Monday, Oct. 27, Noon ET

Jay Mathews: Michelle Rhee and Teach for America

Jay Mathews
Washington Post Education Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008; 12:00 PM

Post education writer Jay Mathews was online Monday, Oct. 27 at noon ET to discuss his latest column, about what D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee learned during her time with Teach for America and her approach to reforming the D.C. school system.

The transcript follows.

Read Jay's column archive.

Contribute to Jay's discussion group: Admissions 101.


Jay Mathews: Hi. I will get started. I expect to see great questions, given my experience with previous chats.


Reston, Va.: I say this as an outsider, since I don't live in D.C., but knowing the work that teachers put into teaching, I'd say that Ms. Rhee comes across as "anti-teacher" to me. Have others commenting similarly, and how does Ms Rhee appear to you?

Jay Mathews: My impression is quite the contrary, although I can see how anyone who gets into a fight with a teachers union is going to be perceived by many people as being anti-teacher. It is too bad the American collective bargaining system, a great strength of our society, has the unfortunate byproduct of creating an adversarial feeling that may lead people on one side to think the superintendent is anti-teacher and people on the other side to think the teachers are all about money rather than helping kids. After my long interview with Rhee, and the hundreds of hours of interviews I have done with many other young educational entrepreneurs like her, it is clear to me that she is one of the most pro-teacher people in the country. We was a classroom teacher for three years in her 20s, and until she became chancellor spent every year of her life since (she is now 38) creating and building the New Teacher Project, a non-profit organization whose central mission is to find and train the best teachers possible and get them into urban classroom where they are most needed. As a consequence she has very high standards for teachers, and has shown that in her work as DC schools chancellor. But it does not make sense to me to equate wanting the best teachers possible in the DC schools with being anti-teacher.


Peoria, Ill.: It seems like you love KIPP, but aren't crazy about Teach For America. Why is that? There would be no KIPP without TFA.

Jay Mathews: I try to be realistic about both KIPP and TFA. You are absolutely right about the importance of TFA to KIPP. I have interviewed KIPP school leaders in cities that do not have TFA. They are making good progress, but they have made clear to me it is much harder for them to find the kind of teachers who can adjust to the KIPP system when they do not have TFA teachers in their cities. The basic difference between the two organizations to my mind is that KIPP has shown great results in the classroom, and TFA has not. On average KIPP students who stay in the schools rise from far below grade level to grade level and above in reading and math. TFA's classroom results are not nearly as good. At best, they do a little bit better on average in raising achievement than do cohorts of new teacchers who are not part of TFA. But TFA does produce a critical mass of teachers like Rhee who do MUCH better than most new teachers, and proceed to make a big difference in urban schools when they create or become part of organizations like KIPP.


Alexandria, Va.: I admire Ms. Rhee's hard work and dedication, but I question the likely success of her apparent vision that all teachers need the 24/7 commitment that her style seems to demand.

She would much prefer the new, young idealistic Ivy Leaguer who sees teaching in the urban community as a stint in a domestic Peach Corps. However, successful teachers should not see their chosen profession not only as an opportunity to "do good", but also a chance to "do well" while having time for their own family life.

Ms. Rhee risks a large burn out factor that would make it impossible to maintain an experienced teaching corps. Do you see her vision of teachers as a group who should see their jobs as a short term, intensive commitment at the expense of maintaining a long term career with reasonable, balanced lives?

Jay Mathews: This is a very farsighted question. It can only be answered speculatively at this point. We know that some charter schools, and some specially organized regular public schools in cities like Boston, have produced significant gains in achievement by recruiting the kind of young, driven teachers you describe. These schools usually have longer school days and much higher standards for classroom success. Teachers who do not perform at that level either leave quickly or are fired. And there is indeed some burnout among the teachers who perform well. The people who lead organizations like KIPP, and regular public school entrepreneurs like Rhee, admit they do not know how this is going to evolve. They acknowledge that we could develop a system where great young teachers are recruited like professonal athletes, with the assumption they will put in five to 10 years of hard work before going to something else--perhaps also education related---that does not take so much time from family life. But they are also experimenting with scheduling reforms---using more teachers who in many cases work shorter hours---that they think may allow them to get the same results without everyone putting in 10 hours a day. The important point is that they are committed to the results, and just want to find a way to make the system that produces those results work for the kind of people they need. It is clear to me from studying some regular public schools that have achieved good results with normal hours that the DC schools can be much better than they are by just allowing principals to create teams of teachers who are committed to the same mission, working the same hours they do now. We don't have such teams in most of the DC schools at the moment, mostly because the principals have not been good enough and too many of the teachers have decided that the general low standard is what they are supposed to follow.


