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In Search of The Real Michelle Rhee
Arrogant or dynamic? Harsh or honest? Inside the mind of D.C.'s controversial schools chief

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?

"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.

But the Rhees did not completely reject their traditions. After Michelle finished sixth grade, her parents sent her from Toledo to Korea for a year to live with an aunt and learn the language. "All of a sudden, after being the only Korean kid forever, I looked like everyone else. I really liked that," she says.

The Rhees raised their daughter to work hard, trust herself and speak the truth. "I often told Michelle that no matter what she does, you're not going to be liked by everybody," says her father, a physician who specialized in managing pain before he and his wife retired to Colorado.

Rhee attributes her directness to her roots. "Korean people are not the most tactful," she says. "I grew up with Korean ladies who'd say, 'Gee, you've put on some weight.' It has for as long as I can remember driven me crazy when people beat around the bush instead of saying, 'Look, I need you to do this.' "

Growing up in Toledo, Rhee attended Maumee Valley Country Day School, an elite private school with just 55 students in the graduating class. She "did not hang out with the kind of people you're supposed to hang out with, the people who look, sound and act as you do," says Patrick Day, who has been close to her since sixth grade and now works as a vice chancellor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. "Michelle could speak the languages of many different people; she would go to any neighborhood in the city."

For a Korean kid to cross racial and socioeconomic boundaries was not easy, but Rhee's signature tough talk and blunt style -- a hand-me-down inherited from her mother, by all accounts -- served her well, Day says.

Rhee was struck by the contrasts between her life at school and what she saw when she would go with her boyfriend's mother, a teacher, to visit her inner-city classroom. Even as a teenager, she noted that every single member of her prep school class went to college, "even though some of them were jokers -- they didn't do anything," while kids in the downtown public school who were at least as deserving did not. Years later, the contrast is still disturbing: "You know if they were in that circle, they'd be in college, too."

It was at Cornell, in what she later came to refer to as her "angry person of color phase," that Rhee fell in with a group of radicalized students who pushed her to reject her suburban assumptions about life. Rhee came to believe that black kids growing up in poverty were being sentenced to diminished lives because too many people assumed they could not learn.

Later, at Harvard, where she studied public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Rhee worked on marrying her tough persona with her growing sense of outrage about inequalities in American life. In their first weeks on campus, fellow student Layla Avila was shopping around for a study group and heard great things about the group Rhee was in. But when Avila, who is Hispanic, asked to join, several members started making noises about the group being full.

Appalled by her fellow students' exclusionary instinct, Rhee said, "Well, if you don't have room for Layla, maybe I should just leave and start a group with her."

"The others knew Michelle was a smartie, and they were loath to lose her," Avila says now. "So they let me in. Michelle didn't know who I was; she didn't know anything about me."

In Baltimore, where Rhee tested out her idealism in the Teach for America program, she lived in a rowhouse for two years with three other new teachers, who were initially taken aback by Michelle's frank approach to everything from race relations to love affairs. They soon grew to appreciate that Rhee would stick by them no matter what.

Karla Oakley, who worked for Rhee at the New Teacher Project, which Rhee founded in 1997 in New York to train teachers for inner-city schools, got the full Michelle treatment when she confided in her boss about her doubts and hopes regarding a new boyfriend. Rhee's face instantly gave away her misgivings and Oakley didn't have to wait long before Rhee told her straight out: Get rid of the guy.

"She was right," Oakley says. "She generally is."

Rhee says she sometimes has to tell employees how to handle their romances, because "you've got to manage people at work and in the rest of their lives. In the same way I had to manage Karla at work -- she overthinks and equivocates, so I had to give her very specific directions to clear your desk and focus -- I had to do the same with her love life."

***

Rhee is all about control. She agreed to come to Washington only after being assured greater authority over the schools than any superintendent had ever had. Almost instantly, she managed to alienate important people. Some D.C. Council members and elected school board members see her as arrogant and deliberately antagonistic. Some education reformers say she has failed to come through on her key initiatives, such as developing a year-round schooling alternative, lengthening the school day, and getting partners such as the Smithsonian or Georgetown University to run a school.

Rhee does things her way. She picks and chooses which news reporters she will talk to, putting The Washington Post's beat reporter, Bill Turque, on ice for months even as she granted interviews to national TV and print journalists whom she knew would portray her as a leading school reformer. Rhee allowed me to follow her around to many of her meetings, but placed her personal life off-limits, refusing to discuss her children, Starr and Olivia, who are in fifth and second grades, respectively, at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Northwest; her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, who works at Teach for America in Washington; or her current love life.

Rhee never lets even the angriest critics fluster her. At a heated confrontation with parents at a school she was shutting down, I watched Rhee's aides scurry to find a side door to usher her out to safety. Rhee waved the staffers off, positioning herself smack in front of the loudest, most irrational antagonists.

