• August 2010

Part 2 of 3 in our series: Michelle Rhee

At an event hosted in June, by the DC-based publishing company Bisnow, the Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, Michelle Rhee, talked about her life as a leader and her goals for the future of the school district over which she resides.

Rhee was interviewed by former journalist Stacey Jones — now a senior executive at the global management consulting and technology services company, Accenture. Part 2 of their conversation is posted below.

This just in: On Friday, July 23, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced that she had fired 241 teachers, including 165 who received poor appraisals under a new evaluation system that for the first time holds some educators accountable for students’ standardized test scores. Rhee fired nearly 300 teachers last fall.

Stay tuned for an update in the September, back-to-school issue of Be Inkandescent Business Magazine. Scroll down now to read more of what Rhee told Stacey Jones and the entire Bisnow audience earlier this summer.

Stacey Jones: What’s the most surprising thing you hear when you meet parents and other constituents?

Michelle Rhee: I hear a lot of crazy things. For instance, I went to a meeting recently, and as I was leaving a person said “thank you for showing us that you are not a robot.”

They said “it just seems like you’re so uncaring and you go through your day and carry out tasks. Now that we’ve met you we can see that you’re personable, you’re funny…”

I think that is the most important thing, for me to be able to go out and talk to the teachers about what my thinking is and why we move in this direction and what kind of impact I think we’re going to have. Contrary to popular belief, teachers are not really holding onto these ideas of tenure and step pay and seniority.

They believe what all of us believe, which is that children deserve the best educators in front of them every single day.

And as for the age-old setup where a teacher is going to be laid off by seniority, last in first-out, that doesn’t make sense to teachers. Because they see that there is a difference in quality between their colleagues, and they see that sometimes a new teacher can be great and sometimes someone else was better for a while but now it’s time for them to leave. So they are looking for you to explain things to them in a very clear and coherent manner. They will always be ready to embrace those changes.

So again, the most important thing I can be doing is going out and talking about the rationale and reasons and engage them in figuring out what we can do to be able to support them better. I’ve found that when we do that we really come to an understanding of what will push this district in a better direction.

Stacey Jones: As we all listen to this it makes a lot of sense. But I can’t resist asking, why so much pushback? Why has there been the controversy, the name-calling in some cases, the screaming. What’s that all about?

Michelle Rhee: I think that if all you get is a sound byte or a quick cover in the paper or 30 seconds in the news, what sells is the controversy and conflict. All people hear about is she’s firing x number of teachers and they don’t understand why that is happening or how it happened.

So when you just hear the top line story that is made to look very controversial, I think you are going to get a lot of pushback. I think the other thing is that we are really challenging a system that, let’s be honest, did not become this way by accident.

There are lots of people who benefit every single day from the dysfunction of this system. They got to keep their contracts, their jobs, without having to be held accountable because there was just so much confusion and so little accountability.

So whenever you’re trying to change a system like that and hold people accountable for performance there are a whole lot of people who didn’t have to perform and didn’t have to produce anything who are now writhing because things are in jeopardy. And if you don’t think that you’re going to get a whole lot of pushback on that then you are absolutely wrong.

Stacey Jones: I’m definitely hearing more themes of collaboration and resilience coming through. Michelle, you spent two and a half years in union negotiations and you don’t have to paint a picture of how challenging that must have been.

Long hours, tough discussions, a lot of focus that was needed. You had to go in day in, day out to that. I think as we talk about leaders, and your role as a game-changing female leader, we really want to know how did you stay the course? How did you maintain resilience? What did you think about it and did you ever think about throwing in the towel?

Michelle Rhee: No, I never thought about throwing in the towel. I get my energy from kids. In fact, my daughter once said to me: “The difference between you and other adults is that most adults just like their own kids — but you like all kids.” I get my energy from young people.

In fact, one of the things that is probably surprising to the people in this room is that I get my best ideas about what we need to do to reform this school district from our children. I try to meet with kids as often as I can.

Yesterday I met with my student cabinet, for example, high school students from across the city. When I first pulled them together at the beginning of the year they told me what they wanted to do when they said:

“You have this new teacher evaluation system, and what’s missing is that you’re not getting our input as students. So you have these five people come in and do these observations of the teachers. We see them all the time. They can put on a nice dog and pony show for half an hour but we see them all the time.”

This group of kids over the last year has developed survey questions. They field-tested them, they added the data and they did their presentations for me a couple days ago and for next year we’re actually going to pilot this so that student surveys and feedback are part of the teacher evaluation.

Kids are the most honest people about what’s going on. When I go into a school, kids all the time will say “Well why did you fire that person?” They’re very frank.

