On Political Books

July/August 2011 Rhee Engineering Education

Has D.C.’s radical experiment in school reform really worked?

By Thomas Toch

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.

Whitmire doesn’t shy away from reporting the questions that have been raised about Rhee’s claims of dramatic increases in her students’ test scores during her TFA stint in Baltimore, and he’s careful to attribute the claims to Rhee and her principal in Baltimore, neither of whom could produce evidence to substantiate the statements on her resume. Recently, USA Today published a series of stories suggesting that cheating on standardized tests in the Washington public schools was common during Rhee’s tenure as chancellor. The paper found that there were unusually high rates of wrong answers that had been erased and changed to right ones on student tests at more than half of the system’s public schools between 2008 and 2010. Rhee, who routinely used improving city test scores to justify her reforms, initially attacked the paper’s reporting, but she more recently acknowledged that there may have been isolated cases of cheating and has endorsed a probe of the paper’s findings that is currently under way by the city’s inspector general.

Rhee’s biggest failing, Whitmire argues, was her inattention to the racial dimension of her reforms. The racial side of school reform is not frequently discussed in policy circles, and Whitmire makes a valuable contribution by addressing it head on.

Unfortunately, many of Rhee’s changes in Washington—the purging of patronage hires from the central office dating back to the Marion Barry era; the performance-based firings of principals and teachers; the ending of teacher tenure—led to the undermining of job security for many middle-class African Americans, for whom urban public school systems have long been an important source of stable government employment.

As a result, blacks saw Rhee’s reforms as a threat to a system that sustained many members of their community. As Whitmire writes, “White voters thought Rhee was cleaning house; black voters saw no reason to sweep out a head of household with a steady paycheck.” In addition, Whitmire reports, many of the city’s African Americans saw the large number of predominantly white TFA and D.C. teaching fellows that Rhee recruited to her central office and classrooms not as new talent to help the city’s struggling students but as “cultural tourists.” Whitmire blames both Rhee and Fenty, an African American, for failing to convince the city’s working-class blacks of the connection between performance firings and school quality.

So when Rhee sought to attract both black and white middle-class families to public schools in transitional or mixed-race neighborhoods by introducing programs like preschool education and International Baccalaureate classes, representatives of the city’s many impoverished African American neighborhoods interpreted the moves as Rhee currying favor with white residents at the same time she was laying off blacks. It didn’t help that she was firing working-class African Americans during the height of one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history.

Rhee also hurt herself by introducing a plan to make teachers’ jobs and pay dependent on their performance before she had put a defensible teacher evaluation system in place. Washington teacher evaluations, like those in most school systems, were cursory and undependable when Rhee arrived. Declaring that she was going to end tenure and introduce performance-based pay before teachers knew how they were going to be judged guaranteed that they and their unions would oppose the plan.

Nor could Rhee bring herself to build more health screening and other student and family assistance into her reform agenda, a strategy that Fenty’s deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso, advocated. That move would have improved her many needy students’ readiness to learn and signaled to teachers and principals that she recognized the many challenges they faced in educating students from impoverished backgrounds. Doing so would have won her allies without spending a lot of additional money or relinquishing her commitment to high standards and accountability.

By the time Rhee introduced the new system, in 2009, opposition to her reforms was already widespread among the rank-and-file. The enmity toward Rhee among Washington’s African Americans contributed to Fenty’s resounding defeat in the city’s black wards in last fall’s Democratic primary and spelled, shortly afterward, the end of Rhee’s important work in Washington. She has since launched a national advocacy organization, Students First, to counter the influence of teacher’s unions.

Rhee’s crusade in Washington was about transforming a system driven by bureaucracy to one shaped by performance incentives. This shift remains the core challenge facing reformers in urban school systems and public education generally. That Rhee got as far as she did is a testament not only to her take-no-prisoners personality but also to the importance of mayoral control of urban school systems. If Rhee had had to deal with a traditional elected school board, and if Fenty hadn’t cleared a political path for her, she might not have been able to push through the most important reforms.

It’s hard to overestimate how much Rhee accomplished, despite her flaws—or perhaps in part because of them. Reformers have sought for decades, without much success, to implement many of the changes she was able to make in Washington during her brief tenure. She put an end to hiring and firing by seniority. She shrunk D.C.’s famously bloated central office and closed struggling schools. She created a new staffing model with clear standards and a state-of-the-art teacher evaluation system built not just on student test scores but on classroom visits by both principals and trained school system observers.

