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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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"The broom was the perfect example," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent of the D.C. teachers union. Weingarten, a lifelong New Yorker, has taken on a leading role in negotiations with Rhee over the chancellor's long-stalled proposal to raise D.C. teachers' pay and weaken tenure protection, the union's most cherished power chit. "Whoever thought of the broom thought they were showing one tough lady, cleaning house. A better image would have been a picture of her, strong but caring, surrounded by children and teachers, working together."

But that's not the image Rhee wants to send, Weingarten believes. "You need to deeply respect people to take them from where they are and lead them to a different place," she says. "Michelle Rhee has made a decision about what she wants her image to be. She's very confident of her own opinions and strategies, let's put it that way."

George Parker is less diplomatic. Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, has spent his professional life in the D.C. schools. He says no previous superintendent has managed to wreck morale better than Rhee, whom he accuses of bringing in hundreds of new teachers and principals "who don't know how to manage student behavior, who lack basic people skills."

The broom, Parker says, is just more teacher-bashing. "The whole concept of turning the system around by firing teachers gives students the impression that their teachers are 'less than' and maybe don't deserve their respect. The Time cover changed things: Even younger teachers, who have more of a let's-try-it attitude, started saying, 'Maybe the chancellor is against veteran teachers; maybe being the sweeper isn't the way to go.' "

The standard media summary of Rhee is simple: Brusque, madly energetic, young outsider is imported to take on the toughest job in American education. The obstacles are frightening: the achievement gap of 70 percentage points between blacks and whites in the city's high schools. The tragic truth that only 9 percent of D.C. high school students will graduate from a college within five years of leaving the city's system. The depressing fact that only 8 percent of ninth-graders are proficient in math. "The poor black fourth-graders in New York City are two full grades ahead of the poor black fourth-graders in Washington, D.C.," Rhee says.

At 39, she's never run a school, let alone a school system. She doesn't make nice, insists on bashing her own employees in public, and seems to think that she can pull off a miracle. She barely deigns to speak to D.C. Council members, she'd fire legions of teachers if she had the chance, and she sacked her own daughters' principal.

Heck of a story. Add the broom and you've got a rock star, maybe even a movie someday.

Then there's this twist: In a city that's 55 percent black, she's a daughter of Korean immigrants running a system in which 80 percent of the students are black -- a stark illustration of white Washingtonians' flat-out dismissal of the public schools as a viable option.

This is where the broom, perhaps inevitably, morphs from evidence of Rhee's blunt, cavalier manner to become a symbol of the most divisive of political issues -- race and class.

Parker spells out what many older, black teachers told me right after demanding that I not publish their names: "I suppose it's not simply racial -- it could be culture. The chancellor said to me, 'Why do people feel they need [tenure] protection if they're doing their jobs?' And I said, 'A lot of our veteran teachers know better.' As African American teachers, they learned coming up that it didn't matter how good you were: Because you were black, you weren't treated fairly. That is the African American experience. And there could be a lack of understanding of the culture of the workforce."

***

Nothing about Michelle Rhee is easy to define, and that starts with the assumption that she doesn't have a clue about African American culture. Shang and Inza Rhee eschewed the image of the traditional, insular Korean family. In part because of the tensions that they had seen develop in many inner-city neighborhoods between Korean shopkeepers and black customers, Shang Rhee says he taught Michelle and her two brothers about Martin Luther King Jr. and the idea that race is only skin-deep. "I really encouraged the kids to be comfortable with any race," he says. Inza Rhee worked, and the Rhees raised Michelle to make her career her first priority.


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