Anonymous: DC Teaching Fellows is a program similar to TFA, except there's more training involved and it's geared towards preparing people for a new career -- not treating teaching like a 2-year community service activity. Also, DC Teaching Fellows is a product of Rhee's New Teacher Project. Have you ever done research on DCTF, because I don't hear you mention it in your articles?

Jay Mathews: I did not have enough space to make your good point that Rhee's organization created DCTF, and similar programs in other cities. That shows the great strength of the new school entrepreneurs, the Brat Pack, as I call them. They don't see any reason why everything can't be done better. Rhee had great success in TFA, but saw that its training system could be much improved, thus DCTF. If you check with Matt Kramer, president of TFA, you will discover he is the same kind of leader, looking for every possible way to improve TFA training and augment the value its corps members are addding to our schools. As I said, the important thing is to focus on classroom results, not on philosophy or politics.


re: Reston: I think Michelle Rhee is anti "bad" teacher. Not every teacher puts an effort into teaching, and some need to be encouraged to either switch their attitude or switch their job.

Jay Mathews: Exactly. You said it better than I did.


Omaha, Neb.: Has Rhee described specific metrics for success? Anything along the lines of x percent of students graduate from HS of which y percent go on to higher ed in some form? How does she talk about what success looks like? How will we all know if it has been achieved?

Jay Mathews: She says she is working on that. It is pretty clear what she and the successful school entrepreneurs of her generation see as useful metrics. First, state test scores. That, of course, upsets purists, but you have to start with the measures you have. We live in the No Child Left Behind world where those scores are important. (NCLB is not going away. You find nobody of importance in either presidential camp who wants to get rid of it.) I would argue that in every case I have studied of a school with significant gains in scores (except for one or two out of a 1,000 or so who are obviously cheating), you find in the classroom great teachers exciting and challenging and motivating kids, which is the most authentic, if hardest to quantify, measure of good teaching. That more subjective kind of judgment of good teaching can only be done by a skilled supervisor---a principal who has been a good teacher with proven classroom results and knows how to identify good teaching, or train teachers to become good. So that leaves you two main metrics---scores and principal assessments. Graduation from high school and going on to higher ed are also great measures. But in most cases that only works for high schools, unless you have an organization like KIPP that keeps track of its middle school graduates on into their college years.


Atlanta: Obvioulsy, I'm not in DC, but I have noticed in many places were the teacher's union is strong, school performance is low. Is there any place in the U.S. were a teacher's union is strong and the schools high performing?

Jay Mathews: All unions, including teacher unions, have lost significant power in the last few decades. But there are some cities where I would judge the unions to be strong and the recent results encouraging. They include NYC, Boston, Philly and LA. I think the relationship you perceive does exist, and has some importance. I just don't know how to quantify it. My prime example for everything these days, as I await publication of my KIPP book, "Work Hard. Be Nice," Jan. 20, is KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. Note that Mike successfully founded his school in Texas, where teacher unions are very weak, but Dave started his in New York City, where they are quite strong. Both schools today are models for inner city education (although Mike has found it easier to build more schools than Dave has, which may much more to do with property values than unions.) I have been studying great teachers for 26 years and have yet to find even one who thinks that the union hurt his or her ability to raise kids to a new level.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Jay. I work for a charter school in DC (I can't say which one), and while we have made impressive strides with grades, reducing drop out rates, high college acceptance rates, etc., it still remains painfully obvious that much, if not most, of the difficulties facing DC's kids comes from home.

Teachers can spend twelve hours a day at school, teaching and mentoring and giving it their all, but when those children return home to violent neighborhoods, absent/incarcerated parents, and a culture that derides education as not cool or even worse puts a racial tone on it, it will be exceedingly difficult to see incredible results.

No one should ever give up on a child and schools should work as hard as possible to offer all students equal opportunity, but I'm tired of all the blame being laid at the feet of the school.

I know it isn't politically correct to blame students and their families, but if we understand where the children are coming from and demand more accountability on the home end, we will see a higher rise in test scores and be better off as a country for it.

Jay Mathews: You are absolutely right. I applaud thinkers like Richard Rothstein who look for ways to improve the family environments of all inner city kids. And I don't like it when Rothstein and those like me who emphasize classroom improvement act like adversaries. But it is true, at least at this point, that we have many more tools to change the classroom environment than we have to change the home environment, and we have more than enough evidence now that schools like yours produce more learning. Those kids are still at a disadvantage, but I will be happy to see them move from the 30th to the 45th percentile with classroom improvements while we work on ways to help them at home. Also, don't forget, schools like KIPP that have been doing this for awhile have produced indications that improvements in the school environment change parental attitude toward school, and bring more support from parents. You can't blame parents for acting like the schools are crap when they are crap.


