Fenty's Agent of Change
Monday, July 2, 2007
Afew months ago, Michelle A. Rhee vowed to quit working with the D.C. public schools. Her nonprofit group, which had successfully recruited and trained teachers across the country, was having mixed results in the District. The internal dysfunction in the school system, Rhee said, had made it impossible to improve the quality of the teaching corps as much as she wanted.
And on top of that, her group hadn't been paid in several months.
Now, as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's choice to the run the District schools, Rhee is assigned to solve the very problems she tried to flee.
Rhee, whose confirmation hearing as chancellor before the D.C. Council is scheduled for today, is perhaps Fenty's highest-stakes gamble since taking office early this year. He has taken over the deeply troubled, 55,000-student school system and pledged to fix it. And Rhee, an unconventional choice whose management experience is limited to the 120-employee nonprofit group she just left, is the person who must make that happen -- a challenge that has foiled six superintendents in the past decade.
"I spent 15 years doing things in education that people believed could not be done," Rhee, 37, said in an interview. "And over and over again, it was shown I've been able to effect pretty significant change in some of the most troubled urban districts across the country with very measurable outcomes."
Rhee's nomination has become controversial, with D.C. Council members vowing to question her aggressively on whether she is up to the job. They also want to examine claims on her résumé that she dramatically improved student scores as a teacher in Baltimore.
Since Fenty (D) announced her nomination June 12, many have expressed skepticism that Rhee could do what has frustrated so many before her. She has never served as a superintendent or even a principal and has just three years' teaching experience. She's Korean American in a predominantly African American school system. And she was chosen by Fenty largely in secret without the input of the council or community, something that could hamper her ability to knit together a fractious school constituency.
"I frankly have a lot of concerns about her ability to manage the system," said Iris Toyer, chairman of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools. "There are so many things structurally wrong that I am not certain a person coming in without a vast array of experience is going to be able to manage successfully."
However, several who have worked with her say Rhee is highly motivated, innovative and smart. In new, difficult situations, they say, she remains calm, asking lots of questions before taking action.
"She just has that knack for making things happen," said Michele Jacobs, who was teamed up with Rhee teaching at the Baltimore school 13 years ago. "She's phenomenal. She's a true, true leader."
Moreover, Fenty sees Rhee's lack of experience running a school system partly as a plus. The mayor said he wanted a change agent, someone who could break the decades-long cycle of bureaucratic failure in the schools. He wanted someone who would stay with the system, rather than the more typical pattern of superintendents changing jobs every few years.
Rhee built a lucrative career running a consulting firm, the New Teacher Project, which has recruited 20,000 teachers for more than 200 school systems. Amid a nationwide shortage of teachers, the firm has drawn applicants by encouraging them to leave other professions, often by focusing on the mission of helping struggling students in urban schools.