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If you want to enliven a parent-teachers evening in Washington, DC, raise the subject of Michelle Rhee, the city’s former schools chancellor. Most education officials toil in obscurity. Rhee is a national celebrity. Some see her as an unflinching champion of US education reform and a bold opponent of the powerful teachers’ unions. Others revile her as a mouthpiece of billionaire philanthropists and advocate of school privatisation. People tend to have strong views about Rhee.
In 2008, when Rhee was in the midst of overhauling Washington’s classrooms, she was pictured on the cover of Time magazine holding a new broom – “How to Fix America’s Schools”, it said. Anyone who failed to grasp the symbolism was disabused two years later by Waiting for “Superman”, an award-winning documentary by Davis Guggenheim that depicted the rise of the US charter school movement – union-free, publicly-funded schools that select students by lottery. Many are also privately-funded. Rhee, who promoted the spread of charter schools in DC, was one of the movie’s stars. In one scene she offers to fire a public school principal on camera. She goes ahead and sacks the unfortunate woman. No shrinking violet is Rhee.
I await her arrival in some trepidation. We are meeting at DC Coast, a well-heeled modern American restaurant in downtown Washington that was one of Rhee’s haunts before she moved to Sacramento, where her husband, Kevin Johnson, the former basketball star, is mayor. She also has a home in Nashville where her two children live with her former husband, Kevin Huffman, who is education commissioner of Tennessee – the same role Rhee played in DC. She spends much of her life flying between the two cities.
I have taken a table upstairs away from the clamour of the main dining area. Rhee, who is 43, turns up precisely on time. Dressed in a smart blue and cream business suit, she shakes my hand briskly and sits down. I apologise for plonking my smartphone under her nose and mutter something banal about how the iPhone’s audio now rivals the best tape recorders. “Samsung seems to be holding its own as well,” she replies.
Rhee, who was raised in Toledo, Ohio, by first generation Korean parents, is fluent in the language and clearly proud of her heritage. As a child she was sent to Korea for a year, where she says she learnt the virtue of hard work. “They were tough with the children but it didn’t affect their self-esteem,” she says. “Coming from America I was used to being told everything I did was great. Korea was a shock to my system.” Lately, Korean-Americans have flourished in the US almost as much as South Korea has on the world stage. I suggest that Rhee must be the most famous Korean-American around. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she says looking a little flustered. “There’s, um, [comedian] Margaret Cho,” she says. “Then there’s that guy who heads Dartmouth College, what’s his name?” Jim Yong Kim, now president of the World Bank? “Yes, that’s the one.”
Rhee adds that people sometimes confuse her with Amy Chua, the Chinese-American author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. At a time of rising angst in the US about Asia’s impressive educational performance, it is perhaps fitting that two of America’s best-known scolds are Asian-American – Rhee as the bane of teaching unions, and Chua as the driven mother who wakes her children at 4am to practise their scales. Rhee has heard the comparison before. Her 11-year-old daughter recently read Chua’s book and was gripped, she says. “My daughter insists I am not a tiger mom – ‘you’re more like a gerbil mom,’ she said to me. I have very high standards and I am big believer that kids don’t benefit from false praise – you know, ‘Good job,’ everything’s ‘great’. My children know that when I give them praise I really mean it.
“They also know that if they come home with a grade that is less than expected, then I won’t be happy,” she says. That I can believe, I say. Rhee laughs companionably. Our starters have arrived. Rhee has ordered an exotic-looking heirloom salad and I regret my dull-looking house salad. I ask if she would like a glass of wine. “Oh no no,” she replies. “I am not a drinker.”
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Rhee’s detractors see her, and the charter school movement, as a Trojan horse for privatising US public schools. Rhee, who started teaching after graduating from Cornell in 1992, and who within five years had set up her own company that supplied teachers to local authorities, belongs to a generation of reformist liberals with a taste for Thatcherite pugilism. But she insists that her support for school vouchers and independent charter schools is not the thin end of the wedge. In practice, charter schools have performed no better on average than public schools. But Rhee’s alarm about the link between US public education and US declining competitiveness is widely shared.
She says she is spending a lot of her time nowadays in places such as Tennessee and Georgia, fighting an “unholy alliance” of teaching unions and Tea Party Republicans. They are united in their dislike of America’s new “common curriculum”, which Rhee and others believe will raise standards. The Tea Party hates anything that smacks of a federal mandate even if it is not a Washington idea. And unions are generally suspicious of change.
After quitting as schools chancellor in DC in 2010, Rhee set up her own non-profit group, Students First, which raises money from big foundations including those of Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Walmart’s Walton family. She then donates money to candidates who back the “reform agenda”. In addition to hounding the unions, Rhee advocates performance-based pay, ending teacher tenure and killing off the “last in, first out” rules for teachers. Her town hall meetings are a natural magnet for protesters.
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Has she developed a method of responding to the personal attacks? Rhee complains about how polarised the US education debate has become, with some blaming America’s slipping performance on bad teachers and the unions who protect them and others blaming it on bad parenting and an increasingly unequal society. Both sides make good points. You could boil it down to a debate between Rhee and Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), who is an outspoken critic of charter schools and of basing teacher pay on test results. Rhee makes it clear in her recent autobiography, Radical, that she and Weingarten do not admire each other very much.
But isn’t Rhee herself complicit in the polarisation that she complains about? “The other day Weingarten called me a profiteer – I mean what is that supposed to mean?” she says. But hasn’t she courted the type of publicity that can be used against her? Our main courses have arrived. Rhee is mostly ignoring her plate of tuna tartare. I am enjoying my bowl of pennette calamari. Rhee responds in a torrent. “Eighteen months ago, an outside group shared a national poll they did of teachers across the country and it said that more teachers know who I am than know who Randi Weingarten is,” she said. “And my husband said, ‘Everyone knows who the devil is, not everybody knows who the apostles are.’ I said, ‘Right, thanks.’ They’ve done a very good job of putting my face to education reform and pumping that up.”
