Michelle Rhee, Education's Lightning Rod, Shifts Focus

Michelle Rhee, Education's Lightning Rod, Shifts Focus

Why you should care

Michelle Rhee’s fingerprints are all over today’s debates on the best way to educate our kids. 

When Michelle Rhee ends her tenure as CEO of education policy advocacy group StudentsFirst, as she announced Aug. 13, it will be the first time in nearly two decades that this education reform leader no longer has a day-to-day role in America’s education world. But the outspoken, sometimes combative, lightning rod isn’t getting ready to fade away.

Rhee told OZY she doesn’t have a timeline yet for stepping down — the search has begun for her successor. But she plans to remain involved not only with StudentsFirst, which advocates for state-level education policies like more rigorous teacher evaluations and the implementation of the controversial Common Core curriculum, but also with individual politicians across the country who support those policies. And she’s going to be heavily engaged in the future career plans of her husband, former NBA player and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who’s being touted as a potential statewide candidate.


Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Rhee rose to national prominence as Washington, D.C.’s hard-charging public schools chancellor, earning a spot on the cover of Time magazine in 2008, but also the intense enmity of teachers unions and others, who decried what they described as a heartless and misguided approach to firing teachers and closing schools. Has the move to the Left Coast mellowed Rhee? She was certainly philosophical about her past mistakes, her public persona and the need to dial down the venom in America’s education policy battles. But she still gives no ground on her core beliefs or what she says was a misinformation campaigns by her critics.

OZY:

Why did you decide it was a good time to step down?

RHEE:

If you look at where we are as a country versus where we were five years ago, I think things have changed dramatically. We’ve got most of the states in the country now implementing rigorous teacher evaluation systems with the use of student achievement growth as a major factor in the evaluation of teachers. When we did that in D.C. in 2009, we were the first school district to do that. So I feel good about where things are from the education reform landscape.

But really what was driving this decision for me and my family was kind of where we were. Kevin and I are, relatively, still newlyweds, but since we got married we’ve been talking about our desire to align our professional lives a lot more. And so we felt like this was a good time to do that.

I think the polarization and the divisiveness [in the debate over education] is just not productive.

— Michelle Rhee

OZY:

People talk about you guys as this sort of political power couple. Would you ever consider running for office yourself?

RHEE:

Ohhh no. We only have one politician in this family.

OZY:

I’ve been struck by the level of polarization in the education debate. Is there some way to close the gaps?

Michelle Rhee leaning on a classroom desk speaking to a child

Michelle Rhee chats with 3rd-grade student Charleisha Calde at J. O. Wilson Elementary School as Washington D.C. Schools chancellor

RHEE:

I certainly hope so. I think the polarization and the divisiveness is just not productive.

It is totally acceptable for two people to have different viewpoints about a policy like equitable funding for charter schools. I think that what you see happening now, though, is it’s turned into these really odd personal attacks. If you are a proponent of charter schools then you are just this evil person who wants to privatize public education. They’re questioning people’s personal motives and their values and virtues.

We tell kids on social media, don’t bully, don’t do this or do that. And yet if you see how we, as educators, are engaging in this debate, it’s not at all the example we would want to set for our kids.

Did I do everything right in D.C.? Absolutely not.

— Michelle Rhee

OZY:

People have also accused you of being divisive in the way you’ve approached teachers and teachers unions, particularly during your tenure in Washington. What do you think of this now?

RHEE:

Did I do everything right in D.C.? Absolutely not. I could have done a whole lot of things a whole lot better, for sure.

But I do think a lot of the ways people framed me and that time is sort of a caricature.

People took small parts of what we did and sort of blew it up because it was exciting, and it had a lot of conflict and controversy. And now the things that we did that don’t fit into that narrative are being completely ignored.

OZY:

Common Core is getting more and more attention as it’s being implemented. What other issues are out there?

RHEE:

[Common Core] is definitely going to be a hot topic.

Maybe not in the immediate term, but in the next five years or so, you’re definitely going to see more discussions about technology and visual learning.

I think you will continue to see more conversations around school choice, especially with Success Academies in New York doing so well in terms of academic goals for their kids. And they have incredibly aggressive expansion plans. The questions around facilities and funding for those schools and access to students will only increase.

… standardized tests are a necessary piece to the way that we educate kids.

— Michelle Rhee

OZY:

I hear from family and friends with school-age kids who are starting to feel test pressure. Has the reaction against testing caused you to rethink it?

RHEE:

I think that standardized tests are a necessary piece to the way that we educate kids. You have to be able to evaluate and assess whether or not a child has learned a skill. And we’ve got to do that in a standardized way.

People say, “Well, testing makes kids feel bad.” Well, stepping on the scale makes a whole lot of people feel bad, too. But it’s sometimes what people need to understand that something needs to change.

The key, though, is how do you not become obsessed with it, right? Like you don’t want to become obsessed with your weight on the scale, you can’t become obsessed with testing, either. And I think that many schools and districts across the country have this overemphasis on testing. Instead of seeing it as a tool that we can utilize to ensure that kids and parents can have accurate information about the education that they’re receiving and what skills they need to work on, etc., it’s sort of become this end-all, be-all.

What I always say to educators is, look at the research. The kids who do the best academically, as measured by standardized tests, etc., are kids who have access to a broad-based curriculum, whose teachers are not actually doing the test prep but rather teaching higher-order thinking skills and using innovative approaches in their classrooms.

It’s the responsibility of the education community to really make sure that people understand what the value of testing is and what its place is, but not in any way communicating to kids or teachers that that’s all that matters, because it really isn’t.

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