A New Song for Michelle Rhee?

A few years ago, people were singing “Michelle, My belle, these are words that go together well.”

Today people are singing a different tune, “Should she stay, or should she go?”

Now that Adrian Fenty has lost his bid for a second term, the education world is buzzing about the fate of Michelle Rhee, his outspoken schools chancellor.  Ms. Rhee has become a national figure, much beloved by many outside the district.  At home, however, she is a lightning rod and a polarizing personality.  In her 3+ years she has closed nearly two-dozen schools, fired more than 15% of her central office staff, and let over 100 teachers go for inadequate performance.

Michelle Rhee and Adrian FentyWhile many say that Ms. Rhee has made long overdue changes in a dysfunctional system, others—including both the local and national teachers unions—have campaigned to get rid of her and, by extension, some of the changes she has made.  By some reports, the unions spent over $100,000 to defeat Mr. Fenty and, by extension, Ms. Rhee and her policies.

What about Michelle Rhee herself?  Would she want to stay on and report to Fenty’s probable successor, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray? (By winning the Democratic primary Tuesday, Gray became assured of winning the general election in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.)

I sat down with Michelle Rhee for the final (12th!) chapter in our PBS NewsHour coverage in late summer. I asked her whether she could work for Vincent Gray, should Mr. Fenty lose.

MICHELLE RHEE: I don’t believe that I can do this job and serve the children well unless I have the backing of the mayor, of my boss, in the way that Fenty has given me, and that I’ve never seen another politician who provides that kind of support.

That nearly closes the door—but not quite.

Then, late in the campaign Ms. Rhee made campaign appearances on Mr. Fenty’s behalf, always identified as a private citizen and not as a public official. Some accused her of violating laws against campaigning, while others noted that she may have cost Mr. Fenty votes, given how unpopular she had become in certain parts of Washington.  I asked her about her taking a public stand.

JOHN MERROW: Did you cross a line there?  I mean, there are rules about electioneering.

MICHELLE RHEE: I was asked a question, and I was answering the question.  Um, and again, I’m not saying to people, “You should vote for this person” or “You should vote for that person.”  I think that what I wanted to communicate to people was that there is a very clear choice in this election.  You have two men with very different opinions, very different philosophies about how to approach school reform.  And so, as it pertains to the schools, not anything else, but as it pertains to the schools, you have a very clear-cut choice, and I happen to be a part of the future in one man’s philosophy, not in the other’s.  But I’m not saying to people, ‘Go one way or go the other.’  What I’m saying is, for me personally, I know that I wouldn’t be able to serve the children of this city well unless I had the kind of support that Fenty has given me.

So did she leave the door open?  What will Vincent Gray do, given the strong support he got from Michelle Rhee’s strongest detractors?  And, if Michelle Rhee leaves, what will happen to the financial commitments made by national foundation? Given that Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” competition recently anointed DC as one of only a dozen winners ($75,000,000!), what complications would ensue if Ms. Rhee were to leave?  And, if she stays, will she be able to change her behavior and become more inclusive, less confrontational?

So many questions, but the answers are certain to emerge in the not-too-distant future.

I address some of the possibilities in Below C Level, my new book, because even as I was writing that chapter a few months ago, questions about her surviving were being raised.

Those memorable lyrics are running through my head, and perhaps through hers: “Should I stay, or should I go?”  Stay tuned.

For more coverage of Michelle Rhee:

Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC: Episodes 1 – 12 [Learning Matters for PBS NewsHour]

Interviews with Adrian Fenty & Michelle Rhee [Learning Matters]

A Different Chancellor [Washington Post Coverage]

(Photo credit: UPI/Kevin Dietsch)

28 thoughts on “A New Song for Michelle Rhee?

  1. A question of parallel treatment in reporting of money on the table.

    Teachers spent $100,000 to defeat Fenty. Bad money
    Will DC lose all the money Rhee was promised by outside foundations. Good money

    I’d refer you to Larry Cuban’s article on looking for Superman superintendents. There may be a role for superwomen—DC will never be the same—but it is not the full prescription for educational decency.


