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Is Rhee's new project on the right track?

Several weeks ago, former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee topped off her media blitz by unveiling her new venture, StudentsFirst, on Oprah. With this grand annoucement, local residents got a peek at her vision to take her agenda to the national level.

Photo by angela n. on Flickr.

At times, I've been a fan of Rhee's passion and drive, but on some occasions, her methods have pushed me towards skepticism. Unfortunately, this newest venture has only amplified my hesitation.

In the Newsweek piece that complemented her televised pitch, Rhee says that she was "stunned" when Fenty lost the election. Really? It's remarks like these that cost her points when it comes to communicating political savvy, casting further doubts on her ability to effectively steer what seems like a lobbying organization.

During her tenure, Rhee did make efforts to listen to the community and hear from parents, teachers, and principals. Although the media spin paints her as completely disconnected from the ground level, she and her staff did spend a hefty amount of time outside the central office.

I'm glad that she isn't crawling away into the shadows. Her ability to grab the spotlight helped her fundraise and drew well-deserved attention to the issues facing our schools.

The problem is that her mantra of putting the needs of students before the needs of grown-ups is too polarizing. You're either with her or against her. And while her action-oriented leadership may have its benefits, it doesn't leave much room for those who may have a different (but potentially valid) perspective towards what's best for their children.

For the most part, I found myself agreeing with those who suggested that her vision might be well intentioned but overly simplified, failing to deeply examine what it is that she's promoting and the nuances behind her claims. The type of education that she'd like students to have can't be boiled down to test scores, or a glut of bad teachers, or vague notions of equal access.

The issues are more complicated than her mission allows us to explore. How can I sign up to support her cause if I'm unable to understand exactly what she's intending to do, other than raise money and generate additional rhetoric?

If she can achieve her goal of gaining a million supporters and raising a billion dollars in just one year, she will certainly have solidified her image as a powerful force within education reform. A piece of me hopes that she will be successful. After all, I'm happy anytime the country starts to care more deeply about the type of experience students are having within our schools, or tries to energize others around these problems.

Her famous quote that "collaboration and consensus-building are quite frankly over-rated" recognizes that waiting around to get every last person on the same page can greatly impede progress, especially when trying to get past self-serving interests. But is she the right person to transition into a grassroots advocacy role, after earning a reputation as a tough-as-nails executive?

Here's what I'd like to see her do, improving on areas where she fell short within DC:

  • Generate conversation with like-minded organizations. I don't see many solid partnerships prominently listed on her site, which screams "trail-blazer" much more loudly than anything else.
  • Channel funds towards boosting the infrastructure of school districts that are ill-equipped to maximize the value of the information they are collecting, fully implement promising initiatives, and operate more efficiently.
  • Encourage ongoing collaboration with research and evaluation experts that can help her understand the evidence for or against policy decisions, rather than taking data at face value.
  • Follow through on her emphasis on parental and community engagement, showing the world that she's more willing to connect than they might think.
For right now, however, my mouse will continue to hover over the "join" button on her home page, waiting to see how her big announcement plays out. I'll keep my fingers crossed that it ends up benefiting kids everywhere.
Laura Gutmann has over a decade of experience working with schools in DC, New York City, and North Carolina as a teacher, nonprofit executive, consultant, and researcher. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Education. 


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I am in no way, shape, form or disortion a Rhee supporter. However, I was pleased to see her in a recent interview where she not only toned down her divisive rhetoric but went so far as to say that the teachers unions were not the reason for failing schools. This is even after being prodded with the loaded question.

On its surface, she "seemed" to have learned something valuable. How long it last, who knows.

