Michelle Rhee. You know that name, right? Since her years in the intense spotlight as a high-profile chancellor of D.C. public schools ended in 2010 (and later her time as CEO of StudentsFirst) she has been enjoying life and living on her own terms. She’s on a corporate board. She’s helping her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, with his education-related initiatives. She still works in support of StudentsFirst. And, she’s been a mom.

I was lucky to have her join me on Rock The Schools to reflect her experience and the state of the movement these days. 

More than anything I was interested in her thoughts about the current state of play for superintendents who are trying to move reform plans in urban districts where this considerable resistance, including Antwan Wilson in Oakland and Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden. As someone who has been in their shoes, she says “It’s gotten to a pretty sad place when you have good people who are trying to do important work,” but instead of debating the merits of their proposals we devolve into personal attacks on their character.”

You might think she would be bitter. You’d be wrong.

Rhee remains inconceivably positive about her experience as a school reformer, and her interactions with the public – past and present. She says at it’s very worst, like when people were yelling at her in public forums, she felt it was better to deal with community anger rather than apathy.

She sincerely believed – and still believes – that people who disagreed with her vehemently on policy still had kids’ best interests at heart.

I found that really hard to believe.

When I asked her how she processed the hostile – and sometimes racist and sexist – pushback from angry teachers and unionists who still attempt to sully her name, she said “I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about that stuff.”

About the haters she says “I don’t think that’s where most people are.”

Overall, she finds most people are genuinely concerned and willing to listen to logical arguments. Most are in the middle, far from the hostile fringes, and most are open to rational ideas if presented honestly.

That doesn’t mean the anti-reformers aren’t a force to be reckoned. Even if they’re a minority, they are loud and effective in ruining good reform plans.

But, if it hasn’t been clear before, she isn’t trying to win friends as much as act on her conscience to improve outcomes for kids other people forget about.

She says “At the end of the day I have a great husband…and I have a wonderful family and plenty of friends…I don’t need any more people to like me. But what I do need is for this country to live up to its promise to children…across the country going into schools and classrooms, I believe what is happening to kids is really criminal. They are not getting the education that they deserve…if I don’t say something about it….about what some of the causes are and what needs to be fixed…I’m part of the problem.”

Though she speaks with grace about her detractors, there is one pebble in her shoe. She has no patience for people who push back on school reform while keeping their own kids far from the worst performing schools in urban districts.

“You can’t have your kid tucked up in some tony private school or magnet school somewhere and then tell other people ‘you can’t have any choice’ or ‘your kid has to be stuck with an ineffective teacher’ or ‘you have to be trapped in that failing school with no options’,” she says.

Actually, there is a second pebble. It’s a bigger one. She can’t stand the persistent claim that she bashes teachers.

She wants us to be clear: it has never been about ‘bashing’ teachers.

“I don’t believe that teachers are the problem, I believe teachers are the solution to the problems that we have. You cannot look at any of the data that’s out there about teacher effectiveness and what impact that has on student achievement, and say that teachers don’t matter. They absolutely do.”

“Why shouldn’t we as a nation aspire to ensuring that every single kid has a highly effective teacher in front of them every single day?”

Please listen to this great discussion:

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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