Baptism by Fire Vulcanized Rhee, 'Brat Pack' Peers

By Jay Mathews
Monday, October 27, 2008

To understand D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the educational insurgency she is part of, you have to know what happened when she taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary School in the early 1990s.

The Teach for America program threw well-educated young people such as Rhee -- bachelor's degree from Cornell, master's from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government -- into classrooms full of impoverished children after only a summer of training. "It was a zoo, every day," she recalled. Thirty-six children, all poor, suffered under a novice who had no idea what to do.

But within months, for Rhee and other influential educators in her age group, the situation changed. She vowed not "to let 8-year-olds run me out of town." She discovered learning improved when everyone sat in a big U-pattern with her in the middle and she made quick marks on the blackboard for good and bad behavior without ever stopping the lesson. She spent an entire summer making lesson plans and teaching materials, with the help of indulgent aunts visiting from Korea. She found unconventional but effective ways to teach reading and math. She set written goals for each child and enlisted parents in her plans.

Students became calm and engaged. Test scores soared. She kept one group with her for second and third grade. She was convinced that her students, despite their problems, "were the most talented kids ever." Then the real world intruded, a key moment for the entrepreneurial educators Rhee counts as friends. "All of those kids would go on to other teachers and totally lose everything because those teachers were" lousy. (Rhee used an earthier adjective.)

In an interview this month, Rhee said that jarring moment of hope followed by disappointment made her want to change the system. Many educators she knows who are also likely to run school systems someday tell similar stories. They saw how teacher focus and energy could improve students' lives, and at the same time they learned how rare those traits were in low-income neighborhood schools.

Such experiences create habits of mind and leadership qualities that inspire the most effective principals and teachers, but disturb many community leaders, politicians and educators who are used to standard operating procedures. This new generation of administrators, including Rhee, shares the prevailing cynicism about how school systems operate. But instead of going off to be lawyers, doctors or business executives as their parents wanted them to, they stay in education and violate or finesse normal processes.

You could call them the young entrepreneurs, the reformers, or maybe a name with appeal to friends and foes: the Brat Pack. They create excitement and enjoy a form of celebrity, but to many they are egregious annoyances. Rhee's new fame drew 700 applications last year from people who wanted to be principals in D.C. schools, hitherto not a popular spot for ambitious administrators. Her anti-bureaucratic instincts led her to dust off unused procedures for getting rid of unproductive teachers when the Washington Teachers' Union refused to accept such changes. Because she has seen improvisation work, she got outside foundation and university support for experiments -- such as money for good grades -- that others considered risky.

Rafe Esquith, a Los Angeles fifth-grade teacher and best-selling author who has inspired Rhee's cohort, says that if rules get in the way, work around them. That's what Esquith did by teaching on his school's playground when he was denied year-round access to his classroom. The spirit behind that approach animates Rhee's efforts to expand the D.C. school day and year.

She looks for principals who want to use every available second for classroom learning. She doesn't want to hear teachers say, "Just 20 more minutes and we can go to lunch." She has added after-school and summer programs, all voluntary, but that's just a start. "I am essentially going to a longer school day and school year without people really knowing it in a formal way, but that is absolutely the direction we are heading in," she said.

Many of Rhee's friends can manage like this because they run independent charter schools and are judged mainly on how much students improve, not whether they please superiors or follow procedure. Being a member of this Brat Pack means making mistakes, but admitting them quickly and trying something else.

Rhee knows she could easily be fired, or forced to resign. But that would only confirm her view, shared by her friends, that much of public education in urban America is messed up and they must fix it however they can.

Nearly everything she found in her new job, she said, was what she expected -- endless complaints and low expectations. Rhee expects political people to let her down. She even expressed surprise that the man who hired her, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), has backed her so strongly. It will be fascinating to follow how long her political support holds, how far she can lead the insurgency and how long she stays.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company