Either way, she WILL raise the billion dollars because so many people see the effort as more about her than anything else. So why wouldn't she raise the funds. This is the point of her efforts. What's going to be unfortunate is that Fenty will not be included in the list of progressive reformers. Yet, she will and that's the way her boss set it up.

by HogWash on Dec 29, 2010 1:11 pm • linkreport

Beyond the rhetoric, Rhee's agenda is fairly naive. A great deal is known about effective methods of instruction and classroom management. they simply aren't used in practice and instead we get gimmicks like charter schools (no better than "regular" schools, overall), Teach for America (idealistic high achievers with little knowledge but much energy who mostly don't stick around), etc. The gimmicks resonate with parents (just look at the usual gushing about charter schools, which doesn't line up with the data) and get in the way of real progress. Rhee's confrontation with the teacher's union would have more grounds if it was clear what teachers need to do to demonstrate effectiveness even with difficult kids. Instead, there's no real curriculum for them to follow and it's easy for evaluations to be political. Using test scores as an outcome is problematic because large scale change beyond the early grades probably suggests teaching a test or outright cheating.

The only reason I could think of for keeping Rhee was that the revolving door of school superintendents and the need for the system to adapt to their quirks and peculiar views of the world is one of things that undermines real progress in schools.

by Rich on Dec 29, 2010 1:18 pm • linkreport

The studentsfirst website is really odd. No staff or board of directors. There is nobody in this organization except Michelle and her mailing list. Or at least nobody listed.

by Ward 1 Guy on Dec 29, 2010 1:27 pm • linkreport

@Rich: In the upper grades DC charter schools are ahead of DCPS. See summary here.

Looking at the test scores, DCPS elementary schools are doing okay -- not stellar, but OK. They start to fail in middle school, where the charters pick up the slack.

by goldfish on Dec 29, 2010 1:43 pm • linkreport

Scotts pick to head his education team mrs. Rhee. Just ask her about the privatizaion of Dunbar high school in dc. The former principal has been reinstated after "The friends of Bedford" who Rhee hired, have now been fired after gang rapes in the hallway, low test results, and general anarchy prevailed. A small charter school failure for Rhee! Rhee has just formed a PAC' "students first", where she can receive and donate money to politicians, and make big bucks on speaking engagements! Just google the Washington Examiner and Rhee!

by tom7001 on Dec 29, 2010 3:34 pm • linkreport

The link to the StudentsFirst website is broken.

by Zac on Dec 29, 2010 3:37 pm • linkreport

It would have been too honest, I suppose, for her to name it "RheeFirst".

by Bryant Turnage on Dec 29, 2010 5:27 pm • linkreport

I think the reality is that it actually IS pretty simple. I think all of this talk of how there are nuances and complexities to the problem just is a way of protecting the status quo by opposing change.

We need our average teacher to be as good as our 80th or 90th percentile teacher is today. Do we do that with training, or with standards, or by attracting talented people into the profession, or by moving ineffective teachers out of the profession? All of the above. But you have to start by at least believing that teacher quality matters. Our entire system is presently constructed to oppose any assessment of teacher quality. If you ran any business in the world the way we run our schools, it would be a total failure.

Whatever you think of Bill Gates, he knows something about how to run a meritocratic enterprise and cultivate a capable workforce. We could do a lot worse than to listen to him.

by David desJardins on Dec 29, 2010 10:38 pm • linkreport

I'm generally all for compromise but there's a difference between compromise and capitulation. The status quo has had its chance for decades now, and it has failed. The fact that it's taken this long for a major group to arise with the stated goal of improving our education system rather than lobbying for rubber rooms is tragic.

Of course the issues are complicated and of course the solutions need to be rooted in facts and data but inaction won't fix the problem either. I understand people get upset when their kid's school is closed, or their teacher is fired, but the hard data is that her methods have worked. DC schools are educating children better than they were 3 years ago. The fact that StudentsFirst is just getting off the ground and doesn't have a clearly defined agenda is all the more reason to get involved now.