Anonymous: Having dealt with DCPS, I can see how a person could think everyone is incompetent. Working for another DC government agency and knowing the frustration of working in DC government, I can tell you it is not the employees. Yes there are some bad ones, but seeing the impact of poor management through out city government I don't see how she can finger the employee to such a degree.

Jay Mathews: She is not fingering the employee, although it may look that way. She is trying to improve management--that is, school principals--by giving them the power to get rid of weak teachers who do not work hard to improve. That change is critical to improving management in this part of the DC government, which you correctly diagnose is the heart of the matter.


Washington, D.C.: My kids were in DCPS for over 10 years. Last year, all 3 of them changed to private schools, largely because I was very dissatisfied with the middle school option, even though it is apparently one of the best in the city.

One of the things I found frustrating is that DCPS seems to overlook the very basic, but important, needs of students. For example, at Deal Middle School, the kids go without PE for 1/2 of the year. Moreover, they are not allowed to eat a snack, and some of them arrive at 7:45 for music, which means they leave home to get on public transportation at 7:00 or earlier. On some days, lunch isn't until close to 1:00 pm. All current research suggests that teenagers should be allowed to eat at least every 3 hours, and learning is hampered when they cannot. When I raised the issue, the principal and teachers listed all the reasons why it was inconvenient.

When will DCPS look at what is best for the kids, and figure out how to get there, rather than start off with a million reasons why it can't work? The bureaucratic mindset is what ultimately drove us out of the system.

And, by the way, the three private schools that my children attend not only allow snacks, they insist that parents pack one to keep kids alert and focused.

Jay Mathews: I have never seen any research that shows that students need to eat every three hours to learn at a high level. If you have it, please send it to me at


Washington, D.C.: Hi Jay - I've been a DCPS parent for the past 16 years (only 2 more to go!) and I'm a HUGE fan of Michelle Rhee. Her Baltimore experience seems to have taught her that the position of principal is key to a well-functioning school system. Only a good principal can set the proper tone in a school and weed out the bad and burned-out teachers who rob our students of valuable time and who demoralize the excellent teachers that we do have.

I can tell you that the difference at Wilson High School since the start of Rhee's choice of Pete Cahall as principal is nothing less than night and day. And while the replacement of the principal at Shepherd Elementary could have been handled better, to me it shows that Chancellor Rhee is not above admitting a mistake (in her original selection) and acting quickly to remedy it.

Michelle Rhee is impatient for success. After too many superintendents who expected or were satisfied with mediocrity from DCPS students, this is a good thing.

Jay Mathews: Rhee tells me she has been heartened by messages from many smart parents like you. You should forward this message to her at


Philadelphia: TFA's emphasis on the personality traits of corps members seems to be another part of the corps experience that Rhee brings to D.C., as referenced in Bill Turque's piece from Sept. 8.

I agree that children can learn no matter what, but why is it such a problem to acknowledge that everything is not in the teacher's control? And, as such, student achievement is not entirely reflective of the teacher. I don't see that as making excuses, but just being realistic.

I'm very concerned about Rhee's preference for personality traits, and like TFA, the apparent inability to recognize that people can have different perspectives or approaches, but still be good teachers. I know that the "no limits" philosophy is very popular, but I find that it belittles issues that do have a real impact. Rhee's 'Plan B' Targets Teacher Quality (Post, Sept. 8)

Jay Mathews: I am very grateful to you for including the link to Bill's piece, which I did not recall having any significant references to personality traits. I read it again and did not see them. Please email me at and tell me more. My impression is that Rhee doesnt care about personality traits as long as the teacher can engage children and help them learn more. Although there do seem to be certain traits, such as persistence, that you find in all good teachers.


Central Virginia: I recently read "Relentless Pursuit" about TFA. The amount of work that the TFA teachers had to complete seemed quite burdensome. Is this still the standard in the organization? Since it seems like TFA has had a lot of success, why don't schools adopt some of their practices? A lot of traditional education practices don't seem to be working anymore.

Jay Mathews: I thought that book revealed FAR too much oppressive management, at least at that time in LA, over their corps members. I did not think the TFA monitor profiled was helping his team members very much. But that seems to be a anomaly. As I said above, on average TFA teachers are not that successful, at least by my standards. But the TFA experience does light a flame in many young people that inspires them to eventually become great teachers. You just can't expect miracles in a program that only commits them to two years in the classroom. And remember, TFA does NOT demand any particular education practices. They try to train their corps members to assess their schools, and their kids, be creative, and figure out what works best for them.


Rockville, Md.: Hello,

My sister, a teacher in NoVa, commented that Rhee's actions never seem to target parents; they fail on so many levels but the teachers always get blamed. I think until this gets fixed, firing teachers and administrators won't cure much in D.C.


