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In Search of The Real Michelle Rhee

Her image is of a tough-talking schools chief who's out to sack every last veteran teacher in D.C.'s failing system. The reality is not so simple.

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By Marc Fisher
Sunday, September 27, 2009

W hen Michelle Rhee was a teenager -- long before anyone imagined she would ever spend her career trying to turn America's inner-city public schools into something more like the elite private school she attended back in Ohio -- she was a stellar student, a good field hockey player and a kind, caring friend. But she already had the mouth for which she has become infamous. She said what was on her mind, even if it stung. Finally, one day, her mother had just had it with her daughter's blunt, even brusque, manner. Inza Rhee said to Michelle, "What is wrong with you? You just don't care what people think of you!"

***

Maybe if Rhee did care more about what others think, she would have chosen the ruler -- a good old-fashioned wooden measuring stick, symbol of both tradition and toughness -- and said no to the broom. Picture the chancellor of the District of Columbia's public school system wearing a cocky, stern face, pointing a long, menacing ruler, presumably at a difficult child.

Staring out from the cover of Time magazine, that image would have made sense. Or the magazine's examination of "How To Fix America's Schools" might have featured a picture of Rhee posing with schoolchildren in a classroom, her lips pursed, arms folded, in classic tough-guy pose, taking no guff.

These are the poses that dominated the actual photo shoot late last year, and either one would have made Rhee's central point, that the time for weaselly reforms and endless studies is over, that a new sheriff has arrived to take charge of the nation's most troubled schools.

Then, after about an hour of posing Rhee with kids and the ruler, the photographer, Robyn Twomey, pulled the next item from her bag of tricks.

"How about a broom?" Twomey said.

Such an image would be deliciously provocative, catnip to a magazine editor.

"Sure," Rhee replied, according to Amanda Ripley, the reporter who wrote the Time cover story and attended the photo shoot.

"At the time, I thought it was a little cheesy," Ripley says. "But it was fine; this was a symbol of reform and cleaning up. There was no discussion; it seemed relatively minor."

***

The broom -- poised to sweep out the old, the failed, her employees -- has become convenient shorthand, a quick answer to the question I ask one D.C. schoolteacher after another: What makes you think Rhee doesn't respect teachers?


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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