Has D.C.’s radical experiment in school reform really worked?
The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s
Worst School District
by Richard Whitmire
Jossey-Bass, 296 pp.
Most people who have heard of Michelle Rhee know her as the unforgiving face of contemporary school reform, the hard-edged chancellor of the long-failing Washington, D.C., public schools who graced the cover of Time standing in a classroom with a broom in her hands—only to be swept from the nation’s capital herself when her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost a reelection bid last September that was in large part a referendum on Rhee’s reforms.
Less well known is that Rhee is part of a generational shift in school reform. She’s one of a new breed of “social entrepreneurs” who have sought to create a performance-driven brand of public schooling on behalf of the nation’s disadvantaged students. Some of these new education entrepreneurs are shaping federal education priorities as senior officials in the Obama administration’s Department of Education, where they have pushed for school reform through the federal Race to the Top competition and other signature Obama plans.
Like many of the new reformers, including Richard Barth, the chief executive of the well-known KIPP network of charter schools, and Kim Smith, a founder of the venture philanthropy NewSchools Venture Fund, Rhee got her start at Teach for America. Founded in 1990 by Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp, TFA is a public service program that aims to end “educational inequity [and] the reality that where a child is born determines the quality of his or her education and life prospects.” It recruits students from the nation’s best colleges and universities, who spend at least two years teaching in some of America’s worst schools.
Rhee, herself an Ivy Leaguer, put in three tough years at a failing Baltimore elementary school that had been turned over to a for-profit company. In 1997, she left TFA to launch the New Teacher Project, a TFA offshoot that contracts with public school systems to recruit new teachers from outside schools of education, which attract few of the nation’s best and brightest college students.
In 2007, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, at Kopp’s urging, brought Rhee to Washington and tasked her with fixing the city’s dysfunctional school system, which couldn’t manage to calculate daily attendance, deliver textbooks on time, or keep its buildings clean, much less successfully educate its 48,000 students. With the help of a veritable SWAT team of former TFAers and others, Rhee closed nearly two dozen underenrolled schools, introduced twenty-first-century information technology, slashed the system’s bloated bureaucracy, and replaced nearly a third of the city’s principals. Most notably, she won a new teacher contract that ended tenure, introduced performance pay and a comprehensive new evaluation system, and made D.C. perhaps the only city school system in the country to fire significant numbers of teachers for incompetence. These actions, predictably, made her both a hero to the advocates of urban education reform and the nemesis of teacher’s unions and other traditional voices in public education.
In his new book, The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District, Richard Whitmire, a former education editorial writer at USA Today, provides a lively narrative on Rhee’s personal history and the political and public policy drama that marked her three and a half years in Washington. He delivers an insightful commentary on one of the first pitched battles between the new generation of school reformers and the nation’s urban educational and political establishments.
Whitmire’s portrait is a sympathetic one, and rightly so. He chronicles Rhee’s evolution from privileged daughter of an ambitious Korean immigrant doctor; to student at an elite private school in Toledo and, later, Cornell; and then to a young woman drawn to TFA by a television documentary and subsequently overwhelmed by the task of teaching in inner-city Baltimore (where, to show her young students how tough she was, she reportedly ate a bee she swatted in her classroom). The Baltimore experience radicalized her to the cause of helping impoverished urban kids get a decent education.
What drives Michelle Rhee, and the entrepreneurial wing of school reform as a whole, is disdain for the commonly held belief in traditional public education theory that if students are unlucky enough to live in poverty, they shouldn’t be expected to achieve at high levels—and, more to the point, that schools shouldn’t be expected to get them there. (The frequent refrain is: “We’re doing the best we can with the kids we have.”)
Rhee and her allies also have little tolerance for public education policies that put the interests of adults ahead of those of students. This stance led her as D.C. chancellor to end the long-standing practice of laying teachers off on the basis of lack of seniority rather than inadequate performance, one of many steps that drew the ire of the city’s teacher’s union and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers.
Even though Rhee wrote the introduction to Whitmire’s previous book, on the challenges of educating boys, and his research for Bee Eater was funded by foundations that also back Rhee (which he fully discloses), Whitmire, whom I’ve known professionally for several years, is candid about Rhee’s shortcomings during her tenure in the nation’s capital. His analysis of where she went wrong is a particularly engaging part of the book, both for readers wanting to know more about the celebrity schools chancellor and those thinking about the larger consequences for school reform.
Whitmire reveals the kind of brash and sometimes bullying style and supremely bad judgment that led Rhee to do the Time cover. He tells us, for instance, that D.C. city council members first learned in the Washington Post of Rhee’s plans to close schools in their wards, and that she invited a television camera crew along when she fired a principal in his school. When Whitmire asked her why she had such a hard time finding strong school leaders, she responded, “The problem is we have extraordinarily high standards.”
Mayor Fenty, himself a young, supremely self-confident urban reformer and one of the nation’s few mayors to control his city’s school system, failed to restrain Rhee. Eventually, Whitmire writes, one of the city’s leading philanthropists stepped in to try to rescue her from herself by paying Anita Dunn, the former Obama White House communications director, to handle her public relations. But it was too little, too late.
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