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Hidden Depths of Michelle Rhee

My colleague Marc Fisher has a wonderfully detailed profile of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in the upcoming issue of wp, the Post's renamed and renovated Sunday magazine. It is already online here.

Rhee is remarkably open to press scrutiny (except for her bad decision to freeze out my colleague Bill Turque, which she has thankfully reversed). Among school district heads she is the quickest in the country at returning emails. But she gave Marc even more access to her working day, including some meetings that her staff apparently wished she had not invited him to watch.

In one he describes her and her staff frankly discussing what fixes in some schools--such as adding classroom bathrooms for kindergartners--might lure white middle-class families back to the D.C. system. In another she meets with four students from Anacostia High School. They ask for an hour, and she gives it to them. They make their school sound like a zoo---disruptive kids, no hot water, teachers signaling low expectations---and Rhee says nothing in the school's defense, other than she has just installed new leadership, the charter operator Friendship, with many improvements in store.

There is much in the piece about Rhee's image, particularly the Time magazine cover picture of her with a broom. Union leaders are quoted as saying they took this to mean she was going to clean out all the old teachers and bring in a new crew, not what they wanted to hear from someone with whom they were negotiating a contract. I don't think image is that important to Rhee, and I don't think it should be. Other big city superintendents pull back from hard decisions when they sense criticism, and possible dismissal by their school boards. Rhee answers only to the mayor, and seems not the least bit concerned about being fired, since she didn't ask for this job in the first place.

Marc got past whatever image people might have of Rhee, and revealed much of the real person, her upbringing, her inveterate candor, her blithe insensitivity to what are considered standard political soothing techniques. It is a great read and I understood the chancellor better after finishing it.

By Jay Mathews  | September 25, 2009; 6:09 AM ET
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You've got to be kidding me, Jay. You thought it was a great article? I was hoping for insight into Rhee's philosphy of education---what type of curriculum, teaching styles, support for teachers, discipline policies, outreach to parents, innovations that she might be espousing. Instead, the article was only about her personality, which, quite frankly, is abrasive and her willingness to fire people and her attempts to lay the failure of DCPS mainly at the teachers' feet.

While I don't want the system to reward teachers who don't try to do their jobs, I believe the problems with many schoolchildren are so deep, so entrenched, that Rhee should focus more on implementing positive changes and not on demonizing the workforce.

I plan to go see the movie about the Providence Effect. Once a school can manage its students, an environment for learning can exist. Dedicated teachers and administration, if allowed to do their jobs untethered by the burdens of disruptive students and uninvolved and/or absent parents CAN make the difference. The problem, as I see it, is that Chancellor Rhee refuses to deal with those types of factors that hinder students, teachers and administrators, mainly because those factors are long term problems not easily "solved". It appears that if Chancellor Rhee can fire enough people, that will look like "action" and will satisfy those who like to blame teachers.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | September 26, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

dccitizen1, they played the "Providence Effect" at DCPS Headquarters this summer. Rhee and her staff are very aware of the issues the film raises.

And, if you'd like insight into her philosophy of education, I'd look here: and follow the path Home > Teaching & Learning. In particular, check out the link on the left "Teaching and Learning Framework". That will bring you to a page with both a general overview and a ton of specific, downloadable documents.

Posted by: CDVWolverine | September 26, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

If my memory serve me right, Jay Mathews reported on Michelle Rhee's "success" in Baltimore, where she raised student test scores from the 13th to 90% of the students scoring above the 90th percentile.
The only example he gave of her techniques was that she used a U shaped table.

Also, remember Mr. Mathews was the reporter for the paper who wrote up Maury Elementary In Alexandria, VA.
For more information, read here:

Posted by: edlharris | September 26, 2009 8:44 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, CDVWolverine. I will look that up. As a former educator, I'll be interested in what is there. I still wish Fisher had asked some kind of interview questions so that Chancellor Rhee could have explained some of that information for the article. To me, it's not productive to have an article only about Rhee's personality and willingness to fire people---we have learned about her in those regards ad nauseum. It's low hanging fruit (on Mr. Fisher's part) to rehash her nastiness and controlling nature.

Rhee and staff being aware of issues (via watching the Providence Effect) is one thing. Addressing the issues is another. I've never heard or read of Chancellor Rhee saying anything other than the teachers are the only answer to the issues (if they believe in the students enough, that's enough.) And I have seen no plans to address the issues. I have heard horror stories from teachers in DCPS where some students are totally out of control, disruptive and physicall abusive, yet Rhee won't allow suspensions. Fine, if she wants to leave the kids in school, then she needs to give support in terms of hiring people to monitor those kids instead of blaming the teachers and leaving the disruptive kids in classrooms to hinder other students' learning.

