Tuesday, Sept. 29 at 1 p.m. ET

D.C. Schools Chief Michelle Rhee

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The chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schools talks with On Leadership's Steve Pearlstein about "leading from the front" and why she won't "soften up."

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Michelle Rhee
D.C. Schools Chancellor
Tuesday, September 29, 2009; 1:00 PM

D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee was online Sept. 29 to take questions and comments about her efforts to transform the city's school system and the profile of her that ran in The Washington Post Magazine.

In Search of the Real Michelle Rhee (Magazine, Sept. 27, 2009)

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VIDEO | On Leadership:

Part I: 'Extreme Candor'

Part II -- Teachers Unions

The transcript is below.

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Hyattsville, Md.: Chancellor Rhee,

Surely there are strong teachers in DCPS who are doing their job well. Are these teachers being identified and used as a model for struggling teachers? Are the same outstanding teachers being identified for leadership positions? It seems that many of the supports being put in place are the result of outside resources. Also, what about the schools that make AYP. Do they gain any recognition even if they didn't have significant gains on scores? I believe they are working just as hard.

Michelle Rhee: There are many, many incredible teachers in our system who do heroic things for kids everyday. We are in the midst of planning an online professional development portal that teachers can access so that we can have video clips of these great teachers available for other teachers to view. I think it's important to recognize gains and progress of all magnitudes, as every situation is different and challenging in its own way.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Ms. Rhee, How is your recent decision to lay off hundreds of teachers unexpectedly affecting the contract negotiations with the teachers' union?

Michelle Rhee: Obviously, this is a difficult time, as it's never easy to lose employees. That said, I'm hopeful that we'll still be able to come to agreement on a contract that is good for kids and teachers alike.

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Washington, D.C.: How is it possible to rebuild a school system with Teach For American type teachers who only view teaching as a shot-term (and resume building) job as opposed to a long-term career? A large percentage of those teachers only teach for one or two years and then move on with their careers, which can't be beneficial in establishing a solid foundation for a new DC Public School System.

Michelle Rhee: I don't think it's possible to turn around a school system with only one type of teacher (or from one particular source). We certainly have some wonderful TFA teachers in the district, but I think having a broad range of educators with varying experience levels and knowledge bases is what will be most effective. Some people believe I'm biased against veteran teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've watched so many veterans in the classrooms that are model teachers, and I want to keep them in the system as long as I can!

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Timken, KS: I'm very impressed with frank style. A retired English teacher, I speak with candor and from experience: CANDOR is sooooo rare among educator types. Too often, I was urged to temper my proposals with smiles and back pats, when actually my 'hair was on fire' with the passion and angst I felt over the huge need to teach kids all they need(ed) to know every day. I"m far more relaxed today, but just as passionate, perhaps cynical, too, about the need to be the best at my job EVERY DAY. I sense that in you as well, yes?

Michelle Rhee: Well, I think part of the problem is that when administrators try to "sugar coat" things too much, it gives people a sense of complacency. The situation in our schools is dire. Kids are being done a disservice everyday in some schools. I don't think we should avoid talking about that reality just to keep adults comfortable.

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Washington, D.C.: My friend's mom hasn't had a review in three years and keeps being moved between D.C. public schools so her principal doesn't know her as well as the other classroom teachers. How in the world can she get a fair shake?

Michelle Rhee: Great question and unfortunately, not the first time I've heard of a situation like this. Our new evaluation system, IMPACT, will allow not only the school administrators but also Master Educators (peers who are experts in their grade level and subject area) to observe teachers. We've heard from lots of teachers that they feel this system will be much fairer and allow them to be comfortable that their evaluation will not be biased.

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Ward 4, Washington, D.C.: Ms. Rhee - As an 18-year parent veteran of DCPS (both east and west of the park), I can state categorically that 1) my children have had some of the best teachers I've ever seen, anywhere and 2) the single greatest obstacle to improving our system is that segment of mediocre and poor-performing teachers who are protected by the union and who, naturally, oppose any move to a meritocracy. The latter would include the 4th grade teacher, who refused my modest request that she at least circle my child's spelling mistakes in his written work, saying, "Oh, I teach spelling in April and this is only November." I (and many other parents) applaud your efforts to reform our broken system, particularly your choice of good, strong, intelligent principals, who are the key to setting a clear direction at a school (including rooting out non-performing teachers). Is there anything that parents in particular can do to assist your efforts?

Michelle Rhee: I hear comments like this from parents frequently. They see what I see, which is that we have some great teachers and some teachers who are not serving kids well. We need to make sure that students are our priority and that we guarantee every child a great teacher every year. I'd love parents to be a more active voice in this debate!

