There is just so much to like about Michelle Rhee. She has determination, stamina and a deep-rooted mission to improve the status of K-12 education in America. Rhee also has a talent for recognizing the truth about what’s happening or not happening in classrooms across the U.S.
She shares her many experiences and findings from visiting school districts along with her own personal journey to being one of the latest and greatest school reform advocates in her new book, Radical Fighting to Put Students First.
It’s an undeniable fact: education in the country has gotten worst over the past few decades. Many educational reformers have come along before Rhee, but few have been able to make the progress that she has made.
The Report Card on American Education compiled by the American Legislative Exchange Council and written by D. Matthew Ladner and Dave Myslinski ranks K-12 performance, progress and reform in all 50 states. In the 18th edition released early 2013, not one school got an A ranking. Thirteen states received B+, B or B-. Ten schools got a D+,D or D- and the remaining 27 received a C+,C or C- grade.
Grades were based on “Whether states have enacted policies to reform their education systems through quality testing and accountability mechanisms, improving teacher quality, expanding parents’ ability to choose the best learning environment for their children, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, private school choice, homeschooling and digital learning options.”
The same report starts out by stating, “During the 2011 legislative sessions, a number of blockbuster reforms were produced across a variety of education policies. The Wall Street Journal dubbed 2011 ‘The Year of School Choice’ and Education Week reported a ‘sea of change’ of teacher tenure and evaluation policy.”
Rhee, who defines herself as a radical because she believes the country cannot rest until people work to provide a quality education for all children, has made numerous contributions to education reform. She was born into a family of teachers and became a teacher herself before becoming an advocate for change.
Rhee, according to her book, was born in Michigan and grew up in Toledo, OH. Her Korean parents were determined to keep their heritage and Korean culture alive for Rhee and her brothers. Her parents left Korea in the 1960s during what her father called the “education craze.” While both of her parents grew up surrounded by educators, her father became a doctor.
Rhee breaks her book up into three sections. The first section describes her journey to becoming “a reformer,” starting with her roots in teaching and her upbringing in the Midwest. The second part details the movement, the power, the struggle and the “potential of the movement to redirect public education towards students.”
The last part of the book is where she presents her vision for “what American schools can be.” Her early years in teaching were not as good as she had hoped, and the transition to becoming a good teacher was a long road.
A book written by Richard Whitmire about Rhee called The Bee Eater details Rhee’s rise to being a power player in education reform. Many of the details from the first section of Rhee’s book are also detailed in Whitmire’s book. One incident he describes about Rhee’s early teaching days includes how she ate a dead bee to get her class’s attention.
“It was at that very low point, when nobody in the class was listening, nobody was sitting still, nobody cared about construction-paper marshmallows, nobody cared about math that Rhee looked to some relief from both the heat and her out-of-control class. She opened a window and in flew a big, fat bumblebee.”
Rhee said the kids went crazy and started running around the room trying to get away from the bee. Rhee, as Whitmire describes, hit the bee with her lesson plan, flipped the bee into her hand and ate it.
After ending her teaching career, she went on to start an organization, The New Teacher Project, that would help school districts and states find the best teachers.
Rhee would next become the first chancellor for the Washington D.C. school system. She left that position after the mayor that hired her was defeated in his re-election bid. Her time as a chancellor was filled with reforming the schools from realizing who the best and the worst teachers were in the districts to closing schools that would anger whole neighborhoods of residents.
Rhee writes, “We could focus on the positive side of building up programs, curricula and services. Firings in the central office were necessary too, and better done quickly and early.”
“They also gave me the freedom to bring in new staff whose clear goal was improving schools. I had fired thirty-six principals and twenty-two assistant principals. Tough? Uncompromising? Decisive? Yes to all three. But totally necessary, given the condition of the public schools that I found on my first day. Now I had to prove that I could create schools that would educate all D.C. children.”
After her time as chancellor, and turning down numerous job offers from other states, she started a website called StudentsFirst. Her goals for the site (movement) was to find highly effective teachers for every classroom, find excellent options for parents and taking money from the bureaucracy to the classroom.
Rhee’s wish list or vision for the future of education in America includes:
• Every child has high-quality teacher in his or her classroom and that every teacher has the confidence that he or she needs and the teaches know what it feels like to be treated like a professional.
• The powerful decision makers will make the right decisions for students based on student needs versus special interests groups.
• That all parents will know that they will have “the tools and power to hold all of us accountable.”
Rhee writes, “We can improve our public education system. The solutions will not be easy or quick. They have to be sustained, well financed, and purposeful. But it’s absolutely possible.”
Rhee states that reform starts in the classroom with teachers. Staffing decisions should be based on effectiveness versus seniority. Teachers need to have structures available so that they can share best practices. And, curricula, plans and high-quality lesson plans based on students are needed.
Teachers today do more than just teach. Rhee writes, “Thirty years ago schools were responsible for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. If you delivered the material, you did your job. Ask any teacher today and he will tell you that at times he feels like a guidance counselor, social worker, nutritionist and sometimes parent for many of his students.”
This is a great book. Rhee is a great visionary and an effective reformer. After hearing her speak and reading both her book and Whitmire’s book, to this writer and former educator, she is fast becoming a great American hero. This book is a must read for anyone interested in education reform.