By AUDREY FISCHER
Michelle Rhee is a woman with a mission. Appointed Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools in June 2007, she has oversight of more than 50,000 students in 144 schools, and fully intends to be their advocate.
Rhee, who recently delivered the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month keynote address at the Library (available at www.loc.gov/webcasts/), discussed the “crisis in public education” and her plans for improving the D.C. schools.
“It’s important for me to speak to different forums, because if people just see me on television, they might think I’m the craziest person in the entire city,” said Rhee, referring to media coverage of her plan to close 23 local schools and her reputation for firing teachers and principals.
Having been appointed by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty on his first day of office, she said many felt that the proper process for hiring the school chancellor was circumvented. Before long, she said, the question in many people’s minds was, “Who is this little 37-year-old girl Korean girl from Toledo, Ohio?” While the Asian community was proud, Rhee joked that she is keenly aware of their concern that she might ultimately make them look bad.
Rhee said she has the full support of the mayor to assess the problem and do what she sees fit. According to Rhee, Fenty has made clear that “No one is allowed to say no to Michelle but me [Fenty].”
“He’s unlike any other politician you will ever see. He is focused on education and he shows you with his actions,” Rhee said.
By Rhee’s account, the problem with the D.C. schools was caused by “a complete and utter lack of accountability” in a system that is “driven by politics and adult interest.” Still, many view the firing of teachers and administrators as “unfair.”
“Let’s talk about what’s fair,” said Rhee. “We’ve had failing schools for years while adults kept their jobs. Let us not let children languish under their care.”
In the case of a school system where employees can be fired only for “egregious” violations,” Rhee believes “egregious incompetence” should be sufficient. She cited several examples of gross misallocation of funds as a result of people failing to complete the proper paperwork. In her opinion, that should be grounds for firing.
“Sending someone home for $40,000 a year might be the most efficient thing I can do,” said Rhee, referring to administrators who cost the system significantly more money than they are paid and teachers who fail to inspire their students.
“Teacher quality is everything,” said Rhee, who founded the New Teacher Project to address the challenge of new teacher hiring. Since its inception in 1997, the organization has recruited, prepared and certified 28,000 teachers and established more than 55 programs in over 200 school districts in 26 states.
She recounted her observation of two classrooms in the same inner city school. One teacher had the students fully engaged in a lesson while another merely flicked the lights on and off, trying to achieve basic discipline. By not firing substandard teachers, Rhee feels the system is “forsaking the lives and futures of children for the best interest of a few hundred adults.”
“The bottom line is that public education is supposed to be the great equalizer. But that’s not the reality in our nation’s capital today. We are still allowing color of skin and zip code to dictate our children’s educational attainment and fate. The projection of how many prisons to construct is based on the reading levels of third grade African American males. This is the civil rights issue of our time. We must live up to the promise to our children to make sure they have access to education and a shot in life.”
For more information on the Library’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, go to www.loc.gov/topics/asianpacific/.