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Clinton, Md.: A first look, there appears to be a lack of consistency on your behalf regarding the use of test scores to evaluate personnel, eg. firings you made last year and this year with Shaw Middle. Could you please clarify?

Michelle Rhee: I don't think there's any inconsistency. Shaw was a failing middle school that needed to be restructured. Anyone who has been in the school under the new leadership can attest to the fact that the school's culture and environment has improved radically. The test scores stayed pretty level this year (not uncommon for the first year of a turn around) and we expect to see greater gains in the years to come. I'm excited by what Principal Betts, the staff and students have done there!

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Waterford, Virginia: Good Afternoon, How many hours per week do you work? pk

Michelle Rhee: A whole lot. I'm a bit of a workaholic, but I love my job!

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Petworth, DC: Good afernoon Chancellor, could you explain how your children got into the Oyster School when you live (I believe ) outside of the school borders. We tried to get our daughter in last year but only got 100 on the wait list. We were fortuante to get into a a bilingual charter school and are very happy. With the Mayor's kids going to an out of bounds school as well, it would be nice if you clarify that you don't need to be an elected/appointed official in the District to get your kids in the best public schools the City has to offer.

Thank you and please keep up the great work. As parents in DC, we like your style and accountability of all of your employees.

Michelle Rhee: Sure! My children live with their father 50% of the time, and his house's neighborhood school is Oyster. That said, I know it can be frustrating for parents who want to gain admission to some of our higher performing schools and can't because of a lack of space. I encourage you to research your NCLB choice transfer options, as that allows you to move from a lower performing to higher performing school. Email me if you want more details michelle.rhee@dc.gov.

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Northeast DC: What did you learn, if anything, new about how you are perceived from the Post article? To what extent are you getting a fair shake from the so-called media?

Michelle Rhee: I think the media attention has certainly been a benefit in some ways. More resources are flowing into the system because philanthropists are excited about what we're doing, for example. On the flip side, I'm some times very frustrated by media portayals of the work we're doing. I see all of it (the up and down sides) as part of the job, though...

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Washington, D.C.: I live in the District and send my two elementary-age sons to a Pre-K-8 parochial school due to the weak public schools available in our neighborhood. I'm beginning to have some anxiety about high school options - I'd really like to feel comfortable sending my kids to a public high school in DC, but again, the options appear to be severely limited; this may well compell us to move to the surburbs rather than pay the over $20,000 tuition for private education. What's your time horizon to getting the high schools up to par?

Michelle Rhee: High schools are definitely what keep me up at night. They are not nearly where we want them to be in terms of the quality of education they are providing our students. We have some real stand outs in the District (Banneker and School Without Walls, for example) but our neighborhood schools are faced with lots of challenges. I'd say within the next 4-5 years, we'll begin to see a really significant turn around of our high schools.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle,

Why don't you turn all of your schools into charter schools? This would create competition between them and provide them with autonomy to improve

Michelle Rhee: I'm a fan of effective charter schools, but don't think that a system of ALL charter schools will solve the problem. Specifically, now the DCPS elementary schools are outperforming the charter elementary schools. When the spread of achievement in charters is as broad as it is, that's a problem. All charters are not successful and the failing ones water down the impact of great ones (like KIPP and EL Haynes). Therefore, I don't think just chartering all of the schools are the answer.

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Capitol Heights: Hello Chancellor. I am curious about why you agreed to give so much access to the WP Magazine writer when you appear to have a policy of not speaking to Bill Turque, who covers the DCPS beat for the Post.

Michelle Rhee: I've emailed with Bill Turque about 5 times today alone. If that's lack of access, then we're in trouble...

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Washington, DC: Good Afternoon, Chancellor Rhee. I know there are drawbacks to this; but is there any consideration of including parents in the evaluation of teachers and principles?

Michelle Rhee: We're actually thinking about how we can ensure that both parent and student input can be taken into consideration in the evaluations of teachers, principals and central office administration. It's important that we take into account the feedback from our constituents!

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Washington, DC: As a veteran DCPS parent whose children left the system recently for private middle and high school, I applaud your efforts to implement a fair yet reasonable termination process and reward good teachers for more than just years in the system. Some of the highest paid teachers at our local elementary school were phoning it in, while hardworking first-year teachers with extremely low salaries were full of energy and ideas -- and they were subject to being bumped by teachers with more seniority in the case of budget cuts.

It is a system that is set up for all the wrong reasons and really works to perpetuate mediocrity. Good for you for taking it on.

Michelle Rhee: Thanks, I appreciate the support! The work of the many great teachers in our system is often lost because of some teachers who shouldn't be teaching kids. Some of the strongest advocates for our reforms are educators who have been in this system for years who have seen the problems you describe play out year after year. Like I always say, we have to make all of our decisions with what's in the best interests of kids. Prioritizing the priorities and privileges of adults is what got us into the situation we face today.

