Up Close, Rhee's Image Less Clear

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, on the cover of Time, often finds herself in the media spotlight.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, on the cover of Time, often finds herself in the media spotlight. (Time Magazine)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008

The Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have chronicled her battles with the Washington Teachers' Union. The PBS "NewsHour" and "60 Minutes" have trailed her up and down school corridors. She can be seen at A-list gatherings, from Herbert Allen's annual Sun Valley, Idaho, retreat for corporate moguls to education summits hosted by Bill Gates and the Aspen Institute.

Last week, on the cover of Time, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee cemented her status as the national standard-bearer of tough-minded, no-excuses urban school reform. She is photographed at the front of a classroom, stern-faced and clutching a broom, symbolizing her promise of sweeping change.

For journalists and pundits who follow education, Rhee's narrative has elements that are irresistible. A slight, young Korean American woman with no big-city school leadership experience is plucked from the nonprofit world by a reform-minded mayor in June 2007 to fire bad teachers, face down their union and take on hidebound bureaucrats, all in the name of turning around a system with a legacy of failure. The stories are not uniformly glowing, but they generally depict Rhee as a gutsy, gritty agent of change driven to turn around the District's schools.

"Michelle Rhee charged in as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools wielding BlackBerrys and data -- and a giant axe," said the Atlantic's November issue.

Closer to home, Rhee's media stardom has inspired a mix of praise, puzzlement and resentment. Boosters say her high profile can only help the District overhaul its schools. Others see her pursuing a national platform for a message that is hostile to older, experienced teachers and partial to younger instructors from nontraditional training programs such as Teach for America, where she started her career.

Dena Iverson, Rhee's spokeswoman, said in a statement that although the chancellor and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) are "appreciative" of the national attention, their objectives are strictly local.

"Their goal is simply to enact the changes that are necessary for the District to have first rate schools that serve our children well -- nothing more."

In a meeting last week with Washington Post editors, Rhee said her high profile has enabled the District to obtain outside funding that might not be available otherwise. Rhee has reported securing $200 million in private foundation money for salary increases and other new programs, contingent on teachers approving her contract proposal linking pay and job security to performance.

"The national attention has certainly been helpful in making the case to national funders that it is worth investing in D.C. education because we're not frittering around the edges," she said.

Former D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) said the spotlight buys Rhee more time and political capital to make difficult changes.

"The biggest roadblock in reforming D.C. schools has been the churning of superintendents," said Patterson, now federal policy director for Pre-K Now, a group that advocates pre-kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds. "Churning means reforms can't take hold. Rhee certainly has to accomplish something with her visibility, but it does buy her a degree of protection against quick removal that hasn't been the case for a long time."

Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration who has watched numerous school reform efforts, said Rhee's media blitz will have negative consequences but is still a net plus.

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