But surely she has also put her face up there too? I mention brooms and televised firings. In her four years as Washington’s chancellor, Rhee fired hundreds of teachers, 36 principals and closed 23 schools. This gave her money to put a music teacher, a librarian and an art teacher in every school for the first time in Washington’s history, she says. The salaries of the best performing teachers almost doubled to $140,000 a year. Others lost their jobs. Schools complained of acute pressure to improve their test scores. But for all the drama surrounding Rhee, and allegations of manipulated results, she inherited the worst-performing urban district in the US and left it in better shape. The city has risen up the ranks. Still, her controversial impact almost certainly cost DC’s mayor Adrian Fenty his job. AFT and other unions contributed more than $1m to the election campaign of Fenty’s opponent, Vincent Gray, who is now Washington’s mayor. Rhee resigned with Fenty.
“I think when I took the job in DC, I was not particularly savvy about the media,” Rhee says. “People asked me for interviews, I answered the questions and because I was so honest about my thoughts, it gave them the material. I can’t blame anyone other than myself for that. I was stupid.” I fear I must be looking nonplussed since I find it hard to believe one could absent-mindedly land on the cover of Time. Rhee continues: “But there were also benefits to it. I think we were able to raise the profile of education reform. We gave voice to concerns people have had a very long time. Every parent in this country knows there are bad teachers. Nobody had articulated that before. It put things on the table: ‘What do we need to do to evaluate which teachers are good?’ ”
What about the racial divide, I ask. Until recently Washington was a black-majority city. But its booming economy has pushed a lot of urban poor blacks into the suburbs. Was it wise of Fenty, who is mixed race, to appoint a Korean-American to overhaul a largely African-American school district? “You’d have to ask Fenty, right?” she replied. “Because I know that when he and I were talking about the job, I said, ‘I assume you want an African-American?’ and he said that he wanted the best person. What I also see is that you have black school superintendents across the country trying to do the right thing and the rhetoric against them is no different to what we got – ‘You’re a dictator’, ‘You don’t listen’, You want to privatise.’ ”
Rhee continues: “One of the criticisms that really got to me and Fenty is when people said we wanted to get more white people to the city and get rid of black people – the whole story about gentrification. My passion is that in this country, which is supposed to be the greatest in the world, and here in its capital city, our minority kids can’t realise the American dream because the likelihood is that they’re in a failing school – I think it’s criminal what happens to kids in our schools every day.”
Some of Rhee’s biggest supporters are black, including Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, who is on her board of directors. So is her husband. But Rhee frequently has to combat “misperceptions about who I am”, she says. At a recent event in Birmingham, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the church bombings, people complained about Rhee’s presence to Bill Cosby, who was one of the organisers. “Cosby said to me beforehand, ‘You just be you, because people are not serious about fixing the education system now. They’re not serious.’ He’s a huge proponent of reform and also of parental responsibility.”
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Our plates cleared, I dispatch a double espresso. Rhee sticks to water. Neither of us want dessert. She says: “I just want the debate to calm down and avoid the extremes because we basically want the same things – parents want good teachers, and most teachers want to be good teachers. Most people get that our system desperately needs to be fixed.” What about the fact that Rhee relies on a handful of wealthy families for most of her support? Doesn’t that skew her agenda towards their interests? Rhee concedes that she hates raising money (her target is $1bn) but has to spend more than half her time doing so. “We’re still in the early days of Students First,” she says.
“But I think we should honestly be grateful to people who are investing their money to help the system get better. And, furthermore, the unions take money from these folks too. Randi Weingarten takes money from Gates, Eli Broad etc, the same people she wants to villainise all the time. They [critics] ask me, ‘Why are you taking money?’ It’s a little disingenuous. Show me evidence of how the big donors are financially benefiting from the charitable investments they make in education. I don’t see any.”
I know that in a few minutes Rhee must go to another fundraising meeting. “It’s all I seem to be doing at the moment,” she says. I can’t resist slipping in a question about an incident that is said to have taken place when she was an elementary teacher in Baltimore in her twenties.
Rhee is supposed to have lost all patience with her unruly class of second-graders (seven-year-olds) and put duct tape on their mouths to keep them quiet. I want to know if it is true. Rhee grins. “This is exactly what I am talking about,” she says. “It tells you something about how myths are made.”
Rhee explains that, during her first year as a teacher, she acquired a reputation for being unable to control her class. Its noisiness disrupted others. One day Rhee asked the children to put their fingers to their lips as they went down the corridor past other classrooms. “One of the boys asked for a strip of Scotch tape instead and suddenly everyone wanted the same thing,” she says. “And when I removed the strips, one of the boy’s dry lips bled a little. That’s all that happened. Now it’s turned into, ‘Michelle Rhee duct tapes children!’ But the only reason anyone knows the story in the first place is because I told it.”
You can see the funny side, I say. “Yes, everybody laughs when they hear it,” says Rhee. Having expected a more intimidating lunch companion, I can’t shake the feeling that I have escaped lightly. The bill paid, I accompany Rhee out of the restaurant. A black SUV is waiting to whisk her off to her meeting. Another family foundation, I inquire? “ ’Fraid so,” says Rhee. Then with a cheery wave she is off.
Edward Luce is the FT’s Washington columnist and commentator
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Heirloom salad $13.00
DC Coast salad $6.00
Tuna tartare $14.00
Pennette calamari $18.00
Double espresso $7.00
Total (incl tax) $63.80
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