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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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"It's probably helpful in a macro sense and disruptive of the slow, quiet micro work that she also needs to do. But to some extent, the former offsets the latter," said Finn, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "If you have a lot of clout in the larger world, you will get away with more in the local environment."

Some parents, teachers and school activists said the combative, sometimes disdainful tone she has struck in the press has alienated constituencies she needs to mobilize if she hopes to turn the system around: teachers, parents and school principals. Cathy Reilly, head of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators, called the use of a broom on the Time cover "disrespectful and denigrating."

"I don't know what she was thinking," Reilly said. "I don't think sweeping things out is the way to go, and that way of relating to people metaphorically sends a message right down to the children."

Margot Berkey, a schools advocate who supports Rhee's goals but questions her willingness to listen to opposing views, said the chancellor has a sour tone that is damaging.

"There seems to be a constant portrayal of the system as nothing but bad," said Berkey, whose daughter attends Woodrow Wilson High School. A passage in the Time story drew considerable buzz last week on local online discussion groups.

Describing Rhee's unusual outspokenness for a school leader, Time reporter Amanda Ripley writes:

Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn't respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. "People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,' " she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."

Iverson said the passage was inaccurate, but she would not elaborate. Ripley said the statements were recorded and that she knows of no inaccuracies.

Kerry Silvia, a Cardozo High School social studies teacher, is co-founder of Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform, a group that challenges Rhee's focus on firing teachers as a way to fix the system. Silvia said the wave of mostly admiring stories isn't justified when the District is plagued by crime-ridden, understaffed and under-equipped schools.

"It glosses over the basic problems that still exist in DCPS, such as unfilled teaching positions and a lack of supplies and equipment. Why haven't these basic problems been fixed?" Silvia said in an e-mail. "Rhee's outright attack on teachers alienates those who have respect for the teaching profession and believe that people should be afforded basic due process rights."

Rhee has actually taken pains to praise District teachers in her numerous national interviews. "I met a lot of educators who I think are absolutely heroic who are currently teaching in D.C. public schools," she told PBS's Charlie Rose this summer, for example.

But teachers are rankled by two anecdotes she tells frequently. One is about a dedicated Anacostia High School instructor who quit last year because colleagues tried to discourage him from working long hours that were not required by the union contract. In the other, she describes a school visit in which she saw a classroom of productive and engaged students and a classroom where the teacher was trying to get the students' attention by turning the lights on and off.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said some of his council colleagues -- he would not say which ones -- were miffed by Rhee's failure in the Time piece to give them at least some credit for approving Fenty's takeover of the school system, which has set the stage for her reform efforts.

For his part, he said he had no trouble with Rhee's prominence.

"In D.C., we're used to being under the nation's microscope," he said, adding that he intended to buy a copy of the magazine.

"I want to get it autographed," he said.

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