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Michelle Rhee's Legacy (and Future) in Education Reform

Dec 17, 2010

When Michelle Rhee stepped down as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools in October, it marked the end of an era. Rhee oversaw massive reforms in just a few years on the job. In the wake of her resignation, the former chancellor is focusing her attention on a national effort to reform education.

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A Case Study in Reform

Michelle Rhee isn't one to shy away from confrontation. In fact, it is her willingness to fight for education reform that most defines Rhee in the public eye. And she sees conflict as being essential for school improvement.

Rhee drew the ire of teacher's unions - and the public - almost immediately upon becoming chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C. She closed more than 20 schools, firing hundreds of teachers and administrators. She also negotiated a new contract with educators that tied compensation to student performance, an unpopular move with powerful teachers' groups.

Rhee acknowledges that making such major reforms led to a lot of resentment among D.C. educators and parents, but in a recent Newseek article, she is unapologetic. She suggests that the reforms were so badly needed in the District of Columbia school system that moving more slowly wasn't an option. Rhee does, however, concede that she could have done a better job of communicating with educators and the public about why such drastic change was necessary. She feels these failures helped lead to the electoral defeat of mayor Adrian Fenty, who fervently backed Rhee's reforms despite widespread public dissatisfaction.

Michelle Rhee Education Reform

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Moving On

For those concerned Michelle Rhee will abandon her efforts to reform schools, there's no need to worry. Only a couple of months after resigning from her position in the D.C. schools, Rhee has announced the formation of Students First, a nonprofit devoted to implementing reform in schools across the United States. The organization's mission is 'to build a national movement to defend the interests of children in public education and pursue transformative reform, so that America has the best education system in the world.'

Anyone who saw Waiting for Superman, a documentary revealing systemic problems in American public schools, knows that there is a lot of work to do. As Rhee notes, 'Spending on schools has more than doubled in the last three decades, but the increased resources haven't produced better results. The U.S. is currently 21st, 23rd, and 25th among 30 developed nations in science, reading, and math, respectively.' Whereas more money hasn't been the answer, Rhee believes reforms can be.

Students First is an organization with auspicious goals. Rhee wishes in a single year to raise $1 billion for school reform while amassing 1 million members. She suggests that the funds and influence of the organization will be used to promote effective education programs and support politicians focused on improving education through reform.

Outside observers note that some of the qualities for which Michelle Rhee has been criticized remain in evidence. They contend that the tenor of her rhetoric, for example, will continue to cause teachers to feel that they're being unfairly targeted for poor school performance. That seems to be okay with Rhee, who says, 'I'm not done fighting.'

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