Michelle Rhee: Educational Mover and Shaker

Michelle RheeCalling Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system, an “educational reformer” is like calling a bulldozer “something that moves dirt.” The term doesn’t begin to do justice to her radical transformations to the landscape of the D.C. system.

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

Rhee, 37, will discuss her experiences on Nov. 17 at 5:30 p.m. in the Fleishman Commons at the Sanford Institute Building. She’s alarming many in the educational establishment with her dogged pursuit of a complete system overhaul within eight years. 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 teacher pay to $100,000 or more in exchange for giving up tenure.

“We are always going to put the best interests of kids above the rights, privileges and priorities of adults,” she says.

With Teach for America, Rhee was sent to a second-grade class in a tough Baltimore school. “It was total culture shock,” she said, but it taught her that with the right teachers and high expectations, urban kids can achieve. In 1997, she founded The New Teacher Project, a consulting organization that develops best practices for hiring new teachers.

Her talk, sponsored by the Office of Duke University President Richard Brodhead and the Sanford Institute of Public Policy, is free and open to the public.