The first part of Session 6 featured Michelle Rhee, another speaker who faced online pressure to back out of the conference. Once you heard her speak, you knew there was no way she’d be intimidated by what people wrote online about her involvement with Leadership Summit. Michelle is the former chancellor of Washington DC public schools, which was one of the worst performing school districts in the nation when she took the job.
Michelle was interviewed by Jim Mellado in this session. This is not a complete transcript of their interview. It’s just my notes from it.
Click on the speaker to read my notes from their session: Bill Hybels, Len Schlesinger, Cory Booker, Brenda Salter McNeil, Seth Godin, Steven Furtick, Bill Hybels/Wess Stafford and Mama Maggie Gobran/Bill Hybels.
Students First by Michelle Rhee
JIM MELLADO: Why not throw in the towel?
MICHELLE RHEE: I love my job in serving incredibly deserving children of DC. The children have been done such a disservice over the past 40 years. It’s the worst school system in the nation, and people were avoiding making decisions because they wanted to avoid turmoil. I thought, “Not on my watch.”
JIM: You grew up in suburbs, attended private schools, graduated from Cornell. How did you go from that to…that?
MICHELLE: My father was socially minded and motivated. He’d say, “What you have is because you were born into this family. It’s luck.” Luck of birth. Other kids weren’t lucky. I grew up with the mindset of how do you help others.
JIM: You came across Teach For America.
MICHELLE: I never knew what I wanted to do, no idea my senior year in college. I was watching PBS documentary about Teach For America and thought I wanted to do that.
JIM: And you were assigned to inner city Baltimore.
MICHELLE: I was not a good teacher the first year. I realized it’s the hardest job. I had 36 kids. 36 kids need an education every day.
JIM: The review team from your first year suggested you perhaps go into another profession.
MICHELLE: Hard to hear that because I had been successful at everything I had done before. Hard to see the failings.
JIM: You did see change though, incredible growth. What did you do?
MICHELLE: Wasn’t rocket science. Built in our kids a good work ethic. Had them come to school before and after school to work with them. Engage their parents. Assigned 2 hours of homework to grade schoolers because what else are they going to do? Sit on the stoop or play Nintendo?
JIM: You got a graduate degree from Harvard but couldn’t escape the pull from teaching.
MICHELLE: Wendy Kopp (Teach for America) asked me to get involved again in inner city, get teachers and administrators involved. How do we get more talented people into inner city and rural school districts and keep them there.
JIM: Missed Opportunities and Unintended Consequences
MICHELLE: Biggest myth was there aren’t enough people that want to teach in the neediest schools. We found out that wasn’t the case. When we ran an aggressive recruiting campaign we had interest. It was how the school district operated because of the bureaucracy. It put up barriers to applicants.
JIM: Why was it hard for urban schools?
MICHELLE: Suburban schools have much less mobility. Urban schools have a lot of turnover. Teachers move into lower performing schools to higher performing schools.
JIM: Built organization where people came to you to understand teacher quality. But a storm in DC is brewing. City gave mayor full authority to make changes, make changes fast. You get the call, why do you say yes?
MICHELLE: Said no several times at first. Career wise, being an urban superintendent was the last thing I wanted to do. I was a 37 year old Korean girl from Toledo Ohio. I was the least likely person. I didn’t have the experience. I was not expected. Ultimately, I took the job. I told mayor that he doesn’t want me for the job. I told him your job is to keep your constituents happy. If I come in I will cause you heartaches and headaches. He was fine if kids are helped. He said he was willing to risk everything, his political career, for it.
JIM: You jump into mess. What was it like when you stepped in?
MICHELLE: Hard to describe the situation. Almost everything was broken. 8% of eighth graders were at level for mathematics. 9% chance to go to college for high school freshman. The longer you stayed in our school district the worse off were you.We couldn’t pay teachers on time, textbooks were sitting in the warehouse undelivered, we bought computers but classrooms had 2 prong outlets instead of 3 prong outlets. It was broken in many aspects.