In short, control of our education system has been with groups lobbying for everything but improving education for far too long.

by wagsbags on Dec 30, 2010 10:03 am • linkreport

Also of interest, StudentsFirst has a survey on their website asking you to rank four priorities in order of importance. They are (summarizing)
1. right of school choice
2. no tenure
3. layoffs based on merit, not seniority
4. More parental involvement

by wagsbags on Dec 30, 2010 10:09 am • linkreport

It's not a great list of priorities. It seems fair to complain that this list of priorities, while there are some good things in here, is focused almost exclusively on punishing bad teachers rather than rewarding good ones. What about recruiting more talented people into teaching? Providing them better training? Giving them more of the resources they need? Empowering school administrators in the regular public school system and removing bureaucracy that constrains them, rather than a built-in advantage for charter schools and independent schools. It seems that Rhee left many of her own top priorities at DCPS off this list. One has to wonder if that means she's been captured, to some extent, by a group with too much ideology of its own.

by David desJardins on Dec 30, 2010 11:35 am • linkreport

@David, how are teachers currently fired? I could be wrong, but is it not true that principles have long had the authority to fire teachers? Sure, there may be steps involved in the process but is it even reasonable to say that the system is designed to oppose any measure of teacher quality?

Teacher quality is "an" aspect of reform. In my opinion, it should fall second in line behind parental involvement. But it doesn't. And for some unfortunate reason, the discussion around reform has begun and ended on teacher performance. The most effective reform effort should start at home.

by HogWash on Dec 30, 2010 12:19 pm • linkreport

No, principals don't have the authority to fire teachers in any (non-charter) public school system that I'm familiar with, which are all ones with strong unions. Principals and administrators have the authority to initiate a long, drawn-out, very difficult battle to remove teachers. They mostly don't even try because it is so difficult. Sometimes they push the teacher off to some other school in the same system---which isn't a net gain for students.

Did you read the link where Bill Gates comments on his own observations of teacher performance systems?

If principals had the power to fire teachers, you could change large parts of the public education system in this country almost overnight. Of course, a sweeping change like that has both good and bad consequences---some principals would make bad decisions and some good teachers would be fired as well as some bad ones.

I probably don't know what you mean by "parental involvement". Parents have lots of opportunities for involvement now, if they want them. If you mean it is the role of the school system or the local government to change parental attitudes and make them more interested and involved in their childrens' education, then we disagree about the proper role and priorities of government. Providing parents with palatable alternatives is a far higher priority than trying to lead them to behave as you or I think they should behave. The problem that exists now is that frequently even the parents who care the most have no good alternatives---that is what Waiting for Superman is about. Government's highest duty is to provide decent alternatives. Worrying about who chooses what from the menu, is not completely inappropriate, but it ranks far, far lower on the list.

by David desJardins on Dec 30, 2010 12:32 pm • linkreport

To how many parents does "right of school choice" become shorthand for "my child will get in because they are better than the other candidates for the few spots"?

A few rude awakenings are in the offing, methinkgs.

by KadeKo on Dec 30, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

here's something relavent from todays WaPo:

by Tina on Dec 30, 2010 1:17 pm • linkreport

One should be careful with those words, "parental involvement."

When talking to some teachers, "parental involvement" is code for "the kid has bad parents". It invokes drug and alcohol abuse, 'broken homes', or just lazy or inept parents that use the TV as a babysitter. The implications is that the poor educational performance of certain kids is not really a school issue and the teachers of such students cannot do anything about it.

While these points are legitimate, it has been used to shift the fault poor teacher performance away from teachers. And when you look at the performance of a school as a whole, you cannot way that every student is the product of a bad home, that there should be some that excel. And when you do not see any students succeeding at a school, that means it is the teaching that is at fault.

by goldfish on Dec 30, 2010 1:53 pm • linkreport

@David, principals have the authority to initiate a long drawn out process to remove teachers but they don't try because it's hard? So the number of "pink slipped" teachers each year comes from where exactly? Of course unions work with districts to negotiate terms of a teachers contract. That's what they're supposed to do. However, I think that has only so much to do with why are schools are failing. But that's was the focus on Superman - poor teachers.

