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Rhee's Latest Move: It's All About Principals

Anyone who thinks D.C. School Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee would consider holding back on last summer's hiring of 900 new teachers in the face of potential budget cuts just hasn't paid any attention to what she was doing before she got this job. She was the creator and head of The New Teacher Project, whose singular focus was making sure that every single classroom had a very effective teacher.

Those puzzled by Rhee's controversial decision to bring the new teachers on board, even though it seems in hindsight she might have known that some teachers would soon have to be let go, should read a 2003 report she commissioned, "Missed Opportunities." . It exposed a system operating in many school districts that allowed veteran teachers to wait until late in the summer to announce their retirements or resignations, long after many good potential replacements had given up and accepted other jobs.

Those who have talked to Rhee about her work before she came to D.C. know that such limits on the ability of principals to hire the best teachers drive her crazy. It is a very big deal with her, as it is with the kind of activist principals she has been trying to install in D.C. I did a column a year ago that got into this issue in some detail.

She has insisted to me that she did not know when she hired 900 new people that she would be in this situation. I believe her, but i can see why others might not. Even if she had an inkling this was going to cause trouble, we all know now she wouldn't care much about that. If she thinks it will help principals improve their schools, and raise achievement of D.C. kids, she is going to do it.

It is disorienting to have an urban schools chief that sure of herself, and who doesn't care if she keeps her job or not. We can argue over how to define and find effective teachers, and the soundness of her judgment about what works for kids. But the fact remains she didn't ask for this assignment. She will have plenty of opportunities to pursue her ideas nationally if she is fired, or so hamstrung she has to quit.

It is an education writer's dream being able to see such a story unfold. I think it is good for D.C. public school children. But I know a lot of adults who don't like it, and want it to stop.

By Jay Mathews  | September 24, 2009; 1:11 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Whoa there. Michelle Rhee didn't know? You believe her?

I'm sorry Jay, I'm a DCPS parent at a school on the "wrong" side of the park.

Rhee's policies have only managed to make things harder at our school. I love my child's school, but I've grown very weary of the Chancellor.

I have a feeling if you actually had a child in the school system, you would come to very different conclusions.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | September 24, 2009 9:42 PM | Report abuse


I taught in one of the worst school districts in the United States when I first started teaching, so I am well aware of how "bad" some of the these teachers were and are. Personally I'd like to see all these low-performing schools closed and the children sent to suburban schools, so I am not uncaring about the education they receive. After all, I devoted most of my life to the education of poor children and I found it tremendously rewarding. Still, I am one of those people who want to see Rhee get the boot, and I want it to happen quickly. Here are my reasons:

There is a strong possibility that she is dishonest. She built her reputation on test scores that were probably "fudged" and now she might be doing the same thing in D.C. If she succeeds in fooling leaders into thinking that her success is "miraculous," that could have very serious consequences for education in the country. "Teaching to the test" started with the "Texas Miracle" and has done much harm to the nation's schools. Rhee is likely a proponent of this misleading type of testing.

She is likely to discourage highly qualified people from applying for jobs in D.C. After this recession is over, who will want to teach there? People want to be treated fairly and with dignity.

She shows disrespect and contempt for educators. This attitude was captured brilliantly by the TIME photographer. Teachers and principals are people too and they have a right to be treated fairly.

She did not teach for more than two years herself and doesn't consider teaching a worthwhile career. In my opinion, nothing will hurt education more than this attitude. Every country in the world with an enviable system of education reveres its teachers, who are usually lifelong professionals.

She hurts adults with impunity; therefore, she is capable of doing the same to children. In short, she seems to lack the character that we usually demand of educators.

In sum, although she might want to improve education for D.C. children, I believe there is a good chance she'll do a lot of harm to children and adults before going on to greener pastures. This lady is no Michelle Obama.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 24, 2009 10:17 PM | Report abuse

Oh, come on folks. I have seen "veteran" teachers in DC schools sleep through classes, belittle students, not show up for class, teach only the most elementary content in high school classes, and act in the most unprofessional of ways.

Would I want my child in one of those classrooms? Heck no! So I say anyone that will come in and clean out a system that--for years--was clouded with misguided decision makers, unprofessional conduct, and self-serving ineptitude should be heralded for the work they are doing.

It is absolutely pathetic to allow poor teachers to continue to teach in our schools. Think about any other profession there wouldn't be anyone at the office door offering second, third, and for some folks 10 chances to do their jobs. They'd be having a meeting with HR and be out the door by the end of the day.

Will better qualified teachers want to come to DC to teach? Absolutely! They are already coming in droves...I say get rid of the folks that don't do their jobs--or do them well--and give the folks that ARE highly qualified a chance to take over in the city's classroom.

Folks, it's not the students that are the problems in the schools...They are fundamentally just like their counterparts in the suburbs! It is the teachers that should take the responsibility for fixing the system by providing a high quality educational experience. Period!