Stacey Jones: You’ve peaked our interest. What did they find in the surveys?

Michelle Rhee: Well, we realize we have to be much more concise in the way we’re asking the questions. But what they found was surprising to them. It was that kids, whether they like the teacher or not, whether the teacher was really challenging or not, all of the kids in the class tended to rate the teachers in the same way.

So they found that to be incredibly heartening. But on the other side I also get a lot of motivation from kids because they’re very honest about what they’re not getting. A group of kids came to me not too long ago and said, as part of a project, that they did an analysis of AP classes across the city. What we found is that if you live West of the park you have your choice of 15 different AP classes.

The schools in Anacostia on average only offer four. They looked at me and asked, why is that? Is it because we’re black? Is it cause we’re poor? Is it because you don’t think we can do this? It is shocking when faced with that reality, from kids asking why is it that you are not providing them with the kind of education that kids over there are getting.

That is a very strong reality and that’s what makes me get up and sprint every morning. Because, if I’m in this for the 26 miles, and I’m making incremental changes, that’s okay, but I don’t have an answer for those kids. I don’t want to have to look at any child, anywhere, and say you’re going to have to wait your turn to get a quality education. I want to say that something is going to change for them tomorrow.

Stacey Jones: It seems like you have a pretty good idea right now of what kind of teachers you’re looking for. My company recruits people, and we have a set of skills we’re looking for, an idea of what it takes to be successful, and after nearly three years on the job, you probably have a pretty good idea of what that ideal teacher looks like and what skills they possess. So it would be great to hear about the teacher of the future.

Michelle Rhee: The first thing is that the person needs to have an unwavering belief in the children of the city. A belief that they can achieve at the highest levels despite what all the obstacles are. With our kids, a lot of them come to school every day facing enormous challenges.

Challenges that you and I as adults cannot even begin to imagine. How they wake up every day and come to school and perform. What that does is, to borrow a phrase from George Bush, it oftentimes creates this soft bigotry of low expectations. Oh this child didn’t have breakfast this morning, no one put them to bed last night at a decent hour, they don’t have health care.

All these very real challenges oftentimes cause people to think, “well how can they come to school and learn everyday?” But that’s not what is going to help these children. Saying we understand why your achievement levels are so low because your life is so challenging is not going to help them. What’s going to help them is saying those things are tough, we need to help you do whatever we can to get you through those challenges, but at the end of the day I’m not going to lower my expectations for what you can do, and what we expect of you every day.

And the kids know what they want. They want to be held to high expectations. And not that long ago in one of our high schools that have recently seen a massive change I said what’s the difference? Why are you coming to school why are you working hard? Why are you now thinking of going to college?

The girl said, well, last year nobody cared about us so we didn’t care about him or her. Now we can tell that people care, so we are going to care about our education. Kids really can tell in a very concrete way when people have high expectations of them. So for our teachers, that unwavering belief that it is absolutely possible for our kids to accomplish at the very highest levels is the most important thing.

Stacey Jones: How do these kids find out someone cares? Is the teacher the most likely touch point for that or are there other signals that weren’t there a year or two years ago?

Michelle Rhee: The teachers are definitely the most likely touch point because the kids see their teachers every day. I went to one of our lowest performing high schools not too long ago and had an interesting experience.

I walked into classroom after classroom and it was raining, it was a Friday and there were not too many kids in the whole school, which was a little disconcerting. I went into one classroom and it was full. Kids were in all the seats, they were paying attention, class was great and the teacher was very engaging.

As I was walking out a little while later three of the young men that were in that classroom were walking out of the building with me. I said wait a second, where are you going? They said “Oh, first period that teacher is great, that’s our best teacher so we come to school for that. Second teacher, not so good, so we’re going to roll now.”

This is interesting because people think of truancy and kids not being in school as just not coming. These children were making a very informed decision. When they would come to school and when they would not be in school and a lot of it was based on how much that teacher engaged them. Do they feel that this is worthwhile and they’re going to learn enough.

So they are very conscious consumers, and they pay attention to what’s happening in those classrooms. It really is most likely that a kid will get these encouraging messages from the teachers.

Stacey Jones: So Michelle, what about you and bouncing back?

Michelle Rhee: I think my biggest lesson over the last three years that I would share with somebody is that it is okay not to be liked. I say that because not too long ago there was a columnist in the Post actually who wrote this piece that said “I really like Michelle Rhee, I think she’s been making a lot of progress, but I wish she would be a little nicer.”

What did the columnist mean by that remark? Michelle Rhee explains more in the part 3 of this 3-part interview, which will be posted in the September issue of Be Inkandescent Business Magazine. Stay tuned for that!

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