  2. As a former parent and PTA official in the DC public schools I know that the school district’s troubles have been deeply embedded for generations. It is a shame that a smart and energetic young leader chose to play to the simplistic anti-teacher, tests-above-everything model of school reform and made a horrible mistake of jumping into the political campaign, but I hope that DC leaders take some time to think about the good she has done and not simply revert to things as they were before. Going back to the status quo ante should not be an option. What the city really needs is a solid experienced educator who figures out how to work with teachers and a teacher’s union that embraces a serious shared reform agenda and local politicians who give them support and do not constantly meddle.


  3. Did Rhee’s worthy school reforms actually cause a Mayor to lose his job?

    If so does this mean that the forces for status quo, terrible public education, have so much political power that they can stop any real school improvement?

    If so, does this mean that the USA is doomed to become even more third world and economically impoverished that we will fall lower than our current 10th in world economic prosperity (GDP per capita)?


    • In response to Mr. Lyell and anyone else who cares to listen to a professional educator with over 25 years of teaching and child development experience in New York, Maryland and for the past 19 years with the District of Columbia Public Schools, I would like to begin by stating that Michelle Rhee has no credentials to qualify her as an educational “reformer”.

      She taught for three years in Baltimore as an underperforming Teach for America Fellow. It should be noted here that Baltimore is one of the worst performing urban school systems in the country, in one of the academically best performing states in the country and there is no published evidence that she ever received a Maryland State Teaching Certification; and certainly, if citizens can demand the right to see proof of the president’s birth certificate, the public should at least be privy to evidence of Michelle Rhee’s teaching certification.

      Furthermore, there are nationally established minimal professional standards for educational leadership in the United States that require post graduate training and documented experience as a successful leader on the local school and district/state-wide level. Michelle Rhee does not hold a degree in Educational Supervision and Administration or any other category of educational leadership. In fact, she does not even hold an undergraduate or masters degree in any area of education. This is one of the minimal requirements that is expected of the highly qualified DCPS teachers that she has vilified for three years?

      According to national professional standards a school district superintendant should hold a doctorate degree in educational leadership/administration and/or have extensive experience as a school principal and district level supervisor. Since Michelle Rhee has none of these qualifications she could not assume the title of Superintendant, and like Joel Klein in New York, who comes to the field of education via the N.Y. District Attorney’s office, had to be endowed with the false educational title of “Chancellor”.

      Finally, she was hired by Adrian Fenty with the approval of the D.C. City Council, without any record of past reform or success in another school district because there was a hidden political agenda that had nothing to do with education. Is that the way we reform schools in a developed nation or in a so called “third world” nation? The reign of terror that this city has experienced under Fenty and Rhee is the real reason that this mayor lost his job, not any illusion of reform.

      My hope is that the next Mayor of Washington D.C. understands the need to establish a search committee made up of stakeholders from all sectors of the community in order to make a non political selection of the next Superintendant of DCPS.


      • Hey Marva, why is it as I read your post trying to minimize MS. Rhee’s qualifications did I get the distinct notion that you cast your vote for a Community Organizer in our last Presidential election?


  4. The comment by Jack Jennings as reported on NBC news nailed much of the Michelle Rhee “issue”…she was the proverbial bull in the china shop . Yes , the DC educational china shop is/was in great need of change …and to mix metaphors…some eggs had to be broken to make an omelette . Chancellor Reed reportedly said that the one thing she might do differently was to focus more on “communications” , but she said this in a way that implied that “communications” was a sidebar to educational reform rather than at the very center of any successful , sustainable change . When she allowed herself to be featured on the cover of Time magazine with a broom in her hand and dominating the picture she probably insured “a failure to communicate” in the minds of many of those with whom she needed to communicate.


  5. As a DC resident and parent of a DCPS student, it appears to me from conversations I have had that people voted against Fenty (and many, by extension, voted against Rhee) not because of the decisions they made, but how they made them. Almost all of the teachers I have spoken with agree that the schools are functioning better and the students are performing better on all measures than they were five years ago. Talking with friends in the teacher’s union, they seemed to agree that they would have been able to accept the layoffs and some of the other decisions that were made if they had been given a bit of notice and more thorough justification first. Interestingly, on last night’s news, Rhee appeared to show her first bit of political acumen, stating that she was keeping her options open and would do everything she could to ease the transition. The news anchor then speculated on whether that meant she would be willing to stay on if asked. I wonder if Gray has the political temerity to keep her?


    • Hi Rick,

      John’s gotten your message and we’ll also add you to our official weekly email list! Thanks for your support and taking the time to comment.

