Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit :: Michelle Rhee #wcagls

Leaders know that change isn’t easy—and it doesn’t come overnight. That’s why, for the past 18 years, Michelle Rhee has stayed the course with a single objective: to give children the needed skills to compete in a changing world. Rhee, who served with Teach for America, founded The New Teacher Project, equipping school districts to transform how they recruit and train qualified teachers. During her three years as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools, students’ scores and graduation rates rose dramatically. Today, Rhee is CEO of StudentsFirst, a movement to transform public education. She holds firm to her conviction that teachers are the most powerful driving force behind student achievement.

This is an interview with Michelle Rhee the former Chancellor of the Washington DC School District

  • You want to become the most unpopular person, just tell someone you’re closing down one school, let alone 23 schools.
  • Why didn’t you bail?
    • I loved my job in DC. Getting yelled at was part of the job. I was asked what was going through my mind. I was thinking about the fact that the children in the district were being done such a disservice.
    • It is the worst performing school system in the country. People were avoiding making decisions because they didn’t want the turmoil.
    • I said, “I can’t allow this kind of thing to continue on my watch.”
  • You didn’t always feel that way right? You grew up in a upscale lifestyle. How did you go from that to DC?
    • My father was always socially minded and motivated.
    • What you have because you were lucky enough to be born into this family.
    • The kids who live in inner-city Toledo, isn’t because they aren’t motivated, but because they were unlucky to be born there.
  • Something happened when you ran into Teach For America.
    • In my senior year of college I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was watching a documentary about Teach For America. It changed my life. So I joined the program.
  • So you signed up for Teach for America, and get assigned to inner-city Baltimore.
    • I was not such a good teacher that first year.
    • I realized that it is literally the hardest job you can have.
    • These people came in to review us as new teachers, and after they observed me, they told me to think about a career change, which was hard to hear.
  • Two years later, 90% of the students in your class were at proficiency levels, and when you started it was at 13%. What did you do?
    • It wasn’t rocket science.
    • We built in our kids a very strong work ethic. There is no quick and easy way to do this. We held high expectations, and engaged their parents as to why we were doing what they were doing.
    • I had my second graders do two hours of homework per night. And they thought I was nuts.
    • It changed the way they thought about school.
  • After 3 years you went back and got your masters at Harvard, but you couldn’t get away from this calling. What happens after that?
    • There aren’t enough people coming into this teaching profession. Teach for America told me to figure out how school districts can recruit new teachers.
    • They had tried to do it before but it wasn’t successful.
    • So I founded The New Teacher Project. We would work with school districts specifically focused on getting more talented people inner-city school districts.
  • What were the myths?
    • The biggest myth was that there aren’t enough people that want to teach in the neediest schools. What are we going to do about it?
    • We quickly found out that wasn’t true at all. When we ran an aggressive recruitment campaign, we got thousands of resumes.
    • The problem lied in how the process was set out.
    • They couldn’t get hired because of all of the beuracracy that existed.
  • What was it more difficult for urban schools than suburban schools in that situation?
    • Suburban schools have a lot less mobility and turnover.
    • Urban schools have a lot of turnover.
    • Lots of teachers are moving from lower-performing schools to higher-performing schools.
  • In the midst of this you built a large organization, and this was the place people went to understand teacher quality. The city council in DC disbanded the school board, and the mayor gave you a call. Why did you say yes to them in DC?
    • I said no several times at first. At that time it seemed that urban superintendent was the last thing I wanted to do.
    • I was the least likely person to choose for this job.
    • Ultimately I took the job because I told the mayor he doesn’t want me for this job. You’re a politician and your job is to keep your constituents happy, and if I were to come in, then I would cause you nothing but headaches, and heartaches. And he said that as long as I did the right thing for kids then he would be willing to take the heat.
    • He said he was willing to risk his whole career on this. It was a huge opportunity
  • So you jump right into this mess. What were things first like when you jumped in?
    • It is so hard to describe because almost everything was broken.
    • 8% of the 8th graders were on level in mathematics.
    • Your chances of graduating from college were 9%.
    • As a kindergartener you were on par, but the longer you stayed in the district the more you fell behind.
    • We couldn’t pay teachers on time.
    • Textbooks would be sitting in the warehouse.
    • We bought computers that first year, and the first day we heard it wasn’t going well.
    • And all of the classrooms only had two-pronged outlets.
    • You can’t underestimate how broken many of those aspects were.
  • What did you zero in on as the core problem that you were going to address?
