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How Michelle Rhee Misled Education Reform

A memoir illustrates what's wrong with her brand of school reform

Kris Connor/Getty Images

The other day I picked up a copy of The Adventures of Augie March. I hadn’t remembered that Saul Bellow, writing in the early 1950s, when he was not yet forty, about Chicago in the 1920s, had been in full sympathy with the urban poor, as he definitely was not later in his career. There is a hilarious bit in the early pages in which Grandma Lausch, the March family’s boarder and a master at avoiding bills, including the rent she owes the Marches, expertly intimidates Lubin, the neighborhood welfare caseworker who comes for regular home visits wearing an ill-fitting suit: “He had a harassed patience with her of ‘deliver me from such clients,’ though he tried to appear master of the situation.”

Today’s education-reform movement has something of the venerable dynamic of American social improvement about it. We no longer have caseworkers who inspect poor people’s apartments in person, but we definitely have members of the same ethnic group as the very poor, doing better but not all that much better than their clients, charged with the often exasperating job of performing the functions of betterment: the mainly black teachers at all-black, all-poor public schools, for example. Another category of character in the drama, often just offstage, comprises the well-meaning patricians who designed the system—social work and settlement houses a century ago, charter schools and accountability regimes today—who feel some mixture of moral outrage about “conditions,” swelling pride in the selflessness of their intentions, and frustration over being so often unappreciated by the objects of their largesse.

Like all significant causes, education reform bears the mark of its time. These days we trust markets and mistrust institutions, especially of the state, so education reform proposes to take apart the main structures of schooling in America—a network of districted public schools and a unionized teaching corps. It proposes, as an urgently necessary national project, to replace them with a school system governed by metrics, choice, incentive compensation, and personnel reductions. It is roughly the same prescription that activist investors would apply to an industrial corporation of the same vintage as the education system. And this is no coincidence: many of the leaders of education reform are activist investors. The proselytizing and structure-building proclivities of the social reformers of a century ago are nowhere to be seen in education reform.

In the late aughts, Michelle Rhee, during her brief run as chancellor of the Washington, D. C. school system, became the face of the education-reform movement: a young, tough, impassioned, camera-ready crusader who encapsulated the appeal of the movement for those who find it appealing, and its horrors for those who don’t. As in the case of Lubin and Grandma Lausch, the people she was in business to help did not appreciate her as much as they were supposed to. As Rhee freely acknowledges in her memoir and manifesto, the activities  that she understood to be on behalf of poor black people in Washington caused her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, to be unseated by Washington’s black voters, barely three years into her term. That meant she lost her job, too. Rhee regrouped and founded a national organization called StudentsFirst, which lobbies for school reform in state legislatures. Her book is meant more to advertise the new phase of her career than to revisit the old one.

Rhee was born in 1969 and grew up mainly in Toledo, the child of Korean immigrants; by her account, she got her social concern from her father and her run-you-over personality from her mother. She describes a year she spent back in Korea as a child, in a large classroom in which every student was numerically ranked against the others every day, as a season in paradise, because it taught her “that it was not only okay but essential to compete.” (Later on she grouses that her daughters have too many soccer medals and trophies even though “they suck at soccer,” which is an example of the way in which “we’ve gone soft as a nation.”) After college she joined Teach for America, which placed her in an inner-city elementary school in Baltimore, and then she enrolled in the Kennedy School at Harvard. Rhee makes a big impression on people. One of them was Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, who asked her to start a new organization that would supply school districts with new teachers in numbers beyond what Teach for America itself (whose magic in the elite universities where it recruits comes from its being highly selective) could generate. Rhee called that organization the New Teacher Project.

In her account of her years in Teach for America, the lesson Rhee wants to impart is that success in the classroom takes time to achieve and depends mainly on discipline and toughness. In her first year she failed miserably: she was a nervous wreck who couldn’t control her classroom. But on the first day of her second year, she writes, she took a new approach: “I wore my game face. No smiles, no joy; I was all thin lips and flinty glares.” She describes making her students line up and walk into the classroom four times, until they had achieved a state of perfect order. “My mistake the first year was trying to be warm and friendly with the students, thinking that my kids needed love and compassion. What I knew going into my second year was that what my children needed and craved was rigid structure, certainty, and stability.” Once we get past the glorification of the drill-sergeant approach to life, which with Rhee always takes a while, we learn that it also helped that she was guided by other teachers into using different and more effective (more hard-ass and less progressive, naturally) reading and math curricula, and mastering the best ways to use them.