Factually, I live in a neighborhod where I have witnessed young black boys on their way to school with spongebob backpacks to now either being high on the way or don't go at all. In all likelihood, they are performing poorly in school. My friend, what teacher or union can change that? Without parental involvement, they will continue along the same path - dropping out or having to obtain a GED program. I know this for a fact. It's not based on a study by Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee or any other "reformer."

So what have we done? Well, Rhee'ers suggest that even those kids are educatable and if they don't test well, it's the teachers fault. Yes, that is the Superman premise. In DC, numbers went up in part, thanks to the Rhee policy of dropping the "low hanging fruit" from the rosters. But does that mean that are kids are being better educated.

According to the Posts own education research, the more seasoned teachers are found in Wards west of the River while many East are stocked with newer professionals who are unprepared to deal with the quality of students and the atmosphere at these schools. In these most challenging areas, teachers are expected to be just that, Superman and it will never happen to the point of upheaving the system. It just won't.

One school that comes to mind is Sousa Middle School. Please bear in the mind the glowing review it's pricinpal and Rhee received by achieving the dramtatic - a 20 percent increase in test scores within one year. Yet the following year, they rose about 4 percent.

20 percent - 4 percent? Based on Rhee logic, the results should have been the other way around because the reason for the massive gains were attributed to a hard-hitting style and the fact that he fired a lot of teachers and implemented certain performance measures. Yet, the gains went from 20 percent to 4. Sousa was one of 183 schools that failed to get adequate yearly progress. But that's not the story to be told.

Did the new crop of teachers cause the decline? Did the students simply perform worse?

This discussion can get all over the place I know.

by HogWash on Dec 30, 2010 2:16 pm • linkreport

Rhee'ers suggest that even those kids are educatable and if they don't test well, it's the teachers fault. Yes, that is the Superman premise.

No, exactly the opposite. Did you even see the movie? The film is about a small number of parents who are responsible and engaged and committed to their children's education, yet don't have any options that would let their kids succeed. If government has to do anything, its first responsibility is to provide acceptable options to those parents and their kids. It doesn't matter if they are one half or one tenth or one hundredth of the population. They deserve better.

When we are providing acceptable options to everyone, and some people aren't taking advantage of them, then we can worry about future steps. But the first step is that everyone should have decent options. That's what the film is about.

You're blowing smoke to distract attention from an obvious problem: we have a lot of teachers in our schools who shouldn't be there and who aren't doing an acceptable job, and we have a system that doesn't effectively evaluate teacher performance and hold them to an acceptable standard. But none of your arguments give any reason that we should continue to operate that way. Are you really arguing that we should accept low average teacher quality because lots of parents aren't doing a good job at home with their kids? Really??

by David desJardins on Dec 30, 2010 2:56 pm • linkreport

David, yes I did see the propaganda piece WFS. And my opinion on it's core is different than yours. I think it was mostly about a group of parents/children illserved by schools with bad teachers. I don't remember a robust discussion regarding the obstacles districts face outside of the teachers unions. Reasonably, that explains how the entire subsequent discussion was solely about the unions enabling bad teachers resulting in poor performing schools. Do you recall any discussions around the country regarding parental involvement and the impact it has on a child's performance?

But alas, after me giving you concrete examples of the state the many young black boys find themselves in, you call it blowing smoke. What do ineffective teachers have to do with these kids I mention (which I would wager represents the largest portion of underperforming students) here? do you think my neighbors son's teacher is the problem? Really?

Did you miss my earlier point where I said that teacher quality is "an" aspect of reform? You must have and that explains how you were able to surmise that I am happy with the status quo. That is the usual position most arguing for "your side" seem to have. That is, you can't be "really" concerned about school reform if you don't think that the effort should start and end in the classroom.

Well my friend, if you are waiting for teachers to educate and raise this new generation of students and have reform efforts based on whether their effectiveness, then we will indeed be "Waiting for Superman."

How long do teachers new to the profession remain in classrooms like those found East of the River?