      -Anique Halliday, Online Strategy Director at Learning Matters


  6. I think one of the lessons learned from this is that “what” you do really matters, but “how” you do it matters just as much.

    The Mayor trusted the Chancellor to bring fundamental reform to DC Public Schools. The Chancellor trusted the Mayor to provide the political support for her her efforts. She warned him that she lacked the political sensitivities that most Superintendents have. His own “blind spots” to the everyday give and take of politics prevented him from developing a strategy or plan to compensate for their combined leadership shortcomings.

    Neither the Chancellor nor the Mayor recognized that they needed to expand their circle of trust to include at least some of the DC Council and community stakeholders if they intended to sustain the kind of fundamental change they were bringing. Instead, the Chancellor expensed the Mayor’s political capital like a credit card, rather than investing it, and making additional deposits over time. Was it arrogance? Hubris? Impatience? Probably all of the above and more. But the most interesting aspect of this primary election was polling that indicated that voters believed that the school system reforms were moving in the right direction, but they didn’t like or trust the change agents very much. President Kennedy, in his Inaugural Address, reminded leaders of former colonies experiencing their first years of freedom, “…that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” There is a lesson here. Fundamental change in a system as broken as DC Public Schools can’t be sustained by creating a climate of fear and mistrust. It might be that the Chancellor, like Superintendent Janey before her, pushed the envelope as far as her individual talents and the current political climate allowed; and that it is up to the next leader, with different leadership skills to consolidate these gains and build a stronger political consensus for continuous improvement of public education. Let’s hope someone is up to it.


  7. I have been a DCPS parent for 12 years thus far and find it very naive for anyone to attribute the success (or failure) of the school system to a single person. Despite the highly-active PR machine at DCPS, the few successes in our schools were built on programs put in place by Ms. Rhee’s predecessor, Clifford Janey. In the meantime, only 15 schools made AYP in the last school year, an enormous drop from over 50 schools in the prior year. But the problems at DCPS are deeply entangled in a city that is rampant with dysfunctional programs and communities that are largely ignored, as well as a Congress that imposes its will upon us, particularly in a charter school system that has largely been a failure. Schools, and thereby children, cannot succeed when large tracts of the city boast up to 30% unemployment, serious poverty, and inadequate health care. And an emphasis on teaching children how to pass tests, rather than providing them with critical thinking skills, will not prepare them to become global citizens who can contribute positively to society.

    I am seriously tired of hearing Ms. Rhee, our former mayor, Arne Duncan, and so many others talk about “school competition”. The nature of competition is that someone wins, and someone else loses. So far, we’re letting children lose in those communities where there is no infrastructure in place to support them and their families.


  8. The challenges and factors of school reform are all visible with this case study. Change is hard, steps on toes and has serious implications for all realms of public life and policy. The one thing that can’t be lost was stated by Mr. Orfield above – we can’t stop now nor return to what was before- hence the rub and the reason why schools have remained the way they have been for so long. For the dinosaur of Education to survive this long it has to be the meanest animal on the block. Throw in politics and it is like it has a lazer cannon on its head! That is one mean monster!

    The key will be the next step – how will the structure and stability of the system remain while the necessary reforms continue or increase. The selection of the next leader can be the way to set this new agenda as well as to improve buy in of all the stakeholders thereby easing ruffled feathers. The transparency and accessibility of the selection process will signal the next phase tone and it overall effectiveness. Like surgery, the changes will have to take in phases and this patient will have to stabilize before additional steps can take place. This is a time to figure out what is important and attempt to create a common agenda – the question will have to focus on what is best for the students of DC Schools.

    I encourage readers to view my and others ideas on the future of education at



  9. 4 givens relevant to the Washington DC situation from a 40 year’s experience trying to improve schools

    * Sometimes unions can be a strong ally in reform. Our organization worked with the Cincinnati public schools to help increase overall high school graduation rates by 29 points, and to eliminate the hs graduation gap between white and African American students. The progress has continued 2 years after our organization left and the Gates funding ended. We did this by using several strategies including extensive cooperation with the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, creating small schools in large buildings, creating new youth/community service programs, extensive focused inservice, new partnerships with community & business groups, visits to outstanding district and charters around the country, and a few specific goals.

