are still, I think, twenty-fifth out of thirty nations or something like that, compared to their peers internationally. And, similarly, our lowest income kids are rated about at the same level.
So you’re talking about an achievement gap that exists among the highest-wealth kids and the lowest-wealth kids. So that’s a significant problem, and I think that two things need to happen. One, with the lowest-income kids, I truly believe there has to be a greater sense of possibility and higher expectations that are set for what those students can accomplish and also what schools can do to combat poverty, to combat the challenging living circumstances for those kids.
I think with the higher-income kids, what needs to be communicated is a slightly different thing, which is that those kids and those families need to be made much more aware of how they’re comparing to their international counterparts. I think if you go into the average suburban, high-income, public school, most of those families, most of those kids, most of those parents, are going to think, “My kid’s getting a pretty good education. I don’t have anything to worry about.” They don’t read the stories every day in the paper about kids coming to school and seeing violence and that sort of thing and so they assume, “Okay. Then my kid is fine.” And they don’t have a lot of the context around the international comparisons, what skills a college kid is going to need to be able to compete with their global counterparts in the long term. So the information or education or empowerment that needs to happen in those communities is around something different.
It’s really only going to be when we understand that there is something at stake in terms of their own livelihoods that really we’re going to see the kind of movement that we need.
Guernica: That’s curious, though, because even if those parents aren’t reading the stories about school violence in neighborhoods other than their own, aren’t they reading the stories about the economy and the struggles of the U.S. to compete in the global economy? Doesn’t that give them a context for international comparison?
Michelle Rhee: Well, I think that people aren’t necessarily making the connection between the U.S. not being able to compete in the global marketplace, and where we are on that and education. I’m not sure that people are making those connections and so I think that’s part of the problem. I think the other part of the problem is that for well-to-do, suburban parents, even those who are very involved and engaged in their kids’ education, I talk to parents all the time who are in that situation who always say to me, “Well, what should I be looking for? How do I know whether my kids are getting what they need?”
So, oftentimes, those parents are in a position where they think about school and they sort of hearken back to when they were young and they don’t necessarily know what to look for. So if they know that there’s no violence and that their kids don’t have to walk through a metal detector to go into school everyday, and then they go into the school and they see kids who are sitting there and looking relatively well-behaved and who have a pencil to paper, the majority of those parents are going to think, “Hey, my kid is in a good school.” They don’t have the knowledge. They’re not empowered to look beneath the surface to understand proficiency rates. They may not understand, for example, in their state, how proficiency rates might be tracking internationally.
I’ll give an example. My husband, who’s very involved in these education issues, went recently to give a speech in Washington state and he said, “There’s this crazy idea in Washington state, where in the state-level tests, the cut scores for proficiency levels are quite low. So, therefore, when you look at the data from the schools and the school districts, it looks like the vast majority of the kids are doing pretty well, 70-80 percent of kids are performing at grade level. But if you look at that same data and how it ranks on the NAEP [National Assessment of Education Progress], the proficiency levels are much, much lower.” I think they’re below 40 percent.
He said, “But nobody in the state, the parents are looking at the state report cards. They’re looking at the state tests, which look pretty good. They’re not looking at the NAEP examination.” I’m pretty sure that if they were, and they saw that less than 40 percent of their kids are operating at grade level proficiency, there would be a much greater outcry. So you’ve got dynamics like that going on as well that are giving parents different levels of information and, therefore, mixed levels of information that are also not necessarily building any kind of sense of urgency.
Guernica: Is it your sense that policy makers at the state and national level have a sense of urgency about the achievement gap between U.S. students and students in countries the U.S. is competing with globally?
Michelle Rhee: I think in general it’s not on people’s radars at any of those levels. I think that’s part of the problem that we face. If you look at polling data from the U.S. over the last couple of years, a lot of it shows that the vast majority of Americans do believe that the public education system in this country is not doing well. So that would lead you to believe that it really is on people’s minds, but I think the second data point is actually more telling, which is that those same people when asked again what they think about their own schools, then the data is almost flipped: 70 percent to 80 percent of people say that they believe that their own school is performing well.
Also, if you think that there’s a problem overall, nationally, but you think that your school, your community, your kids are doing fine, then it’s less of a burning platform. You have less of a sense of urgency to do something about it. So, when the most recent set of results did come out, there were a couple of articles here or there but there wasn’t any sort of national outcry. If you look at the country that most recently has gone from being a rather poor-performing country to seeing a rapid trajectory upwards, that was Germany. It happened shortly after reunification, when the country became aware of how incredibly poorly they were doing and the entire country, including the government, made it a priority to change this dynamic. And so, that’s really what it’s going to take. I mean, people in the U.S., in my mind, don’t really understand what’s at stake with these results. They think that it doesn’t impact their kids, that their kids are fine. It’s really only going to be when we understand—when everybody in this country understands—that there is something at stake in terms of their own livelihoods that really we’re going to see the kind of movement that we need.
Guernica: To echo my earlier question about optimism, how optimistic are you about the prospects for this kind of movement to happen?
Michelle Rhee: I’m very optimistic that it can happen and, in fact, we’ve seen it happen with countries across the world in the past. But what it’s going to take is an incredibly concerted and very aggressive effort to make it happen. So the question is not can we do it but just how long is it going to take and are we ready to put the politics aside and ensure that we are making policy decisions that we know are in the best interests of children to ensure that it happens.
Photograph courtesy of Randy Sager