By the way, I assume that the Sousa scores mentioned above are a reflection of the poor "new" crop of teachers? They did decline you know.

by HogWash on Dec 30, 2010 3:56 pm • linkreport

@Hogwash: Do you recall any discussions around the country regarding parental involvement and the impact it has on a child's performance?

You seem unwilling to explain what this means or what you're talking about. State and local governments run the schools, therefore they have a responsibility to provide adequate schools. The governments don't run private households, therefore it is not their responsibility (nor is it much in their power) to make better parents. It really seems very simple.

When you say that the government should put a higher priority on "parental involvement" than on improving the schools, what does that mean? How can government possibly do that? How can it possibly be a higher priority for governments to change something that they have almost no influence over, than something that they have complete control over?

by David desJardins on Dec 30, 2010 4:07 pm • linkreport

David, can you please show me where I stated what the "governments" responsibility is? In fact can you show me anywhere in any of these posts where I have proclaimed what the gov'ts role should be? Obviously, I could do that myself but since it seems so far away from something I would actually say, I would like for you to point out where. That would explain how we keep coming back to you injecting the "what the gov't is responsible for" as a point of of disagreement.

Considering that you won't find any instance of such, wouldn't that mean that you are creating arguments "for" me but not really bothering to read what I wrote.

What's so hard about understanding the role of parental involvement in a child's education? What's so hard about understanding how crucial a role they have in getting more out of our schools? Isn't that what the parents did in WFS? The gov't didn't make them do it. Neither should the gov't MAKE others. Although I do believe that the gov't does need to tie welfare benefits to a kids performance in schools (but that's another issue)

Reading your posts, it seems fair to assume that you have already concluded what my point of view is absent due diligence. Hence, the "you want gov't to do xyz" meme.

by HogWash on Dec 30, 2010 4:44 pm • linkreport

@Hogwash: David, can you please show me where I stated what the "governments" responsibility is?

Here you go: "Teacher quality is 'an' aspect of reform. In my opinion, it should fall second in line behind parental involvement."

I've asked you many times to explain what this means, and you keep refusing to do so. So it's not me who is lacking in diligence.

I think your statement means that the top priority of Michelle Rhee, and other school administrators, who are trying to improve and reform our schools, should be to increase and improve "parental involvement". Is that right?

If that is their top priority, what does that mean? How should they do it?

I think that the top priority of reform should be improving teacher quality, because that's something that is under the reformers' control. It doesn't make sense to choose as a top priority something that you can't control.

by David desJardins on Dec 30, 2010 5:24 pm • linkreport

Obviously a lot that could be discussed here...I just wonder how the rhetoric will eventually connect to the ground level where implementation happens, and what she's planning to do with all the support & potential funding. Not that she has to have it all figured out from the get-go, but at this point in time, I'm left with several questions about her next steps. It's easy to say something like "all teachers deserve outstanding teachers" - but I'd like to know more about her vision for carrying that out and what the funding she's seeking would be used for.

by Laura Gutmann on Dec 30, 2010 5:38 pm • linkreport

Sorry, meant all students deserve outstanding teachers - which is part of her stated mission on the StudentsFirst website. Oops!

by Laura Gutmann on Dec 30, 2010 5:39 pm • linkreport

A look at the Facebook page for this movement may be informative. Poverty is ignored. The survey is designed so no matter how a respondent answered, it would play into Rhee's agenda. Look for yourseld.

by Something fishy on Jan 1, 2011 5:55 pm • linkreport

We have a good example of how to run a large school system right here in the area: Montgomery County. Sure, it's a wealthy county on average, but it has rough parts too. But still, the schools are good, and there's a great deal of teacher accountability, yet it looks very little like the Rhee top-down, administration vs. teachers system.

by Nate on Jan 1, 2011 9:02 pm • linkreport


I have two questions after reading this.

