Unfairly smeared

08.16.14

A Letter of Thanks to Michelle Rhee

She can be abrasive, sure. And anti-reform forces have savaged her. But Michelle Rhee has been right about pretty much everything.

I first met Michelle Rhee in late 2010, when she was still the District of Columbia’s public schools chancellor.  A few months earlier, Michelle’s boss, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, had lost his reelection bid. As part of a running argument, I said to a friend of mine that the nasty 2010 election “proves that K-12 education in this country will never change.”  This friend responded, “You should meet Michelle before you decide that.” Shortly thereafter, I went to her office.

Rhee blew me away. This Democratic woman of color had dedicated her life to public schools.  She could have used her Cornell degree to seek wealth, but she chose to teach at an inner city school. After three years of that and a graduate degree from Harvard, she spent seven years running a nonprofit that placed thousands of teachers into schools in Philadelphia, Miami, and New York.  When appointed to run the DC Public Schools, she persuaded her ex-husband to move to DC so that she could put her own daughters in the DC public schools, thus ensuring that she had personal skin in the game.

While chancellor, she invested heavily in art, music, special education, gifted and talented programs, and early childhood education programs. She offered teachers salaries up to $140,000.  However, she also closed schools, fired teachers and principals, and opposed the idea of tenure. As a result, massive resources were spent in a campaign attacking her motives, her qualifications, and even her race and gender. As a bystander, I was horrified by the tone and content of the attacks on Michelle that appeared in the comments sections of The Washington Post – some of which I was later given reason to believe were posted by paid bloggers. 

In response to this vitriolic campaign that vilified her and ousted her boss, Rhee simply picked herself up and asked how she could keep fighting.  In her initial meeting with me, she asked me to quit my job and help her found a new organization. Within weeks, we had launched the organization that would become known as StudentsFirst, where I would work alongside her for two years. 

Now four years later, Michelle has confirmed that she will be stepping away from her role as CEO at StudentsFirst.  It’s a good time to reflect on the three great impacts she has had on education reform. 

First, Michelle raised the aspirations and sense of urgency for the entire reform movement.  Experience taught her that the teachers’ unions’ $2.2 billion national annual revenues were sufficient to isolate and marginalize any local reforms.  To combat this, Michelle pushed for education reformers to nationalize and “spread the field” like the University of Oregon football team, sharing ideas across states as disparate as Tennessee and Michigan.  Michelle also advanced an aggressive policy agenda combining accountability with parent choice and fiscal sustainability.  Many saw this as risky because it would energize her opponents and seem daunting to her friends, but Michelle believed that unless she changed the boundaries of the debate, change would always be negotiated downwards asymptotically toward nothing.  Michelle combined this aggressive national agenda with massive fundraising targets, directly challenging funders to raise their game.  Through the mechanism of healthy competition and funder-convened group discussions, Michelle’s ideas percolated throughout the reform movement. 

Second, Michelle served as a lightning rod in the sense of drawing attacks away from other reform groups. Michelle believed that every child could learn, and put that belief into practice as a teacher and principal.  As such, she was extremely threatening to the traditionalists, who could not dismiss her as a white Republican corporate hack or ivory tower pontificator. 

Rhee was extremely threatening to the traditionalists, who could not dismiss her as a white Republican corporate hack or ivory tower pontificator.

As Michelle’s colleague at StudentsFirst, I directly saw the effects of these millions of dollars worth of gale-force attacks. Her successes were drowned or minimized, and her best intentions were twisted beyond recognition.  For example, Michelle listened to teachers who said that principals were not accountable – so as chancellor, she fired a low-performing principle while TV cameras were rolling to show teachers and others how it could be done.  Although the principal had his identity protected, the traditionalists used this incident to cast Michelle as a sociopath. 

When Michelle gave a speech celebrating the difficulty and nobility of teaching, she pointed to her own first-year mistakes, including an unfortunate incident involving masking tape.  I know from her students that the masking tape incident involved little more than hilarity.  But the anti-reform groups turned masking tape into duct tape and said that Michelle’s reform ideas should be ignored because she was a child abuser. 

These attacks were trained on Michelle, but the hate machine was ready to go after anyone who stood with her.  I personally spoke with many pro-reform teachers who supported our cause but felt they had to keep silent or be bullied in their faculty lounges. Eventually, the traditionalists and their hacks dragged Michelle’s brand into the mud, but they did so at great cost to themselves.  The websites, subterfuge, and paid surrogates cost them money.  It also cost them reputational capital, as when Politico reported that the previously anonymous and nasty Rheefirst website had been hosted by computers at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters. 

Third and perhaps most important, Michelle and her husband, Kevin Johnson, created a Malcolm X factor in education reform. To extend the civil rights analogy, this enabled other reformers to play the more conciliatory role of Dr. King. During the years when Michelle was at DCPS and at StudentsFirst, traditionalists were eager to prove that reform was possible without her.  Throughout the country, teachers’ unions celebrated contracts such as that in New Haven, Conn., which introduced performance-based standards without labor strife.  It strains credulity to imagine that these contracts would have moved forward without the fear of Michelle waiting in the wings. 

Michelle herself would be the first to admit that she’s not perfect. She is stubborn and undiplomatic. Goodness knows I paid my share into the office “cursing jar” when I worked for her. Although she supported Democrats like President Obama and Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, her laser focus on education caused her to also back Republicans who had repugnant views on issues such as gay marriage.  Along the way, I wanted her to spend more time engaging teachers and less time endorsing standardized tests.  Unlike me, she still supports public sector collective bargaining.  But no matter what disagreements might have emerged along the way, I never doubted her vision or her passion for kids. Although she’s watched it dozens of times, she still cries during “Waiting for Superman” for the kids who are left behind by the system. 

To achieve our goals for education in this country, teachers will need to be full partners.  Reform-minded union leaders, including Randi Weingarten at the American Federation of Teachers as well as folks like Educators for Excellence, will need to lead the way toward a new vision of the teaching profession. Great public schools, such as the 501c3 public charter organizations KIPP, Success Academies, and Achievement First, will need to continue their work alongside traditional public schools such as those of New Haven.

Litigation may succeed in eliminating the worst barriers to improvement, thanks to the efforts of plaintiffs such as Beatriz Vergara in California and John Keoni Wright in New York.  Community organizations such as Stand for Children and Families for Excellent Schools must continue to speak for parents and teachers on the ground. Political groups such the American Federation for Children and Democrats for Education Reform need to protect reformers. But all of this is more likely than it was before Michelle Rhee’s heroic leadership.