Jay Mathews: Okay, how would you fix parents? Social scientists have been trying for many years but haven't had much progress. It is MUCH easier and more effective to improve, or get rid of, a bad teacher than a bad parent. Schools that focus on the teachers show great gains in achievement, and in many cases find that once they do that, parents get better at their jobs too. One simple thing: teachers who make a special effort to meet parents by going to their homes, even if it has to be unannounced, report more success. But it takes a good teacher to make that effort.


New York: Can the rest of the country look at what Michelle Rhee is attempting to do in Washington and implement any of the same types of reforms, or is D.C. an isolated case for reform that really can't be translated to other districts nationwide?

Should mayors take over school districts nationwide? What are the real lessons we can learn as a nation from what is going on in the Washington, D.C. school system?

Jay Mathews: There are other cities, such as NYC, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and New Orleans that have managed to lure good superintendents and given them the power they need to pursue sustained improvements, but in many cases those cities, like DC, were so desperate for change that they removed or defanged disfunctional political institutions, such as school boards, who kept making dumb moves. So there is some reason for hope in several cities, and as some of my school board friends point out, there are some cities with still powerful school boards, like Houston, that have also produced sustained improvement.


Washington, D.C.: I am surprised that a paper of the Post's caliber has not raised the issue of a conflict of interest between Ms. Rhee's position as Chancellor and the New Teacher Project, which has an office in DCPS and whose teachers are recruited en masse to work for DCPS.

Could not Ms. Rhee's attack -- and I do mean attack -- on the existing teaching core of DCPS be viewed as a shrewd, self-serving move to preserve the viability of the TNTP, which she founded, and a way to always be able to have her erstwhile organization paid for recruiting teachers for DCPS?

Just raising the question makes me dizzy with suspicion. She is getting a pass on the conflict of issue item, as well as the fact that she and the Mayor are in violation of the D.C. Education Reform Act by not submitting new names for evaluators (the first nominees were rejected by the Council because they were friends of Rhee's whom the Council felt could not provide an objective evaluation of her performance) a year past the deadline for them to do so.

Again, not a printed alphabet, not to mention word, on that issue from the bastion of journalism that brought us Watergate. I am beginning to believe that there is a hidden agenda afoot into which the Post has bought.</p>

Jay Mathews: I don't see the conflict. Educate me. I am at DC needs more good teachers. The New Teacher Project--a non-profit, I should emphasize---has been trying to provide them. There is no data showing that Rhee's former organization has done a bad job at that. As far as I can see, although the test score evidence is slight, they have trained well motivated, energetic people who have tried to raise the level of instruction in the city. If Rhee was getting extra bucks for every extra Teacher Project person DC hires, that would be a conflict. But I know of no such arrangement, and it seems totally at odds with the life styles and choices of the people involved. If you have a tip for me on something going on like that, let me know. On the face of what you and I both know, it is like saying a company who hires as CEO a corporate trainer who has had success producing better executives is somehow creating a conflict of interest and should either not hire the trainer or void the contract with her former organization that has done the company some good. There are a lot of potential scandals we are looking at, including how charter schools get and spend their money. But your idea looks to me like a non-starter, unless you have more for me.


Fairfax, Va.: Hi Jay - I look forward to your articles on DCPS and Michelle Rhee every day. The first thing I do in the morning is pull up the Post and search, "Rhee" and your articles always pop up! My question is this: do you have any idea how Michelle plans on integrating school counselors into her contract plans? Will they fall under the same contract as teachers? I'm confused as to how they will be evaluated as test scores and grades are not as applicable. Thanks!

Jay Mathews: It is a good question which I have not asked. I will ask our splendid DC schools reporter Bill Turque about that. You can email him also at


Washington, D.C.:1. Given her own admission that she was a poor teacher while in Baltimore, how does she think she would fare with the standards she is now imposing on teachers?

2. What in her vocational history qualifies Rhee for the position she now holds? Please state statistics with verifiable data.

Jay Mathews: This question sounds familiar. Are you the same person who raised it with me in some personal emails? She was NOT a poor teacher in Baltimore. She started out bad in the classroom. All teachers do. But she got very good very quickly. As for her record since, the New Teacher Project has gotten high praise from several of the cities that have contracted with them. I suggest you call those cities and ask them. They include New York, Philadelphia and several others.


Washington, D.C.: I wanted to write to praise Michelle Rhee. She is the first person that has given me hope that D.C. schools can be improved. In fact, I am only voting for candidates that support her efforts 100 percent. Have you heard that sentiment from others?

Jay Mathews: I haven't, but I think it makes sense. You should send your good message to her at Thank you.


Jay Mathews: Thanks for the terrific questions. Remember I can always be reached at


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company