D.C. Schools Chancellor Makes Children the Priority in Sweeping Reform Effort

Michelle RheeMichelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, D.C., Public Schools, spoke Monday to an audience of about 300 students, faculty, and local residents at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy about the radical changes she is making in the failing urban school system.

During her talk, “Public Education Reform: The Case Study of Washington, D.C.,” Rhee discussed how needs of students, not the adults in the system, are the driving force in her decisions.

“It’s our kids who have no due process,” she said. “We still allow the color of a child’s skin and their zip code to dictate the quality of their education and that’s the biggest social injustice imaginable.”   

The D.C. system is in dire need of change. For the 2006-07 year, the school system ranked next to last in the nation for reading and math scores for fourth and eighth graders. Enrollment rates are falling, as 30 percent of local students attend charter schools.

Rhee plans a complete revamping of the system within eight years and she’s off to a fast start. In her first year, Rhee closed 23 schools with low enrollment, overhauled 26 schools with poor academic achievement and fired 150 staff for poor performance, including nearly 50 principals and assistant principals.

Now, she is tackling the teacher’s union with a controversial proposal to increase teachers’ pay to $100,000 or more in exchange for giving up tenure. Tenure exists solely to benefit adults and has “no educational value,” she said. Despite public emphasis on her firings of incompetent educators, Rhee said her proposals to recognize and reward good teachers are critical to the success of her reform efforts.

During her visit, Rhee also met with public policy students, Teach for America alumni, students and faculty from the Program in Education, and members of the Durham School Board.

For other views of Rhee talk and her education vision, read the two stories in the Duke Chronicle: “Rhee Pushes Contentious Education Reform Policy,”  and the guest commentary by  Catherine Cullen, Trinity ‘06, a former D.C. Public Schools teacher, “Rhee’s Attitude Stalls Reform.”

The event was sponsored by the Office of University President Richard H. Brodhead and the Sanford Institute of Public Policy.