But as soon as she becomes head of an organization, and a voice in public debates, and (perhaps most importantly) a regular fund-raiser among the very rich and their foundations, Rhee’s story begins to change into one in which everything wrong with public education is attributable to the malign influence of the teachers’ unions. Rhee is a major self-dramatizer. As naturally appealing to her as is the idea that more order, structure, discipline, and competition is the answer to all problems, even more appealing is the picture of herself as a righteously angry and fearless crusader who has the guts to stand up to entrenched power. She is always the little guy, and whoever she is fighting is always rich, powerful, and elite—and if, as her life progresses, her posse becomes Oprah Winfrey, Theodore Forstmann, and the Gates Foundation lined up against beleaguered school superintendents and presidents of union chapters, the irony of that situation has no tonal effect on her narrative. Again and again she gives us scenes of herself being warned that she cannot do what is plainly the right thing, because it is too risky, too difficult, too threatening to the unions, too likely to bring on horrific and unfair personal attacks—but the way she’s made, there’s nothing she can do but ignore the warnings and plow valiantly ahead.

Rhee’s confrontations, especially with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, brought her to the attention of new patrons, chief among them Joel Klein, then the New York schools chancellor. When Fenty was elected mayor of Washington, he decided that he needed his own Joel Klein, and Klein, among others, steered him to Rhee. As Rhee observes, Washington in the 1950s became the first black-majority American city, but on Fenty’s watch it was on its way to becoming white-majority again, as middle-class blacks decamped to the suburbs and middle-class whites moved back into the city. This meant that white public schools were overcrowded and many black public schools were half-empty. But the black schools were often just about all their neighborhoods had left, as institutions and as employers, so they
engendered fierce loyalty. 

Rhee is not one for exquisite sensitivity. She closed schools, fired teachers, and (though she assures us that “I had never sought the limelight”) became famous. She was on the covers of Time (holding a broom) and Newsweek, and was one of the stars of Waiting for Superman. It is usually a fundamental rule of politics that a department head isn’t supposed to do anything to make her boss unpopular or to upstage him. Rhee did not follow this rule. She has a special scorn for “politics” and often praises Fenty for not considering it when making decisions, but this is both un-self-aware (Rhee’s policies were very good politics in white Washington) and impractical. We live in a democracy, so officials have to contend with public opinion and with groups organized to promote their own interests. Many American politicians over the last generation, including all of the last five presidents, have been able to push education policies in the same realm as Rhee’s in a way that kept their coalitions together. That is what Rhee and Fenty were unusually bad at doing, and Rhee’s insistence that “politics” is a terrible thing that only her opponents practice was surely a big part of the reason why.

StudentsFirst, Rhee’s post-Washington organization, lobbies state legislatures around the country to pass education-reform measures. Although it began in a series of meetings in Washington among the influential friends Rhee had made as chancellor—the names she drops in telling of its founding include Rahm Emanuel, Eli Broad, the Aspen Institute, the Hoover Institution, and McKinsey, and her initial requests for philanthropic funding are at the $100 million level—she insists that it is a grassroots organization, “a movement of everyday people.” What this really means is that StudentsFirst has used the latest top-of-the-line Internet-marketing technology to generate a notional membership of more than a million. They do not pay dues and they are not organized into local chapters that hold regular meetings, but when there is an important vote in a state capitol, StudentsFirst can generate turnout to demonstrate that it is engaged in a grand battle between powerless parents and rich unions.

StudentsFirst represents the next step in the journey Rhee has been taking all along. All policy and no operations, it frames education reform exclusively in anti-union terms, and ramps up the rhetoric even higher than it was during Rhee’s chancellorship in Washington. (“No more mediocrity. It’s killing us.”) Rhee actually does know what life is like in a public school, but she either openly or implicitly removes from the discussion of improving schools any issue that cannot be addressed by twisting the dial of educational labor-management relations in the direction of management. She gives us little or no discussion of pedagogical technique, a hot research topic these days, or of curriculum, another hot topic owing to the advent of the Common Core standards, or of funding levels, or class size, or teacher training, or surrounding schools with social services (which is the secret sauce of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone), or of the burden placed on the system by the expensive growth of special-education programs. 

