Book review: ‘Radical: Fighting to Put Students First’ by Michelle Rhee

Max Whittaker / Reuters/REUTERS - Former chancellor of D.C. public schools, Michelle Rhee, in the Sacramento, Calif., office of her advocacy group, StudentsFirst. In her book, “Radical,” Rhee assesses her efforts to improve the educational system.

Jennifer Howard, a former contributing editor of Book World, is a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

If you are, have been or might soon be the parent of a school-age child in Washington,you have an opinion about Michelle Rhee, who ran the city’s public schools from 2007 to 2010. In a town full of divisive personalities, Rhee polarized opinion more than any other public figure I can remember, with the exception of a handful of officials. (Here’s looking at you, Marion Barry.) Either you admire her do-whatever-it-takes attempts to overhaul a system that had become a national embarrassment, or you loathe her as a power-mad, union-busting, school-closing dictator who trampled over teachers, parents and public servants.

I’m a Washingtonian with school-age children who are not currently enrolled in D.C. Public Schools. I watched, closely but from the sidelines, as Rhee set about the overhaul she describes in “Radical.” Her supporters and detractors could probably agree on one word to describe her: formidable. There’s no whiff of regret in “Radical.” By her reckoning, Rhee came in to do a difficult and politically dangerous job, and she did it the way she thought it needed to be done. Once she couldn’t do it effectively anymore, she moved on to bring her message of “radical improvement” to the national stage.

(Harper) - ”Radical: Fighting to Put Students First” by Michelle Rhee

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“No more mediocrity,” she writes in what could be a career slogan. “It’s killing us.”

I’ll leave it to others to argue whether Rhee did the right thing here in D.C. But even the fiercest Rhee-haters among my friends and neighbors agreed with her that DCPS needed help. Some schools, especially in the richer parts of town, enjoyed good test scores and high graduation rates. Elsewhere, in my Southeast neighborhood and in other wards, students trailed far behind their peers nationally in math and reading. Many kids didn’t stay in school at all.

“The dropout rate was above 50 percent,” Rhee writes. “The achievement gap was a canyon.” Teachers weren’t sure they’d have the textbooks and other materials they needed. School buildings suffered from a lack of maintenance and repairs. The system was a mess — “a whole different level of bad,” Rhee calls it.

Rhee rode into town in 2007, hired by another lightning rod, then-mayor Adrian Fenty, to clean things up. What she did and how she did it take up about half the book. For all the dust she kicked up, the story as she tells it is not a rodeo of drama. Radical change apparently involves a lot of meetings and negotiations, punctuated by surprise visits to schools, pep talks with confidantes and reminders that kids should come first.

Before Rhee gets into all that, she revisits her first-generation childhood in Toledo as the daughter of strict Korean parents. Respect for teaching ran in the family; close relatives were educators in Korea, a country Rhee’s father calls “education crazy.”

The family emphasis on education sometimes went a little far. Rhee remembers when her little brother, Brian, came home with a lackluster grade. “My mother immediately grounded me,” Rhee writes. Why? “It is your responsibility to make sure that he is doing what he needs to do.”

She tells the story to get at the imbalance of gender roles she grew up with, but it’s tempting to see in that moment the beginnings of her insistence that schools and teachers be held accountable for how their students perform.

In public, Rhee has never lacked for confidence. Those put off by her ego might be surprised by the uncertainties she felt in her early career as a teacher. The word “struggle” turns up a lot. She nearly flamed out during her first year as a Teach for America fellow at an inner-city Baltimore school in 1993. “Day in and day out, I struggled with my students,” she writes. “They simply wouldn’t listen. I would routinely spend the day alternating between screaming at the children, bribing them, and giving them the silent treatment for their misdeeds. None of it worked.”

She stuck it out. From more experienced teachers she learned how to manage a classroom and keep students engaged. “It was then that the light went on for me,” she says. If her students didn’t achieve, it wasn’t “about their potential or their ability or anything else. It had to do with what I was doing as a teacher, what we were doing as a school, and the expectations that we set for them.”