When Rhee arrived in town, George Vradenburg, a former AOL executive who is chairman of the D.C. Education Compact, a nonprofit that aims to improve the city's schools, was pumped to meet her. But Rhee was no more solicitous of Vradenburg and the money he controls than she is of veteran teachers or elected politicians. "You come in with a helping hand," he says, "and you get a lecture about 'I want this' and 'I don't want that,' and you leave with maybe some hurt feelings."

Ultimately, Vradenburg swallowed his pride and ponied up for Rhee's reform effort. (He won't say how much he gave.) "In the end, she's right," he says. "One can debate the tone, and people do, but she's right."

Rhee defends her style: "I'm not going to pretend to solicit your advice so you'll feel involved, because that's just fake."

Even friends say Rhee's not exactly cuddly. When she and her former press secretary, Mafara Hobson, get manicures together, Hobson savors the finger massage that comes with the cutting and trimming, whereas the chancellor "just wants them to polish -- none of that touchy-feely stuff. She is not warm -- yet she is inviting, and she totally has your back," says Hobson, who left the job with Rhee to become the mayor's top press aide.

I saw Rhee let her guard down only once. This time, the tough talk came not from the chancellor, but from the children she serves.

Four students from Anacostia High School have asked Rhee for an hour, and in a conference room outside the chancellor's office on North Capitol Street, they are making the most of their time.

"The only thing that's changed is the football field and the cafeteria," Tanicka Smith says.

"We're still not allowed to take books home," Raven Robinson says. "We have no hot water," Carniesia Crudup adds.

Rhee: "Yeah, I know."

"I have one classroom that's half painted, like they just don't care," Laprell Ballinger says.

Rhee's voice turns soft and her posture loosens as she levels with the teens -- two are pregnant and one has a 1-year-old at home -- about how they are being shortchanged. "Part of the challenge we face," Rhee says, "is that we're not making sure we have the higher-level courses you should have to be able to go to college."

Ballinger nods. "Some people from our school, they get to college and they find they're completely unprepared."

Rhee looks pained. She explains that the school system's low expectations produce inferior achievement. The students are skeptical about the implication that they ought to be working much harder, but they like the idea that they are capable of far more than they have demonstrated.

"Teachers talk down to you," Robinson says. "Their mentality is, 'You live in this area, so we know what you are.' We're so behind and some kids are so disruptive, we never get to the right level. You go to college and you got students who are reading 'Catcher in the Rye' or something, and we don't read famous books, and it's embarrassing. They just baby us, treat us like we're slow."

Rhee looks each girl in the eye: "I feel that we are not providing you with the education you deserve." She promises big changes for Anacostia this fall; the school is being taken over by Friendship Edison, one of the largest charter school operators in the city, and there will be new teachers, new books, improvements to the physical plant and, Rhee promises, richer content.

Later, the girls pronounce themselves impressed. "When we wrote the letter to her, I thought: 'Why is this lady coming here from out of town? What does she care about us?'" Ballinger says. "Now I see she is really for us."

But even if Rhee somehow beats back the union and sacks hundreds more teachers, even if she finds a way to bump up test scores a little more each year, the future of the D.C. system looks grim. Parents are voting with their feet, abandoning the schools by the thousands every September.

And despite Rhee's drive -- parents and staffers are astonished when they get e-mails from her at 1:30 a.m. and then again at 5 the same morning -- no amount of work by one person can get around the fact that no one, anywhere, has turned a failed inner-city school system into a beacon of achievement. Warren Buffett, the legendary investor, once told Rhee that the nation's education problem would be solved if private schools were made illegal. If everyone were in public schools, Buffet contended, the political pressure to raise standards and improve those schools would be overpowering.

Since that's not going to happen, the question is how to create enough pressure so a system such as Washington's might be prevented from harming children. And that question leads right back to the third rail of race and class.

***

Rhee squints and cocks her head at her aide, who sits across from the chancellor at one of her regular SchoolStat meetings, where top managers update the boss on their progress. The aide is reporting the fact that white parents who are eager to send their kids to a nearby D.C. elementary school -- a school where one-quarter of the children are white -- are demonstrating zero interest in an equally convenient school whose population is only 7 percent white.

"Is it because there are not white kids in the other classrooms?" Rhee asks.

"Yes," the aide replies.

"Wow."

If the D.C. schools are going to become something other than the system of last resort, they must find a way to attract middle-class and affluent families back from the private, parochial and charter schools. They must give parents a reason not to move to the suburbs as soon as their kids near school age.

For more than a decade, middle-class parents in the District have lobbied for public school programs at least marginally competitive with offerings in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. There have been pockets of progress: A few schools attract a mix of kids reflecting the racial blend of their neighborhoods, but most white parents -- as well as an increasing number of middle-class black families, many of whom have chosen charter schools -- still avoid the D.C. schools. Rhee wants to attract middle-class families of all races back to the system, but she worries that any effort to win over white parents might alienate those blacks who perceive outreach to whites as pandering.