It’s an impressive system, albeit one that needs to be improved to win teachers’ respect, a key to its longevity. The other key to its longevity is political support, and that, surprisingly, seems assured, at least for a while: Fenty’s successor, Vincent Gray, has named Rhee’s deputy and close ally Kaya Henderson to replace her as chancellor.

Of course, the ultimate measure of any set of reforms is whether they improve student performance. In D.C., despite the allegations of cheating on the city’s standardized tests, students’ scores on the federal NAEP test, which is very hard to cheat on, rose during Rhee’s tenure. If those increases continue under Henderson, it will be hard to argue that the system Rhee created wasn’t worth the pain it took to build.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Thomas Toch is the director of the Washington office of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, an independent research and policy organization.


  • FRP on July 12, 2011 8:19 AM:


  • CDW on July 12, 2011 10:19 AM:

    You never did address whether her changes/doctrine have improved the schools. The article was about Rhee and what she wanted to do, which she was successful in doing, but you did not address the issue of whether the changes improved student performance.

  • FRP on July 12, 2011 11:45 AM:

    Rhee's unverifiable statements of fact based on solid wishful thinking , Rhee's resumé !

    Now that her fantasies have material to work with , the disaster planning for every single boy and girl should be on . Funded by such luminaries as B Gates and others who have no known experience in education , aside from being notable dropouts . One can only hope those terrible people who try to make her inexperience , lies , and cruelties part of the issue spell her name right , sniff .

  • Anonymous on July 12, 2011 12:54 PM:


    Of course, it all looks like a lot of inside jockeying for book sales, speaking fees or consultancy contracts. Rhee, Ravitch, Toch, Whitmire--among them the only big desk time I count are Rhee's three years amongst the third graders, after which she did them a favor and got out. (It would have been a lot shorter if that masking tape business had gotten public.)

    When I was in retail, the joke was "Consulting - If you're not a part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem." When I spent some teaching, I got used to consultants and speakers trying to motivate frontline teachers with the wisdom gained from months of looking at data and half-hours spent in a classroom. The joke they tell in staffrooms is
    "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.
    Those who can't teach, teach education.
    And those who can't teach education, consult."

  • Rich on July 12, 2011 4:43 PM:

    Toch's position paper mill includes the current DC State Superintendent on its Board. that should be disclosed, along with any positions or relationships the org has had with DC Schools.

    Rhee;'s version of reform was mostly about rhetoric and gimmicks. Performance-based raises only make sense if the performance criteria are transparent. The process of improving schools takes a long time and requires an investment in very unglamorous things like appropriate curricula. Much is known about how to teach poorly achieving students, how to manage classrooms with disruptive children, etc. I saw none of that come from Rhee. The new charters tend to be based on gimmicks rather than any kind of sound policy. These appeal to parents but that doesn't mean they will perform. Indeed, charters generally do no better than regular schools. A number of DC charters are former public schools that were essentially taken private. Rhee transferred the principal of her own children's school, without cause. Her arrogance was transparent from the beginning and her stupidity about racial politics and lack of outreach to Black parents demonstrates how little she really knows about how to make a complex organization work. There's a whole industry of people like her who've waltzed-in into education with little or no classroom experience and made a career out of telling other people what to do. Ravitch has concluded her career by coming to the rather unoriginal discovery that much of what she advocated never worked. The cheating scandal is not unique to DC, but it reflects what happens when you have administration by test scores and intimidation, with nothing substantive to improve the actual education of the children.

  • POed Lib on July 12, 2011 5:19 PM:

    Rhee is a cheat, a liar, and a teacherhater. Nothing that she did has been shown to be true. She cheated to get her students' scores up. She cheated as the super. And her only answer is to stick it to the teachers.

  • Jack on July 12, 2011 5:59 PM:

    Michelle Rhee's headstrong approach was not helpful to DCPS. She ruined a number of good schools, including Hardy Middle School. Shame.

  • Joe Schmo on July 12, 2011 9:49 PM:

    Author has his own crooked intentions: MICHELLE RHEE IS A UNION BUSTER FIRST AND FOREMOST.