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Washington, DC: Good afternoon, I just moved my daughter from a private school in DC to Wilson HS not for financial reasons but because we were impressed by Principal Cahall and the work he's doing at Wilson. That said, I'm extremely concerned about where my daughter will be moved during Wilson's renovation. I've read all there is to read about the issue and UDC really seems like the best place. The school is overcrowded as is with the 9th grade balloning to 590 students this year because of the 200 kids that failed 9th grade last year. The option of cramming everyone into half the bulding while renovations happen seems unproductive and dangerous. Do you know when this decision will be made? Thanks for all your hard work.

Michelle Rhee: We're going to make the decision asap. It looks like the forerunner (in terms of options) keeps the students in close proximity to the school and I think people will be pleased with it (though temporary space is never ideal!)

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Washington, D.C.: Chancellor Rhee,

As a D.C. resident without children (at least not yet), I am glad you are making the politically unpopular decisions to reform our schools.

The more I think about it, the more I view public education through the prism of civil rights. That is, children are entitled by law to a decent and free grade-school education, just as adult citizens are entitled to vote in free and fair elections. If our city ran our elections the way we ran our schools--- with such astounding racial outcome disparities, and with such low rates of proficiency in core topics--- the Justice Department would investigate and intervene.

Whatever is best suited to improving outcomes for children should trump any other concern, be it tenure or whatever else teachers may perceive to be their entitlements.

Michelle Rhee: I agree that ensuring children have the RIGHT to a high quality public school education is a civil right. We are not doing our jobs as adults in this society if we cannot ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to live the American Dream. That's not the circumstance we have now in this city, where race and class are still largely the determining factors in the academic outcomes of a child. That is a situation that we have to reverse. We owe that to our children.

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DuPont Circle: One of the first issues you addressed was the widespread disrepair of the schools. Do you think that problem's under control? If not, when will it be?

Michelle Rhee: All of the schools have not been fixed and we still have a long way to go. That said, we're certainly in better shape than we've been in a long time. Under Allen Lew, people say they've seen more progress on the school modernization front in the last 2 years than they saw in the previous 20!

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Washington, DC: Chancellor Rhee, Could you please explain why I have heard you talk about many types of professional development programs for teachers with little being implemented. What is the problem?

Michelle Rhee: We have increased the amount money that we spend on professional development by 400% since we've been in office. Most of that has gone toward putting job-embedded professional development in the schools. We now have full time coaches and mentors in every school modeling lessons for teachers and giving them real time feedback on their classroom practices. We have lots of other ideas for new things we want to implement, but we've come a long way on this one.

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Anonymous: Congratulations. For the 40 years I have lived here, you are the first effective administrator I have seen tackling what is in my view an incredibly dysfunctional and overly bureaucratic school system. Do you claim success yet? Or are there still vast problems you want to resolve before moving on?

Michelle Rhee: Thanks for the kind words, but we're definitely not declaring success yet. We're proud of the progress that our kids and teachers have made in the last 2 years (with achievement levels growing as much as 20% in some subjects). However, we're still a really long way from where we need to be in order to say that we're providing a quality education to every child.

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D.C.: Do you ever wish you could throttle Mayor Fenty to get him to stop initiating petty squabbles with the city council? It seems like he's always doing something - withholding baseball tickets, promising he'll consult/advise them before he does X and then immediately holds a press conference announcing X without the promised meeting - that angers the council and then certain members react in kind (i.e., like a third grader) and slash your budget. Perhaps some of your better teachers could instruct certain members of this administration in the art of handling the council?

Michelle Rhee: Let me be clear in saying that everything we've been able to do in the last two years has been because of the unequivocal support of Mayor Fenty. I can't think of another politician anywhere in this country who has taken such a courageous stand on education. Most politicians would have run for the hills with talks of school closings and terminations. These are not popular things that most elected officials will take on. However, they are necessary changes for this district and Mayor Fenty has been unwavering in his support of the schools. He's a rare politician and the best boss a Chancellor could ask for, bar none.

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Ward 4, DC: This year is the first year that I have had children in DCPS, although our older son is still in private school in NW. So far, we have been quite pleased with the DCPS school, and we want to see this work. However, I am quite concerned that one month into the school year, my young children may be subject to dramatic changes to their school lives. When we will we know how are school will be impacted by the budget cuts - today, tomorrow, next week?

Michelle Rhee: We're really trying to minimize the impact that these budget cuts will have in the schools. For some schools, depending on enrollment, you won't be able to see any change (or might even get more resources!). If you email me the name of your school (michelle.rhee@dc.gov) I'll be able to give you a better sense of the impact you'll see.