And if you think things are just fine and dandy with the way things were going...explain why only 14% of the kids in 4th grade read on grade level...but that a majority of the teachers receive outstanding evaluations for substandard work...There's something wrong and I think Rhee is about to fix it.

I just wish I hadn't retired three years ago out of disgust for my "colleagues" who were lazy and could care less. Ask me sometime about the Assistant Principal who, for years, would leave mid-day for four hours to go drive a cab! On school time!

Change is good!

Posted by: feetupwithagrin | September 24, 2009 10:36 PM | Report abuse

One thing or another has prevented me from teaching in the US and I wanted to teach so strongly that I took a job in one of the worst schools in Korea. After we turned things around, I am still here in Korea after 16 years getting high school students to the school of their choice, anywhere and everywhere in the world.

Rhee seems to permeate a prevailing attitude that doesn't serve teachers too well. For someone who did not teach for too long, she should know better, and she should have "known" about many more things.

DC citizens might be singing this same tune after she leaves and a new person fills her place.

Such is the cycle.

Posted by: ericpollock | September 24, 2009 10:40 PM | Report abuse

For TitleISoccerMom: You are just the kind of person who can tell me things I need to know. The specifics of the harm you are seeing interest me a lot. Please email me at yr leisure at

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 25, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

One more reason why I don't support Rhee:

She is a strong proponent of testing and teaching to the test. She's admitted this much herself. Many academically ambitious parents subscribe to this approach but many people, including myself, believe that it discourages the development of the higher level thinking skills that are so critical to the 21st century. Also, such teaching narrows the curriculum badly and, worst of all, there is evidence that this type of instruction kills the joy of learning that is natural to the healthy child. Many people (including distinguished Professor Yong Zhao of Michigan State) believe that the traditional method of educating American children (more freedom in early years) is responsible for the phenomenal success of our adults. Yes, many of our poorest people are left out, but drilling them on discrete facts and test items will not help them. I am certain of that. The only thing it will do is fool the public, which is happening at this time.

I support standardized tests because, if administered correctly, they give very important information to parents and teachers. However,if you drill children on the specific items, the results are useless. Reporting becomes a lie.

Jay, if you could visit Sidwell Friends (probably impossible now) and contrast it with a DC school, you'll see that rich kids are getting beautiful books, discussions, projects, composition, exploration, problem-solving, field experiences, art, music, P.E., while the poor kids are getting deadly test prep and writing frames. Or just visit a public school in an affluent neighborhood; you're likely to see the same.

You are a great writer so we need you on the side of authentic education and real reform.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 25, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Jay, if you like you are welcome to email me at my name here at gmail dot com.

I will tell you though, that I can't do anything or say anything that might reveal where my child attends school. I cannot risk bringing the Chancellor's "candor" down on our school.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | September 26, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse


I can't make any sense of your following words that seem to demonstrate that you don't believe her:

"Those puzzled by Rhee's controversial decision to bring the new teachers on board, even though it seems in hindsight she might have known that some teachers would soon have to be let go, should read a 2003 report she commissioned...

She has insisted to me that she did not know when she hired 900 new people that she would be in this situation. I believe her, but i can see why others might not. Even if she had an inkling this was going to cause trouble, we all know now she wouldn't care much about that ..."

I agree that we must negotiate better systems, but negotiations must be in good faith. There is no law against lying to a reporter or to the public. But there is a law against lying in an effort to subvert a legal contract. So, please consider this scenario. Were you a judge listening to her words under oath, would you consider "contempt of court" charges?

You can't have it both ways, praising Rhee's candor when talking to the press and then giving her a pass for her seemingly complete disregard for the truth when dealing with unions and legal contracts. How can unions negotiate better systems when Rhee makes it clear that she follows a higher authority than the laws of the land?

Posted by: johnt4853 | September 26, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

for Linda/retired teacher--I had a child at sidwell fairly recently, and have spent a lot of time at the DC KIPP schools, which I assume is what you have in mind when you talk about drilling poor kids. If I have not misunderstood yr reference, then you are dead wrong. The teaching at KIPP is just as rich and imaginative, in some ways more so, than the teaching at Sidwell. You should visit KIPP and see for yrself.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 26, 2009 6:33 PM | Report abuse


No, I wasn't referring to KIPP. I was referring to many of the elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods. This kind of "learning" is captured in the book entitled "Tested," by Linda Perlstein. I've never seen a KIPP school.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 27, 2009 2:41 AM | Report abuse

fedupwithagrin – the teachers coming here in droves are right out of college – not yet qualified at all.

Jay – I have no problem with you or anyone writing a book about this, but remember Rhee’s mantra -- Children first! Don’t put your self-interests ahead of children’s interests just to draw out the story and get a better book deal.

Also, I wish you'd drop the straw-man arguments. It seems quite unfair to call Linda "dead wrong" about something she never said. I agree with Linda that you are a great writer. I think it's a shame to waste your talent in this way. Since you seem to like two-way communication, how about asking first and opining later?

Posted by: efavorite | September 27, 2009 8:03 PM | Report abuse

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