Voice of Reform

January 31, 2009

Calling Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system, an "educational reformer" is like calling a bulldozer "something that moves dirt." The term doesn't begin to do justice to what many consider her radical transformations of the D.C. system, one of the nation's worst.

Rhee, thirty-seven, visited Duke in November to talk about her first year-and-a-half on the job in a lecture sponsored by the Office of the President and the Sanford Institute of Public Policy. During her tenure, she has alarmed many in the education establishment with her dogged pursuit of a complete system overhaul within eight years. Recently, she has tackled the teacher's union with a controversial proposal to increase teacher pay to $100,000 or more in exchange for giving up tenure.

During one recent visit to an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood, Rhee was struck by differences she saw in two classrooms across the hallway from one another. In one room, the teacher engaged students in a critical discussion about Greek mythology, while in the other, "the exact opposite was happening." The teacher there was flicking the lights on and off and screaming at her pupils to quiet down.

This was in "the same crappy school with no air conditioning and rainwater flooding in through the ceiling tiles," she said. "And one group of kids was getting a phenomenal education, and one was not, simply because of the teachers who were in front of them every single day."

In a district high school, Rhee spoke with students who bubbled with enthusiasm about one of their teachers—a Teach For America participant who engaged them in classes and tutored them outside of school.

Rhee tracked down the teacher, who described being discouraged by fellow teachers from putting in the extra effort. He told her that he wasn't sure this was the type of environment where he could have long-term success.

"It was the saddest conversation you could possibly have," Rhee recalled.

"I want to make sure that I'm clear that we have lots and lots of teachers in our system who do heroic things every single day," she told the audience. "They are amazing people who go above and beyond the call of duty. The problem is that we don't actually recognize and reward those people."