Up Close, Rhee's Image Less Clear
Schools Chief's Media Stardom Hasn't Dispelled the Misgivings in D.C.

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.

"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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