  • James E. Powell on July 13, 2011 1:58 AM:

    There is substantial evidence the Rhee is a fraud. Her claims about the improvement in her students' test scores are not supported by evidence and are at odds with all our experience. The improvements in test scores in DC generally during her tenure appear to be the result of cheating.

    She is the public face of a corporate effort to take over the education budgets in much the same way that corporations have taken over the military budget.

  • Tom Murphy on July 13, 2011 5:16 AM:

    Ms. Rhee lied about her accomplishments in Baltimore.
    She lied on her resume for over ten years including her time at DCPS. Under her stewardship, widespread cheating to enhance test scores became the norm. The woman is a liar, a cheat and a fraud.

  • RosemarieS on July 15, 2011 8:01 PM:

    It is not, afterall, hard to overestimate Rhee's accomplishments as this reviewer apparently has done so. The so-called reforms are only achievements if they result in improved performance. The one clear gain has been in reduced teacher and student absences (although student absences weren't accurately tracked prior to her tenure, so perhaps this is unclear as well). NAEP test scores in 4th grade and in 8th grade math have improved in comparison to nationwide scores...but 8th grade reading scores compare UNfavorably. It's unclear whether this can be attributed to Rhee's efforts: two years is a short time-frame. Overall, Rhee did not make a concerted effort to implement evidence-based change, but instead incorporated private sector approaches which may or may not be effective.

    Closing schools destabilizes communities. And a punitive environment for our teachers can't instill motivation and model the capacity to negotiate differences for our children.

    Based on research by the National Center for Performance Incentives, merit pay hasn't been shown to improve performance, but instead undermines teamwork and collaboration that are crucial to the success of a school.

    And in regards to performance review, the DC approach doesn't value the expertise of teachers by providing for peer involvement, nor does this approach instill leadership or lay out a clear path for career advancement. So although it may be an improvement in that it provides feedback to improve teaching practices, it's not ideal.

  • LindainNewYork on July 15, 2011 8:12 PM:

    It's time to treat teachers like information-age workers: providing opportunities to try new ideas and learn from their colleagues. For educational reform to be effective, proponents need to win support from teachers, parents and communities. In schools with low academic achievement, building high levels of trust makes academic improvement THREE TIMES as likely, compared to schools with low levels of trust among educators and students.

    Evaluations should be data informed using multiple types of data, incorporate regular types of feedback from colleagues, students where approrpriate, parents, and administrators, but not divorced from the learning community as was the case for much of the performance review that was developed under Rhee's tenure.

  • BrooklynMom on July 15, 2011 8:18 PM:

    I'd give Rhee the following grades:

    F 1. Empower teachers--­strengthen their unions, provide effective profession­al developmen­t, establish mentoring and cross pollinatio­n, treat them like profession­als with greater autonomy in the classroom, honor their successes, promote collaboration and encouragement to hone their skills on an ongoing basis. Provide significant time for reflection, planning, and invention.

    D 2. Provide better training and oversight to principals­, expect accountabi­lity. Again, by first providing support and resources then replacing principals who aren't effective in establishing a collaborative, rigorous learning community.

    C 3 Hire teachers who are (a) motivated and (b) constantly evaluating their practices and enhancing their effectiveness to promote student learning, and (c ) able to instill in their students both individual responsibility [for their education...but this would also translate into responsibility for themselves as citizens and as productive workers] and a sense of community responsibility.

    F 4. reduce class size

    D 4. provide additional resources, particular­ly to high-pover­ty schools, meaning not just funding and support services but also ensure highly skilled teachers are hired and that safety is a fundamenta­l requiremen­t. High-needs schools may need to pay higher salaries to attract the most qualified teachers and allow top teachers with tenure elsewhere to apply their skills for a few years at a high needs school without losing seniority.

    F 5. provide one-on-one skilled tutoring in reading for high-risk early elementary students

    D 6. encourage collaborat­ion among teachers; any merit pay should be school-wid­e to encourage best practices and teamwork

    F 7. include life skills education among middle school kids. Students need to be prepared to enter global workplace that requires not just analytical skills and critical thinking, but also interpersonal skills and the ability to solve problems systematically, negotiate differences and communicate clearly. Basics like financial literacy as well as conflict resolution, peer mediation, and emotional literacy are needed.