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SE Capitol Hill: I'm a resident of SE DC, in a rough neighborhood by RFK stadium right in front of a terrible high school that you're closing down. Good job! I would never have sent my kids to such a low performing school.

Here's another way I know that you're moving DCPS in the correct direction: the yuppie parents that live on Lincoln Park are actually staying in the neighborhood and sending their kids to DCPS elementary schools! Yes, the parents still pull their kids out when it's time for middle school, but this is a start.

So keep on keeping on. Lots of us are standing behind you.

Michelle Rhee: Thanks, this is great to hear! We're working hard to ensure that the parents on the Hill and in Lincoln Park, who have gained increasing confidence in our elementary schools will have solid neighborhood options for middle and high school.

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DC SE: My school made the DC-CAS 20% gains for 2009-2010. But know one can tell me if the awards will be given out. Can you tell please? If so when? Thanks.

Michelle Rhee: We're shooting for December for the TEAM awards. We are trying to expand the program to include more types of growth and need to complete the 09 erasure analysis as well.

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Mitchellville, MD: How is the private funding for teacher incentive programs coming along? I haven't read much about it recently.

Michelle Rhee: The commitments are still there if we can come to agreement on this contract! We're very lucky on that front because this will be an opportunity to significantly raise teacher pay during this tough economic time.

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Capitol Hill: Hello Ms. Rhee.

I am a parent of a child in public elementary school. I love what you have done overall and can really see a change for the better in my son's school. Thank you.

However, one of the consequences of your actions is that morale among teachers is low. I think this is because for a long time teachers where not held accountable for their work, and you are now doing so. I think in the long run, morale will improve as teachers get used to the new order. In the meantime, that morale is translating into misinformation and mistaken information being pushed out to parents by these teachers. What is your strategy for communicating with parents so that we don't get caught up in a cycle of rumors and incorrect info.

Michelle Rhee: We're working hard on this. It's been tough to explain the need to move out ineffective teachers without all teachers feeling a little nervous. That makes me sad, because I'm so appreciative of the scores of wonderful teachers we have in the system. I've started holding teacher listening sessions and ensuring more direct lines to teachers so that we can minimize the misinformation. If you have any thoughts on better ways to do this with parents I'd love your thoughts!

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Washington, DC: I can tell you why we left DCPS after our kids finished 6th grade. There wasn't enough teaching. To be sure, here in upper NW, there were plenty of assignments, but no guidance, no red marks on the paper, no drafts with teacher comments. It was almost as if the teacher could check off the standard ("understands the elements of plot" - check) just by assigning something in that category. If the work was handed in on time, and was acceptable, it got an "A," even if it was mediocre.

Isn't there a role for the principal to play in making sure that teachers are actually providing valuable feedback and bringing students along? Or is that part of the battle you are waging with the Teachers Union?

Michelle Rhee: I agree that we need to ensure a higher level of rigor and expectation in all of our schools. Principals are the leaders of the schools and therefore have to drive the instructional quality. That said, there are many ways in which principals are limited in holding staff accountable and ensuring kids are getting what they need. We're hoping to address alot of these issues if we are able to negotiate the new contract.

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Washington, DC: My twins had an extremely energetic first-year teacher in 6th grade (in 2006) that had high expectations for the class and required them to read and discuss books such as "Number the Stars," by Lois Lowry. Unfortunately, the book was assigned again this year in 8th grade at Deal Middle School.

Isn't this a problem with having vague standards (which teachers can implement as they choose) but no set curriculum? This does not happen at private schools with set curriculums, nor does it seem to be a problem in better public school systems such as Montgomery County.

Michelle Rhee: I love "Number the Stars" and just read it with my daughter! Yes, this is definitely a problem with not enough vertical collaboration in the system. It's something we have to fix.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Chancellor Rhee: I have no children but as a DC taxpayer, I want to know that kids in this town are getting the best education possible. To that end, what is being done to assure the academic success of the many children in DC who come from dysfunctional homes or homes in which the parents have little interest in setting educational goals for their children? Thank you.

Michelle Rhee: The best thing we can do for students who come from challenging situations is provide them with great educators in their schools. There are many problems that our teachers have to work to overcome, and not everyone can do this incredibly hard work. However, we have classrooms in every corner of the city where teachers are proving that socio-economic status and home environment does not have to be the deciding factors in academic achievement.

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Bristow, Va : The present school system is a failure. Turn it upside down, while you can. Good Luck!

Michelle Rhee: I'm about to sign off now but thanks for the support!

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Michelle Rhee: I want to thank everyone for writing in today and being so interested in the city schools. I was only able to answer a fraction of the questions asked (clearly I need to learn to type faster). However, you're welcome to email me your questions directly to michelle.rhee@dc.gov if I didn't get to yours and I'd be happy to respond!

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