After teaching for three years, Rhee founded a nonprofit called the New Teacher Project, which worked with school systems to recruit more and better teachers. That’s where she got her first taste of DCPS. “The school system was one of the worst bureaucracies we’d run across,”she remembers. Last-minute hiring and staffing decisions made DCPS almost impossible to work with, Rhee says, and the New Teacher Project canceled its contract with the system.

When Fenty offered her the chancellor gig, friends warned her about D.C.’s racial and social politics, its administrative swamps. “You know this city and its school district are on a completely different level of dysfunction. Don’t do it,” one told her. To which Rhee replied, in one of many take-the-podium moments in the book: “We always sit around lamenting about what superintendents aren’t doing. This is a chance for us to put our money where our mouths are. We could walk the walk!”

For Rhee, walking the walk meant running full speed ahead. Lukewarm at first to Fenty, she quickly came to admire his willingness to put his political career on the line to support her reforms. Early on, already hearing concerns about what those reforms might cost him, Fenty called his staff together. “There’s only one person who’s allowed to say no to the chancellor and that’s me,” he told them, according to Rhee. “Anyone else who does will be looking for a new job.”

Fenty’s leadership style didn’t make for a smooth introduction to the D.C. scene. Fairly or not, some residents thought that the mayor catered to younger, whiter, richer voters and that he cared more about bike lanes than about the city’s long-standing racial and economic divisions. Both Fenty and Rhee cared more about getting things done than about being diplomatic. “There would be no opportunity to mend fences or smooth ruffled feathers,” she says.

She was right. Her first act, after getting the schools open on time, was to take on the DCPS bureaucracy. The new chancellor gave the central-office staff a straighten-up-and-fly-right speech. “Some clapped. I froze hiring,” she reports. “In March 2008, I handed out ninety-eight pink slips.”

There was a lot more pink-slipping to come. Rhee closed 23 under-subscribed schools in her first year. She fired principals and teachers identified as underperforming or worse. She took on the tenure-and-seniority system protected by the Washington Teachers’ Union and the American Federation of Teachers. In 2010, after what sound like painful negotiations, the union approved a new contract that eliminated tenure in exchange for merit pay. That achieved one of Rhee’s long-held goals: to do away with what she calls “the dance of the lemons” — the shuffling of union-protected, subpar teachers among classrooms and schools.

This sweeping approach earned her enemies and admirers. It landed her on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom — a notorious image Rhee plays down in “Radical” as a photographer’s last-minute experiment. She starred as “the educational Joan of Arc,” to borrow a Washington Post columnist’s phrase, in the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.’ ” She’s been on “Oprah” and “Frontline.”

As the founder and chief executive of StudentsFirst, an advocacy group that gets involved in political campaigns, she continues to seek and get national attention for education reform. (In “Radical” she takes pains to reaffirm her Democratic leanings and defend herself against charges that she’s gotten too cozy with conservatives.)

“We’ve gone soft as a nation,” she warns readers in the book’s final section, “A Radical’s Vision.” “We are not doing our kids any favors by teaching them to celebrate mediocrity, to revel in the average, and to delight in merely participating.”

Did Rhee go too far? Many Washingtonians thought so. Their anger helped defeat Fenty when he ran for a second term. But I hear other parents, even some alienated by her style, give her credit for getting something done rather than just talking about the need for reform.

Rhee started something the city is still playing out. Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s deputy, succeeded her as chancellor under the current mayor, Vincent Gray. Henderson has a quieter style than Rhee did. Although debates still rage over individual schools, charter alternatives, test scores and the occasional cheating scandal, fewer feathers seem ruffled these days. But the new chancellor seems just as willing as the old one to close schools and hold accountable a system that for too long let too many Washington students and their parents down.

Jennifer Howard , a former contributing editor of Book World, is a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

27%

The increase in school funding between 2007 and 2011, or about $3,700 per student.

53%

Share of DCPS parents who approved of the school system in May 2011, according to a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll — the first majority in more than a decade.

25

Number of D.C. schools closed during Rhee’s tenure, which began in June 2007 and lasted until October 2010. Twenty-three schools were closed in 2008 alone.

1/3

Share of the 4,000 teachers on the DCPS payroll on Sept. 1, 2007, who were gone by 2011, through firings, layoffs and attrition.

 
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