    D 8. improve working conditions for teachers

    D 9. use tests for diagnostic purposes to enhance learning, not punish poor performanc­e. Use data to make instructional decisions.

    D 10 For underperforming teachers provide mentoring and support, then deny tenure based on appropriat­e assessment­s that are data informed rather than data-drive­n.

    F 10. Ensure science, arts, physical education, recess and foreign language are available in every grade in every school—and in most cases this should be daily. Promote bilingual education particular­ly in elementary school. Include interdisciplinary learning. When possible offer appropriate inter-age activities (for instance, reading buddies, drama, exhibitions of projects). Incorporate what's actually happening in their lives, their local community and the world into lessons. Foster creativity, clarity and self-awareness as a learner. Build on each student's strengths.

    F 11. Teach students to be active citizens; inculcate empathy. Develop collaborat­ive learning and a hands-on curriculum­. Only assign appropriat­e homework.

    F 12. Make schools a center of community life. Provide medical care, ESL, life skills programs, art classes etc to families. Involve parents, community organizations in education as volunteers in the class rooms, as speakers for the world of work, etc.. Support families. Offer universal high-quality early child hood education that focuses on imaginative play, exploration, social skills, self regulation, the ability to set goals and follow through on plans, experiential learning, persistence, cooperation, self-control, and motivation to learn and which uses children's innate curiosity as a springboard for learning.

  • Steve P on July 19, 2011 10:02 AM:

    B. 14. Make student achievement the educational system's single-minded goal.

    B, only if you add "as measured by standardized tests"

    One of the great wrenches experienced by college freshman is the reliance on the essay. It's still the most thorough and reliable measure of student knowledge and ability. So why are most standardized tests so dependent on multiple guess? Essay tests cost too much to grade.

    In one Midwestern state not so long ago, the one required essay was contracted out to be graded by the English majors of a small church college in an area noted for its lack of urban minorities. They had an average of 90 seconds to read and grade a 250 word essay, or their piecework pay would drop below minimum wage.

  • Crissa on July 20, 2011 4:14 PM:

    Of course, if you don't do the essay the one way the professor or teacher prefers, you fail. It doesn't matter how many ways of the essay you've been taught - use the wrong one, you fail. Use the right one, and no matter how badly you do it, you pass.

    Which is completely the opposite of how instruction should be: which is to match the style of tools to the student.

    I'm no fan of Rhee - she put making news ahead of helping students learn - but the negative comments here are all about dissing her without evidence. Were erasures something she taught, or something instructors under her taught, or something instructors did to inflate test scores? We don't know. Should firings be done based upon performance and not seniority? No one here says why you'd fire based upon seniority - certainly at my schools the newer teachers were better at engaging students than older ones, although this is anecdote - when the product 'students' change each and every year with different styles, desires, needs and skills.

    And while someone marks 'class size' against her, no one seems to care that text books arrived on time or that different neighborhoods no longer had vastly different qualities of schools. Why should one neighborhood have smaller classes or another larger, unless the students in the former are harder to instruct than the former? Because that totally wasn't the way it was.

    I certainly hope that her shake-up has a positive result. But I wouldn't dare to nose in and call her a teacher-hater for suggesting that teachers who aren't good at their jobs shouldn't be doing them; or that administrators should coast along in insulated cells, having only themselves to answer to.

  • Curious on July 20, 2011 5:53 PM:

    As previous commenters suggest, this is a curious review.

    You describe Rhee as part 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." What evidence do you have for that, beyond Rhee's own words?

    Strikes me that she -- along with Arne Duncan -- is part of a new breed of political entrepreneurs who have sought to replace the existing brand of public schooling into one controlled by their allies (and approved of by people like those who run and write for the Washington Monthly).

    The "shaking up" is the whole point for her (and you?). Otherwise, the lack of actual results in student achievement would have stopped this nonsense a long time ago.

  • Insatiable Dragon on August 04, 2011 3:23 PM:

    When Rhee became superintendent, I was determined to keep an open mind. Aside from the sheer narcissism of this person, she had never held an administrative position; not a director, supervising director, assistant superindendent, nothing; nor had she ever been a principal. She had never even been a vice principal. It showed.