    • We wanted to clean up some of the basic issues of payment, books, healthcare, etc.
    • We really focused on human capital. We really believed the way we could have the most impact was to make sure there was an excellent teacher and principal in each school and classroom.
  • What were some of the big moves you started doing right away in the district?
    • We decided to close 23 schools, which was 15% of our inventory.
    • I cut the central office administration in half.
    • I removed about 2/3 of the principals, and 1,000 educators.
    • Separate and aside from all of those numbers, the one thing that I tried to do was to create a different culture where we thought about every single child and family as our own child and family.
    • I sent my own kids to the DC schools. One day we were discussing a new evaluation system. Some people said that we should let these teachers stay for 2 years and help them get better.
    • I thought that if I let that happen, then I have to feel comfortable with my kids being taught by an ineffective teacher. And I knew that I wouldn’t let that happen with my own kids. So it wasn’t a policy that I would be willing to be put in place.
  • You let some teachers go and brought some people in. You said you wanted some teachers with snap. What does snap mean?
    • It is this concept that you can walk into a classroom, and within a few minutes you can tell they are a good teacher.
    • Who knows exactly what is going on everywhere and where every single child is.
  • You also wanted teachers who had value added. What does that mean?
    • We want to evaluate our teachers on the basis on how much students are growing. Which we’ve never done before.
    • You have to have alignment with adults and children.
    • You measure the group of children at the beginning of the year and at the end of year and make sure there is growth during that time period.
    • It is an absolute goal.
    • It isn’t fair to set the same mark for every teacher.
  • You make all these changes quickly. Hundreds of people are criticizing you. Did that begin to wear on you? How did you handle that weight?
    • They picketed my office and actually came to my house one day.
    • When I was going through the school closures my parents were in town. They opened the newspaper to read about everything, and see it on TV. I get home that night, and she walks in and whispers “Are you okay?”
    • She said “when you were young, you never cared what other people thought about you, I thought you were going to be anti-social. But I see that this has served you well.”
    • I just don’t care what people think.
    • I would much rather have a room full of people who disagreed with me. I would much rather deal with anger than apathy.
  • You can’t lead if change isn’t happening. It is the very nature of leadership. If you had to do it over again would you change that fast? What would you say to leaders? Incremental, or complete revolution?
    • I’m not an incremental girl. I didn’t think it was appropriate for the context we were working in.
    • I didn’t think we could go fast enough.
    • When this is impacting your own children then I think the sense of urgency is much much greater.
  • Late last year when the mayor lost his race, it became clear that your time there was going to end. How are you feeling about it now?
    • It was hard for me. He lost in part because of the incredible push back that we got because of the reform. My deputy has taken over, and she is unbelievably talented, but it really is going to come down to the city leadership and the new mayor. They are going to have to make some of those tough calls.
  • After 4 years of a crucible experience, you leave that role, so what are you doing now?
    • I do this work because I really am motivated by it everyday. I love it. When the mayor lost I was shocked. I didn’t know what I was going to do next.
    • I thought about it for a long time and what I realized was that if you look at the education landscape in this country, it is largely driven by manufacturing groups. The problem in that scenario is that there is no organized group that is advocating on behalf of kids. So seeing that void and believing that the only way we’re going to see transformation, I decided to start an organization called Students First.
    • It is a movement that knows that the children’s voices are necessary in this debate.
  • What are some final parting words of challenge you have?
    • As I think about what needs to happen in this country, it really is students first. Go to www.studentsfirst.org
    • As an elected official your job is represent all of your constituents. If you just turn your attention to where the yelling is the loudest then you will be turning your back to children.
    • Kids don’t vote. Kids don’t picket out your office.
    • Proverbs 31:8, “Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
    • The children can’t go out and represent their own interests in this, so we as the adults are going to have to be the ones who go out and stand up and do something about it.
  • Your on your own spiritual journey right now. And you gave me permission to ask you this ahead of time, where are you on your spiritual journey?
    • I would describe myself as an aspiring Christian.
    • My fiance is a strong man of faith. I’ve got a couple things that are stopping me from making this jump.
    • I was talking to a pastor about this, and he said I’m close, but whats the problem.
    • I go to church and I see these people, and he said “Stop right there, this is a journey between you and God.”
    • I’m a linear, rational person, and I’m a control freak. So this concept of letting go and letting God do it, is hard for me.
    • I’m working on it, and trying to get there. That is where I am on my spiritual journey.

Tags: , , , ,