To whom much is given, much is expected. And Washington DC’s Chancellor Michelle Rhee has been given quite a bit: control of one of the lowest-performing school systems in the country, a broad mandate for sweeping reform, and the unequivocal support of her boss, Washington mayor Adrian Fenty. She’s also been given an inexhaustible work ethic, a hardcore “no excuses” management style, and an apparent immunity to criticism or the opinion of others.
Now, much is expected. Everything, in fact.
She is, in the apt description of The Atlantic, “the most controversial figure in American public education and the standard-bearer for a new type of schools leader nationwide.” Her rise in the last 18 months from relative obscurity to the cover of Time Magazine earned her the top spot in our poll to determine the most influential person in education in 2008. It wasn’t a close contest.
Jay Mathews of the Washington Post was one of many of our panel of observers to put Rhee at the top of his list of the year’s most influential people in education, citing her status as “the most visible educator of the year, pushing the discussion toward rewarding teachers and ending tenure.” The Manhattan Institute’s Jay Greene and Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation likewise placed Rhee atop their ballots. Bill Jackson, founder and president of GreatSchools.net, cited Rhee’s “radical new way of thinking about the teaching profession, including tenure and compensation.”
“Love her or hate her, she is redefining the very definition of an urban superintendent,” said Patrick Riccards, author of the blog Eduflack. ”She has changed the way teachers, families, the community, and businesses think about DC Public Schools. For the first time in a long time, people have hope for schools in the District.”
Rhee’s paradigm shattering proposal for DC teachers–way higher pay in exchange for giving up seniority and tenure-has pushed her to the forefront of the national dialogue about teacher quality and compensation. In the process she has become, perhaps inevitably, the most polarizing figure in education. Her brand of education reform strikes a nerve-and a chord. She has clearly tapped into the energy and idealism of younger teachers who are often mystified by union politics and fiercely committed to closing the achievement gap. Rhee’s proposal is not intimidating, but welcome to many of the “Rhee-volutionaries” she’s attracting to the nation’s capitol. Perform or perish? Bring it on. ”If I worked my butt off, did everything I could, and got fired by an administration like Rhee’s who deemed my teaching ineffective, I would tip my hat, sigh of relief, and find a new career or job,” a first-year Teach for America corps member commented on this blog in response to the Time Magazine cover story about Rhee. A Newsweek profile, one of dozens of national news stories about the Chancellor in 2008, noted “Rhee doesn’t quite come out and say it, but she and her fellow reformers are trying to change the teaching profession, at least in the inner city, from an 8 a.m.-to-3 p.m. job with summers off, to something that bears more resemblance to joining the Green Berets.”
KIPP schools score well because teachers work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on Saturday, and carry cell phones so their students can reach them any time. Summer vacation lasts only about a month. There are teachers who can maintain this pace for decades (just as there are some older Special Forces operatives in the military), but in Rhee’s world many teachers may find themselves working hard, burning out and moving on.
A fight over the teachers’ contract looms in 2009. The Washington Teachers’ Union has brought in the American Federation of Teachers, led by Randi Weingarten to address the stalled negotiations. The stakes and the rhetoric are high. “I consider this proposal to be an IQ test as to whether teachers are willing to slit their own throats,” union vice-president Nathan Saunders told Newsweek. “I believe this contract is going to pass. And I believe it is going to have a huge impact,” said Rhee. “Even if it didn’t, it would not stop me.”
That’s precisely the kind of don’t-mess-with-me rhetorical flourish that divides Rhee fans from her detractors. “Such administrators are the reason so many good teachers believe they still need unions, and need them badly,” notes columnist Julia Steiny. ”Hyper-authoritarian administrators storm the beaches, guns blazing, not much caring what dies in the crossfire. Schools may improve, but at the cost of human misery. And miserable teachers cannot foster a love of learning.”
In the final analysis, Michelle Rhee is, as The Atlantic correctly concluded, carrying the very viability of education reform on her shoulders:
Rhee is confronting the great divide over American public-education reform-not between left and right but between two philosophies about education. To Rhee and her fellow reformers, schools can, by themselves, produce successful students. To her opponents (and they include liberals and conservatives), schools are not enough, however “successful” their students. They are an important, but hardly the only, means with which children are inculcated with the skills and mores of their community. The divide means that Rhee’s challenge is not just to reform one of the worst school systems in the country and, in effect, prove whether or not inner-city schools can be revived at all.”
Note: Thanks to our panel of education observers and pundits for their time and help in making the Education Person of the Year series possible: Sol Stern, Jay Mathews, Bill Jackson, Andy Rotherham, Diane Ravitch, Mike Petrilli, Jay Greene Michael Shaughnessy, Nancy Flanagan, Patrick Riccards, Corey Bunje Bower and Dan Brown.