Rhee simply isn’t interested in reasoning forward from evidence to conclusions: conclusions are where she starts, which means that her book cannot be trusted as an analysis of what is wrong with public schools, when and why it went wrong, and what might improve the situation. The only topics worth discussing for Rhee are abolishing teacher tenure, establishing charter schools, and imposing pay-for-performance regimes based on student test scores. We are asked to understand these measures as the only possible means of addressing a crisis of decline that is existentially threatening the United States as a nation and denying civil rights to poor black people.1

Some of the specific causes of Rhee’s early career, such as giving principals the right to accept or reject teachers being transferred into their schools, or not requiring that layoffs be made solely on the basis of seniority, are perfectly reasonable. The mystery of the education-reform movement is why it insists on such a narrow and melodramatic frame for the discussion. You’d never know from most education-reform discourse that anybody before the current movement came along ever cared about the quality of public education. (Remember that the reason both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush became president was that, as governors, they successfully established teacher-accountability regimes that were accomplished in ways that got them reelected and established them as plausible national figures. Rhee treats Clinton as someone who doesn’t have the guts to embrace the cause, and doesn’t even mention Bush.) You’d never know that unionization and school quality are consistent in most of the country (including Washington’s affluent Ward 3) and the world. You’d never know that the research results on charter schools are decidedly mixed. You’d never know that empowered and generally anti-union parents’ and employers’ organizations have been around for decades. (Bush’s education secretary, Margaret Spellings, was once an official of the Texas Association of School Boards.)

Surely one reason that the education-reform movement comports itself in this strident and limited manner is that it depends so heavily on the largesse of people who are used to getting their way and to whom the movement’s core arguments have a powerful face validity. Only a tiny percentage of American children attend the kind of expensive, non-sectarian private schools where many of the elite send their children. It is worth noting that these schools generally avoid giving their students the standardized achievement tests that state education departments require, making the results public, and paying teachers on the basis of the scores, and that they almost never claim to be creating hyper-competitive, commercial-skills-purveying environments for their students. Sidwell Friends, of presidential-daughter fame, says it offers “a rich and rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum designed to stimulate creative inquiry, intellectual achievement and independent thinking in a world increasingly without borders.” That doesn’t sound like it would cut much ice with Michelle Rhee. 

But if the world of the more than fifty million Americans who attend or work in public schools is terra incognita to you, then the narrative of a system caught in a death spiral unless something is done right now will be appealing, and the reform movement’s blowtorch language of moral urgency will feel like an unavoidable and principled choice, given the circumstances. It is a measure of the larger social and economic chasm that has opened in the United States over the last generation that the movement has so little ability to establish a civil interaction with public-school teachers, a group made up of millions of people mainly from blue-collar backgrounds, some of whose leadership (such as Albert Shanker, Randi Weingarten’s mentor) was working aggressively and decades ago on the issues that concern education reformers now. The quasi-essentialist idea that teachers are either “great” or should be fired, which pervades Rhee’s book and the movement generally, may be emotionally satisfying, but it utterly fails to capture what would really help in an enormous system. Making most good teachers better, in the manner of Rhee when she was teaching, would be far more useful than focusing exclusively on the tails of the bell curve.

Rhee recounts a crucial moment in her rise, during the early days of the New Teachers Project (TNTP), when, to inspire her staff, she told them the story of a brave group of Korean fighters against the Japanese occupation: “In order to prove their loyalty, they each bit off the top of their pinkie and wrote their name in blood on a banner. When TNTP was entering into a new three-year strategic plan I told the senior management team they all had to bite off their pinkies and sign up for three years.” One flaw Rhee does not have is inauthenticity: she really is the character she plays on television and in the movies. The troubling question is why she has become what the education-reform movement is looking for in a standard bearer. 

Nicholas Lemann is dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the author, most recently, of Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

  1. A few more words on education reform as "the civil rights movement of the twenty-first century," as it likes to call itself. Student performance at poor, all-black schools has always been low--it's not a recent phenomenon, and racial gaps in educational achievement are best understood as having, gradually become less severe over time. And of course it's not the case that nobody truly cared about this problem before the education reform movement came along. Booker T. Washington was a celebrity more than a century ago because he seemed to offer a solution to the problem. Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck, the Jeff Bezos of the early twentieth century, founded more than 5000 black schools in the South to try to ameliorate the problem. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 was in a sense meant as a solution for the low quality of schools for poor African Americans. The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated the largest social science survey ever undertaken in the United States (the "Coleman Report"), on the question of why black public school students' performance was unacceptably low. The landmark 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which established federal funding for poor local public schools, was aimed at the same problem. George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law of 2001 was a distinctively Republican approach to the same problem. It would be nice to regard all this history as something to be learned from, not something to dismiss and ignore.