    * Sometimes unions and other professional groups oppose valuable reforms. In Minnesota, a liberal Democratic governor proposed the “Post-Secondary option” in 1985. It allows high school students to take college courses with state funds following paying their tuition and books. The teacher unions fought this vigorously. Now 110,000 kids have used it, pSEO is very popular and it has helped stimulate reform. I’ve worked with state legislators all over the nation and seen examples of unions opposing other ideas that have helped youngsters.

    * People can change their mind. Unions also vigorously opposed the charter law here. Now the Mpls Federation of Teachers is trying to set up a related group to authorize charters, and both Mpls and St. Paul Federations are pushing for new, innovative schools within the district, similar to the Boston Pilot Schools. They came to these positions in part as a response to charters.

    * Treating people with respect is valuable, even if you vigorously disagree. But sometimes confrontation is needed. “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose” Rhee might have been more successful if she had been less confrontational and if she had attempted to build more alliances. But Dr King tried hard to be kind and gracious to people opposing what he worked for – it won allies but did not seem to have much impact on the people who most vigorously opposed his ideas.


    • In Below C Level, I write a lot about how we came to follow Michelle Rhee on the NewsHour. In particular, I describe our first meeting over dinner, where NewsHour producer Murrey Jacobson and I pitched the brand new Chancellor about following her efforts for the next several years. She was characteristically blunt, as she had been on the phone the day before. “If I think it will be good for kids, I will do it.”
      She decided that it would be, but now I am troubled. Perhaps all the publicity worked against her. Perhaps she’d have been better off if she’d tried to stay ‘under the radar,’ the way Andres Alonso has in Baltimore. Certainly she would have been better off if she had refused the Time Magazine photographer’s request that she hold a broom! And she told me later that she regretted letting us film her firing someone.
      Is she a modern-day Icarus, someone who flew too close to the sun, or is she the equivalent of John the Baptist, who perhaps paved the way for great gains? I believe that she’s more responsible than anyone else for permanently changing the conversation about how teachers are going to be evaluated and compensated in the future. No longer can anyone assert with a straight face (and expect to be taken seriously) that years on the job and graduate credits should determine pay. Whether she intended it or not, she has given teachers and their unions the opportunity to carve out professionalism’s criteria. They should be working in earnest to develop the tests and other measures of quality (and they are in some places).
      That’s the developing story. Sure, bad teachers will be fired (and should be) and, if we are smart, we will figure out ways to give teachers the skill set they need to be better, because, after all, most of the men and women in teaching want to make a difference. And they are in our classrooms—we’re gotta dance with the one we brung to the prom, or whatever that expression is.


  10. John – I appreciate your reflections, but I just find this all so depressing… It’s so depressing that this furor over the possible fate of Michelle Rhee and the future of her initiatives was so predictable. As Larry Cuban and others have pointed out, we know that “mavericks” and superheroes (whether liberal or conservative) inevitably have to leave. When they do, many of their vaunted initiatives get dismantled. In light of that predictable demise, whether Rhee stays or goes is a far less important question than why we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. The current situation in many schools and classrooms is intolerable, and improvements have to be made. But we know that real substantive, long-term improvements in the classroom and in student learning depend on work outside the classroom: on developing relationships, fostering community understanding, and building political support. That work involves often unpalatable trade-offs. It may mean watering down more “radical” or innovative initiatives and waiting, impatiently, for the right time to push ahead with more controversial ideas.
    Who’s to blame for the repeated failures? It doesn’t matter. Those who try to push too fast and denounce their critics have to take responsibility for making predictable mistakes. The rest of us have to take responsibility for not doing enough to help those mavericks understand how to be more effective. I teach a course (http://www.tc.edu/ncrest/hatch/c&t4004/syllabus2010.htm ) in which students design new schools, and in it I try to help my students understand that what works usually matters far less than what doesn’t. Whatever path we take – whatever initiatives or plans we pursue – we need to anticipate the predictable problems and challenges we will face. We will make mistakes, but as my colleague Ann Lieberman says, improvements come when we make new mistakes and learn from them.
    It’s not just Michelle Rhee’s decision now. We all have to figure out what we can do to make the situation better. Like it or not, we all have to figure out how to talk with and work with those who have a different point of view.


