National Press Club

DC Schools Chief says Much More Work Ahead

September 30, 2008 | By Richard Lee

Photo/Image: Nancy Shia

Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee told her Monday NPC Luncheon audience that she has learned a lot about leadership in her first 15 months of trying to fix D.C.’s dysfunctional school system, “and one of the things I have learned,” she said, to knowing laughter, at the outset of her speech, “was that cooperation and collaboration and consensus building and compromise are totally overrated.”

Rhee was only half kidding. She is controversial for her inclination to rule by fiat at times, closing 23 schools, firing almost 50 underperforming teachers and administrators, proposing a controversial, two-tiered plan to pay top-performing teachers more generous salaries without regard to the protections of seniority, and even a pilot program to pay middle school students $100 a month as an incentive to study more and behave properly in classrooms. For all these and other efforts, she has become, not surprisingly, a polarizing figure among school officials, and some teachers, wary parents, the D.C. Council and Teachers Union leaders.

Nonetheless, Rhee seems cheerfully determined to carry out her mandate, and prove Mayor Adrian Fenty knew what he was doing when he gave this 37 year-old Korean-American from Toledo, Ohio, a former Baltimore school teacher and Cornell and Harvard-trained educator the challenge of her career—to reform a broken school system of 50,000 students, mainly African-American. “There is no way we could do this without the leadership of Adrian Fenty” she said. “This man has not blinked once through this entire process. His goal is to make sure that the schools have everything that we need to be successful. He has not cared at all about the politics of it. That is incredibly, incredibly unusual.”

Still, the job has only begun, and Rhee cited some disturbing facts and statistics to bear this out: “We are the only school district in the country that is on high-risk status with the Department of Education” she said. “We have about a 70 percentage point achievement gap between our wealthy white students and our poor minority students at the secondary level in some subject areas.”

She says she’s “a fan of “No Child Left Behind,’ because it encourages “accountability.” For the first time since it was implemented, “We managed to close the achievement gap by 11%, both between Hispanic and white students and between black and white students, all in one year."