Thanks, Mr. Harris, for the link to the daily howler. Seems like the WaPo doesn't want to delve too deeply into evidence or facts. I'd love to see the "facts" of M. Rhee's miraculous achievement in the Baltimore school. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be evidence---we are asked to take it on faith. And we have to take it on faith that the high erasure rate on standardized testing doesn't mean that someone, perhaps an administrator or someone preparing a "report" on DCPS's success didn't help change those scores to right answers. And take it on faith that the many people Rhee has already fired were lazy, no good teachers and administrators----never mind that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. My faith is not with this Chancellor.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | September 27, 2009 12:19 AM | Report abuse

On first glance (and I haven't had time yet to really "study" all the documents), the information on the DCPS website looks pretty much boilerplate, as in "do A, B, C, D and then measure results". Maybe that is my answer--that Chancellor Rhee is all about a robotic approach to teaching and testing. I still think Mr. Fisher (and the Washington Post since M. Rhee was installed) has missed an opportunity to "plumb the depths" of M. Rhee's educational philosophies and innovative ideas. Then again, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they have plumbed the depths, and this is all there is.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | September 27, 2009 7:10 AM | Report abuse

dccitizen – please keep going through the materials and tell us what official information you find. I’ve heard that teachers are now expected to record several instances of bad behavior before calling for assistance from the administration.

Anyone who has ever sat in a classroom knows that the teacher cannot always determine who’s acting up, especially if the perp is throwing things whenever the teacher's back is turned. So a system like this, meant to develop (and measure) teacher’s classroom management skills, also allows bad behavior to escalate before the teacher can ask for assistance.

Posted by: efavorite | September 27, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Whew! Well, I just waded through a lot of materials on the DCPS website, mainly the "Teaching and Learning Framework" power point display of three days of teacher training and the sections related to handling students' misbehavior. I also looked through the Teaching and Learning Framework Resource pages to get more details about discipline policies. According to DCPS, the old discipline policies were vague and hard for students, teachers and parents to understand. The new policy (in part) states that, "...a petty offense such as profanity is not punishable unless – it has escalated to that level due to intensity, duration, and frequency. " I couldn't find any specific information on intensity, duration or frequency for various behaviors.

So now, in the revised "Chapter 25" policy booklet, there is a "tiered" system, which I mistakenly thought would be a 2-Tiered system when I read about it in the T&L Framework power points, sort of like venial vs. mortal sins, or misdeamnors vs. felonies, if you will. Alas, it couldn't be that simple!

Delving further into DCPS materials, I learned there are now FIVE tiers of behavior problems. I had a hard time distinguishing between some of the tiers and the severity of acts contained withing them. Along with the tiers, there are actions to be taken that are progressive in nature, ranging from "redirecting" the behavior by talking with the student, to temporary removal of the student (student is removed from class but stays in school, monitored and with work to do), to In-School suspension (detention outside of school hours), to etc etc etc... and then finally to expulsion.

So, Efavorite, I couldn't find specifics on which actions to take and when for various behavior problems. Maybe there is yet another manual for people to wade through. Or maybe there's an unofficial policy that is not publicized---such as, put up with the kids till behavior is extremely dangerous---then call the administrators.

And from what I saw of all the materials I read about teaching and learning, it looked like corporate training strategies vs. the broad spectrum of learning and teaching strategies and activities that I think of when I think of great schools.

I am clearly not impressed, especially given the exhorbitant amount of money and lovely publicity M. Rhee is receiving for her "expertise". Sad.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | September 27, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

I apologize for typos above. Also, I looked for information about who would supervise disruptive students who are removed from class but didn't find anything.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | September 27, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

dccitizen1 - thanks for all your hard work. It certainly sounds quite complex - and sounds like the goal is to keep discipline problems contained in the classroom as long as possible.

My concern is that kids will figure this out (without knowing the actual rules, of course) and play it to their advantage, noticing that teachers are putting up with a lot before calling for help.

Posted by: efavorite | September 27, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget this story:
How I Joined Teach for America—and Got Sued for $20 Million

There was a principal in PG County (a elementary school in Oxon Hill) who virtually told the students the same thing over the loudspeaker. And one time, there was a student acting up in class and this same principal came down to the room and gave the child a chance, and then told the student to go see the principal in the office.
The kids will figure it out.

Posted by: edlharris | September 27, 2009 8:01 PM | Report abuse

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