  11. Tom
    This is very thoughtful. I wonder how much of Michelle Rhee’s fate can be attributed to her MO, to Mayor Adrian Fenty’s tin ear, and to the power of habit. But is it fair to talk about her situation without acknowledging (and bemoaning) the power of the status quo (which values continuity even though it’s at the expense of breakthroughs in learning, et cetera)?
    Was she wrong from the start when she did not disavow the notion of ‘firing your way to reform’? Did she become trapped in the media swirl and lose perspective, as one teacher charged in the final chapter of our NewsHour coverage?
    Maybe ‘reform’ is not possible. What’s needed is ‘transformation,’ so that educators learn to ask ‘How are you intelligent?’ instead of “How intelligent are you?” The latter question leads to sorting and stacking, while the former implies an entirely different approach to valuing individuals and their strengths.


    • Mr. Merrow, your 9/20 response is possibly worthy of an article in itself. I love the expression “firing your way to reform” as opposed to “throwing the baby out with the bath water” as we have used to describe Michelle Rhee’s actions. While I find her to be articulate and interesting, her actions defy her potential abilities to focus in on what could ultimately be a meaningful and decisive leadership style. Hooray for seeing through the never-ending muck thrown by nay sayers and short-sighted leaders. Now the challenge is to find someone equally articulate and capable of positive action.


      • One observer suggests that the measure of the new mayor’s commitment to reform will be the number of teachers fired next year. I find that a depressing approach, frankly. I hope the next chancellor stays the course but asks a fundamentally different question: “How are you intelligent?” instead of the test-score question, “How intelligent are you?”
        With her fanatical focus on basic reading and math, Michelle Rhee (and most school leaders) are preparing kids for substandard lives.
        It’s my hope that teachers will take the lead in creating valid, reliable and acceptable measures of learning, measures that they will be judged by.


    • John – I agree completely that we need to begin by acknowledging (and maybe bemoaning too) the power of the status quo. The problem is that too often, “superheros” don’t; they assume that they have the power fo overcome it…until it’s too late. That doesn’t mean that improvements aren’t possible, and I think your approach of reframing the key questions is moving in the right direction. What seem like subtle changes at first, can, ultimately, have transformative effects. I would push your question further though: Instead of asking “how are you intelligent?” (which implies that intelligence is static) why not ask “how can you be intelligent?” (which might lead us to imagine what we can do in the future and how we can get there…)


  12. Michelle Rhee did the absolute worst thing anyone can do to education in this country or any country: she insulted the people who provide it.

    Also, any professional who would fire a subordinate on film as a serious “problem.”


  13. After reading through many of the posts above I’ve come to the conclusion that the parents of DC don’t deserve the dedicated services of Michelle Rhee. I’m not sure if it is because they also were educated in the DC district, long devoid of any academic acclaim, or whether these parents were fearful that their children would bypass their own intellectual levels by sixth grade…in either case, the children of DC are the real losers here…Take a bow parents of DC students, you’ve sentenced your children to serfdom…and the Teachers’ unions thank you for making their job of keeping a subservient entitlement needy proletariat available to continue their mission…


  14. Admittedly watching from afar, I think Diane Ravitch’s quote says it all: You can’t win a war by firing on your own troops.


  15. How Michelle Rhee’s antics ruined my daughter’s school

    a concerned DCPS parent :

    re: Michelle Rhee’s “mom friendly” comment, prepared specifically for the Oprah show, about moms not tolerating mediocre teachers being given time to grow and develop professionally. “Well. The unqualified, needing-to-grow-professionally, TFA principal that Rhee PUSHED on our school, despite protests from a panel of engaged, informed, truly progressive, professional educators and parents with advanced degrees in education . . . . . (this TFA principal) hired and protected even more inexperienced, unqualified teachers who will take YEARS to develop into true professionals. But the principal and those teachers all know how to say “yes” to their boss. Too bad they don’t know the basics of how children learn, or the nuances of curriculum and instruction. It is hard, hard work indeed to have to reprogram my kids every day after school, to get them to embrace and understand learning again.

    Rhee’s influential, BAD decisions and practices, more than
    ANY OTHER failure of the DC Public School system, has me
    on the verge of pulling my kids out of school.

    Rhee embarrassed herself mightily at the DC screening of this film (”Waiting for Wall Street Super-scammers”) — with her comment insulting DC voters.

    My kids, and the 350 others in their school,
    will not be devastated at all
    when she leaves.
    We assume she will head to the business world for which
    she may have more appropriate skills.”



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