1) Have any of the commentors here communicated with Michelle Rhee directly to ask her questions? I have. I did this by signing up on her StudentsFirst site, but not contributing money at this time. When the organization contacted me for donation, I replied with my questions. You may need to be both patient and persistent. While I was not 100% pleased with the philosophical content of the reply I received, I found it to be a strong platform for future discussions. I also shared factual sources of information with Michelle Rhee which she seemed to be quite interested in, and open-minded about.

I see Michelle Rhee as a person willing to quickly assess and analyze a set of facts and formulate a short list of possible solutions. She seems to be flexible and adaptive to various schools / districts / neighborhoods having different context, issues, and sub-issues. I am glad to let her tap my knowledge base and see how much of it matches patterns she is picking up on from other areas.

I guess I would encourage anyone with experience in an aspect of education to contact her and share.

2) Second question: How many of the commentors here have placed themselves inside of schools which may need help and are asking for volunteers? My daughter volunteers at an inner city school, where the teachers and kids love her. She helps with middle school math, including Algebra I. I help by sitting with individual students and gently keeping them on track with their work. Many of these kids are BRIGHT, very intelligent but seem to have difficulty focusing. Recalling Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the most basic need is a sense of safety and security. I find that by visiting with these students briefly, answering their questions, explaining words as they come up, encouraging/praising their accomplishment, and redirecting to the task at hand, they do very well. This is just one mom's anecdotal evidence... it is not imperical research. I encourage the students to ask all their questions... there are no dumb questions... all questions deserve an answer... they have a right to learn every subject in as much depth as their curiousity leads them. (BTW, this is the SAME issue as "gifted" education for high-IQ students: Too often, what they want to learn lies outside mandatory curriculum and they are shut down... How much better if we could encourage our teachers, like our students, to feel free to admit what they do not know and TO ASK QUESTIONS themselves... finding resources for further student self-study. I believe this would engender better classroom relationships and students would feel a new type of kinship and respect for their teachers.)

I guess I would encourage everyone to consider their own personal teaching... whether toward their own kids in everyday casual conversations... groups they may lead, guide, or direct... classrooms... teachers, etc. How much are we teaching others? How much can we encourage others?

How much can we encourage Michelle to ask questions, to be a quick-study of the national educational scene? How much can we guide her what to focus on, and encourage her?

We ALL have some level of expertise, even if we are drawing on our OWN educational experiences and those of our friends, neighbors, and children. This may be a good time to share it. Michelle is listening.

by Just Another Mom on Jan 4, 2011 10:45 am • linkreport


instead we get gimmicks like charter schools (no better than "regular" schools, overall)

I always find this argument amusing. Given that charter schools are based on the model that you let a thousand flowers bloom, and shut down the bad ones, and replicate the good ones, the question of whether they are "no better than 'regular' schools, overall" is completely irrelevant, and belies a total misunderstanding of the concept.

If every "regular" school is mediocre, and 10% of the charter schools are superlative, 80% are mediocre, and 10% suck, then on average, they're the same. But if the 10% that excel can be replicated, charter schools are a radically transformative development.

So your argument against charter schools is not that "overall" they're about the same, but that the success of the superlative schools cannot be replicated.

(I'm a DCPS parent, BTW. So I don't have any skin in the charter game, other than the fact that the advent of DC charters has seemed to force DCPS to become more agile and responsive.)

by oboe on Jan 4, 2011 12:52 pm • linkreport

So your argument against charter schools is not that "overall" they're about the same, but that the success of the superlative schools cannot be replicated.

Even that is not a useful argument. Even if they can't be replicated, giving parents, who otherwise have no choice, a choice that includes some good schools, is a benefit in itself. What difference does it make if the choice also includes some "bad" schools? No one is forced to choose those.

by David desJardins on Jan 13, 2011 2:17 am • linkreport

Those interested in education reform may want to check out IDEA - Institute for Democratic Education in America. Launched in May 2010, this sounds rather promising so far. Website:

by Reader on Jan 13, 2011 10:23 am • linkreport

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