In his 2010 documentary “Waiting For ‘Superman’,” Davis Guggenheim used me as a talking head to explain one of the movie’s heroes, D.C. Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. I said Rhee was “somebody who had not gotten a Ph.D, who had only been a teacher three years, hadn’t been a principal, hadn’t been a superintendent anywhere else, and said she was going to tear up the district.”
That sounds like a possible Trump Secretary of Education to me. She met the president-elect on Saturday, but she tweeted Tuesday that she is not going to pursue a position in the administration.
It is likely not the last we will hear of her. She is one of the most unusual figures ever to gain prominence in American education. At 46 she will likely attract offers for other big jobs, given the widespread frustration with slow progress in schools and her unusually strong appeal to conservatives.
As D.C. chancellor, she cleaned up a rusty school bureaucracy, set higher standards for principals and teachers, found ways to work with charter schools and left the district in the hands of her knowledgeable and personable deputy, Kaya Henderson.
Despite Rhee’s successes, she reminded me of the brilliant-but-irritating Sheldon Cooper in the CBS series “The Big Bang Theory.” People were drawn to Rhee’s intense and unconventional approach to her job, but her callousness and unpredictability were often a pain. Her unshakable belief in her instincts led to mistakes. The last of her three years in office was a disaster.
Fenty lost his run for a second term in part because voters were so annoyed by his schools chancellor. In 2011, the year after both of them left office, USA Today revealed widespread tampering of standardized test answer sheets by D.C. principals and other staffers, which Rhee’s security officials had missed. By one estimate, scores were inflated enough to cast doubt on the achievement gains that made her famous.
I suspect she realized pretty quickly she would not enjoy the job in Trump’s administration. She can give a good speech. She is very good at guiding important research, like the failure to support effective teachers exposed by The New Teacher Project think tank she ran before she went to the District. But she would have had less power to make change than she did when she ran the D.C. schools.
Arne Duncan, the Education Secretary during most of the Obama administration, got states to expand charters and tie teacher evaluations to test scores because he had billions of dollars in stimulus money to distribute. The next Republican Congress is unlikely to be so generous. The new federal education law also gives the states more power than they had under Obama.
That might have brought out Rhee’s disruptive instincts, always interesting to watch. When one D.C. principal ignored a teacher’s plea to fix the lock on his classroom door to deter distracting visitors, Rhee sent a district locksmith to do the job. She let PBS correspondent John Merrow film and record her dismissing another D.C. principal. She fired a lot of people, a habit that could have brought trouble at the Education Department if those relieved of their jobs had friends in Congress or the White House.
Rhee also was awkward with the press. At one meeting with Washington Post editors, she criticized by name our very talented D.C. schools reporter. She was quick to return my emails and helpful in interviews, probably because my coverage was mostly positive. But I had to explain to her that we would not allow her to give stories to me rather than the Post reporter assigned to cover her, as she tried to do a couple of times.
Her lack of respect for authority could have affected her dealings with Trump. She has expressed support for the Common Core State Standards, which Trump opposes. She has not been sympathetic to his immigration proposals. She is a Democrat and her husband, former basketball star Kevin Johnson, is about to finish eight years as the Democratic mayor of Sacramento.
One thing Rhee can do, now that she doesn’t have to maneuver to join the cabinet, is call Oakland schools superintendent Antwan Wilson, who was named the new D.C. schools chancellor the same day she dropped out of the Trump competition. As an outsider coming into a still-troubled district, Wilson could use some advice, Nobody knows better than Rhee what can happen to a newbie trying to run the D.C. schools.