JIM: Amidst all that, what did you zero in on as top thing to address.
MICHELLE: Wanted to clean up basic issues. Salary, books, healthcare, etc. Then, what we focused in on was human capital. Way we could have most impact was that there was an excellent teacher and principal leading the kids. The best teachers and principals possible.
JIM: What were moves you made?
MICHELLE: We closed 23 schools, 15% of schools in district.
JIM: Has that been done?
MICHELLE: At the time, no. I cut central office administration in half. Were 1000, when I left there were less than 500 and it was operating better than before. Let go of two-thirds of the principals, 1000 educators. Separate from that was to create a different culture in the school district. Have care for students that we have for our own children. I sent my kids to public schools. It increases accountability for me since it is my kids being affected. With teachers, if keeping them accountable, if we keep a bad teacher we’d have to be comfortable with that bad teacher teaching my own kids. I’m not comfortable with that. Some think, “So what if it takes a few years for the teacher to be good.” The kid is being poorly taught that year by that teacher. If I can’t subject my own children to, I won’t subject it to other children/parents.
JIM: Teachers you brought in you were looking for “snap”.
MICHELLE: Concept of walking into classroom and you can see it. The teachers who know everything that is going on. I want all kids to have teachers like that.
JIM: Teachers that have value added.
MICHELLE: New term in education reform vocabulary. Want to evaluate teachers on how much students are growing. Performance of 95% teachers thought they were doing great when 8% of students were on grade level with math. Measure the group of children at beginning and end of year, and then see growth. Then you can measure the teachers. Not always fair to set the same mark for every teacher, but you can measure if the students grew.
JIM: Lot of criticism toward you. Did that wear on you?
MICHELLE: My parents are old school Korean folks, they aren’t rabble rousers. Visiting me once, they open up Washington Post and see the news, turn on tv and hear the news about me, mom walks up to me and says, “Are you okay?” She then says, “When you were young you didn’t care what people thought about you. I thought you’d be antisocial, but I see that it serves you well.” Rather have a room full of people that were angry. Rather deal with anger than apathy.
JIM: You can’t lead if change isn’t happening. If you’d do it over again, would you do it the same? Do I need to do a revolution or incremental change strategy.
MICHELLE: I didn’t think it was appropriate to go slow when we were facing schoolchildren. I was told by teachers and administrators to slow down by teachers and administrators who had kids in private schools. The sense of urgency is much, much greater if you’re a parent with kids in the public schools.
JIM: Mayor lost his job, your job was nearing an end. Are you optimistic now about DC schools?
MICHELLE: He put his job on the line, and lost that election…partly because of education reforms. My deputy, Kaya Henderson, has taken over. She’s unbelievably talented. It’s going to come down to city leadership and a new mayor. If he can make the hard calls, then he’ll succeed. But he’ll need to risk to make it work.
JIM: What are you doing now?
MICHELLE: I do this work because I’m motivated by it every day. The education agenda has been driven by special interests who influence the agenda, laws and policies that benefit them. There is no organized national group advocating on behalf of kids. Started organization called Students First
to address that.
JIM: Final parting words of challenge?
MICHELLE: It’s about students first. Meeting with state legislator a few weeks ago. He was telling me he was going to end up voting for a proposal I was behind, but was reminding me of the teachers unions in his district that would be upset at him. I reminded him that as an elected official, you are to represent all your constituents. If you turn to who is yelling the loudest, you are turning your backs on children. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.
JIM: You said it was okay if we talked about this. You’re on your own spiritual journey.
MICHELLE: I’m an aspiring Christian. I’d notice the hypocrisy in others, but pastor would say, “Don’t pay attention to others, pay attention to your own relationship with God.” I’m a linear, rational person. Bit of a control freak. Hard time turning things over to God. Tough to “let go, let God”.