In this case, some white parents who are considering sending their pre-kindergarteners to the school where they would be a tiny minority are concerned that the building does not have separate bathrooms in the classrooms for the littlest kids, as many suburban schools do.

"We're not committing to bathrooms in the classroom," says Abigail Smith, Rhee's chief of transformation management and a key strategist in her inner circle.

Another aide, Anthony DeGuzman, reports that "there's a rule that if the building is a certain age, we don't have to bring it up to code."

Rhee cannot believe what she is hearing. "Okay, that is so wacked," she says. "At the schools where we are trying to get parents to jump into a place where there are no white kids, one of the sells has to be the actual physical space."

"Promising bathrooms at this point is not realistic," says DeGuzman, the director of operational reform.

Rhee focuses on other ways to lure white parents. "There are some classrooms where you're, like, 'I would be great with my kids in this room,' " she says. "The real selling point is a crackerjack teacher, and then you have the teacher call the parent at home and it's game over" -- the parent, impressed by personal attention, is on board.

But the deciding factor for parents is a school's reputation, an aide says.

"No, no," Rhee replies. "We're going to have to beg people. The first year, it's going to be a handful of people who are really scared. That's the group I want to talk to. That's where it has to start."

This exchange lasts but a few minutes, reaches no conclusions and represents an honest effort to achieve a goal that would help all children in the system: The more the system attracts families of every class and race, the more political pressure there will be to assure higher quality schools. Yet the chancellor's press aides are freaked out that I have heard this frank debate and might put it in this article. As open and forthright as Rhee is, as good as she is about disarming audiences who see her as an outsider who cannot understand a system that is 80 percent black, the anxiety about race is a constant.

Rhee's standard line about her relationship with Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star who is now mayor of Sacramento, is, "That's something I don't talk about." She broke that rule with me only one time, when I asked whether publicity about her romantic involvement with a prominent black man -- the couple has given up on hiding their relationship, even holding hands at public events -- has helped her win over Washingtonians who view her as an outsider disconnected from black culture.

No, she said, not in the least. Rather, she believes that what helps her connect with black parents is the fact that she's a fellow parent, someone who will do whatever it takes to improve the schools. As Mayor Adrian Fenty says, "I don't hear people talking about the chancellor's race. I hear them talk about the fact that she returns their e-mails immediately."

***

In the end, Rhee is about results. And in a tough town, in a school system that chews up chiefs and spits them out more efficiently than it does anything else, Rhee is showing signs of tempering her all-or-nothing style.

She's in the middle of a charm offensive. She goes out to schools to hold informal Q&A sessions with teachers (it works; those who attend seem to adore her). She's meeting parents in living-room visits that turn into lovefests. A fair number of teachers around town coughed up their cereal one morning when they read an op-ed piece in The Post singing the praises of teachers -- under the byline of Michelle Rhee.

Still, she harbors a fantasy of total victory. She spells out what it would look like if she wins her battle with the union: "The biggest change that will be tangible and palpable won't be a mass exodus of thousands of teachers, but every school -- can I say this? -- will be able to have the people they want. It is so deflating to people in the system and to parents when a school is told you can't hire that great teacher from Montgomery County because we have 10 people in that classification who are ahead of that person. Don't ask me to go out and sell that policy to parents, because it's idiotic -- and they know it, and I know it.

"People don't like to fire people. I don't mind firing people, because I know it is going to benefit kids."

Hold on, I say. It's just that attitude -- that you're for the kids, and others, by implication, aren't -- that makes some people mistrust you; you do get that, right?

"So, of course, I know that's the media take on it: 'Teachers hate her.' And yes, for people who only know the media persona, there's some truth to that."

We are back to the broom, because for all the control and all her pride about her straight talk, Rhee was surprised, even hurt, by the reaction to that photo. "It was not what I was expecting. I was surprised by how other people saw it -- me being a witch, which I don't get. I personally thought it sent the right message -- sweeping change and cleaning house."

Now she gets what the broom meant to so many people, even people who admire her. But in the end, she says, she has no choice but to be who she is.

"Would my life be easier if I was a little less forthright, a little more accommodating? In some ways, absolutely. But in some ways, it would not, because all you have in life is your personal integrity, who you are and what you believe in. I can sleep at night. I have no regrets -- not to date, anyway. I make mistakes all the time, but I don't have regrets about them."

Out in Colorado, Shang Rhee sometimes worries about his daughter. "I don't want her to be burnt out," he says. "I'd like to tell her to take it easier, but I haven't done it directly. Michelle is a very confident person. She has convinced herself that what she's doing is right and eventually the chips will fall in the right place. My wife and I were never afraid of admitting a mistake -- admit that and go from there. We never forced our children to change their decisions, but we're always very honest. It's in our genes."

Marc Fisher, enterprise editor at The Washington Post, has written about D.C. schools for more than 20 years. He can be reached at marcfisher@washpost.com.

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