If you haven’t heard of Michelle Rhee, believe me, you will. For the past 18 years, education reform maverick, Michelle Rhee, has been blazing a trail for education reform with one sole focus, put students first. She began with Teach for America as a third grade teacher in Baltimore, Maryland, then moved on to spearhead initiatives focused on filling each classroom with a great teacher, then made significant strides as Chancellor of DC Public Schools and most recently launching StudentsFirst, an organizations whose name says it all.
Michelle stepped into the limelight of the national conversation on education recently when she was prominently featured in the break-out social campaign film, Waiting for “Superman”. Today, Michelle continues to fight tirelessly for students – her kids, your kids, our kids. Come along as we step inside Michelle’s world.
SG: You’ve dedicated yourself fully to education reform, where does your passion come from?
MR: When I was Chancellor of DC Public Schools, I started hearing from people across the country saying, “I’m watching what you’re doing, hang in there,” and “keep fighting for kids.” It was striking to me how people who wrote to me felt like they were alone and isolated, like it was ‘them’ against ‘the system.’ Lots of people want to fight for education reform, but they’re not exactly sure how to do it. That was very influential for me starting StudentsFirst.
SG: Prior to becoming Chancellor, and now leading a national education reform movement, you taught third grade. What sticks with you from your time in the classroom?
MR: What makes the biggest difference in the classroom is that every single kid that is in school has access to a high-quality teacher – every year.
MR: It is only possible when you have a mechanism in place to apply policy pressure on behalf of kids. Teachers unions are so effective and influential because they have millions of dollars and millions of people and they use those dollars and people to get the politicians they want voted in and laws they want passed or blocked. On the flip side, there is no organized national interest group that has the same influence as the teachers unions on behalf of kids; that is a key reason I started StudentsFirst.
SG: It was also hard to walk away from Waiting for “Superman” and not feel, on some level, as though teachers unions were the ‘enemy.’ How do you view teachers unions?
MR: It’s well known that I don’t see eye to eye with teachers unions, but I don’t think they are the enemy. Teachers unions, in my opinion, are doing exactly what they were made to do; they are supposed to be looking out for the rights, priorities, privileges and pay of their members and they do an excellent job of that. We can’t force either side to “cross over,” we have to strike a balance.
Also, I don’t think teachers are the problem; teachers are the solution to the problem. Research shows that when kids have highly effective teachers in their world versus really ineffective teachers, it literally changes their life trajectory. Knowing that, we should be doing everything we possibly can to make sure that every single child has a highly effective teacher from the early stage of life.
SG: Absolutely. Let’s talk more about effective teachers. The debate around measuring teacher performance is heated, why is it so difficult to pinpoint measurements for teacher effectiveness?
MR: It isn’t that difficult! I think the biggest problem is people just don’t want to deal with it. Change is hard, and a lot of teachers will tell you the current evaluation systems don’t work. Are we going to be able to find the perfect solution? No, there is no perfect solution. But to argue that we can’t measure teachers, or hold teachers accountable, because there’s not a perfect mechanism to do so, in my mind that’s just dodging responsibility.
SG: The urgency of this issue for parents is obvious, but what about people without children? Is it critical for every person to get involved in education reform?
MR: This is one of the biggest challenges we face, people who think that the problems with public education are someone else’s problem. What we have to make all American’s understand is that this is everybody’s problem. Even if your kids are in suburban schools or private schools, the top 5% of kids in this country still aren’t faring well academically compared to their international counterparts. If you’re a business owner, you need to know you’ve not going to have a skilled workforce to employ until we fix the public education system. Anyone who is a homeowner, your property values are dependent on the quality of the schools in your community. Crime is often related to the education of the population. It is in every person’s best interest to fix the school system, it affects each of us.
MR: Apply pressure to your legislators. Start by becoming visiting StudentsFirst.org and register. We’ll keep you informed, depending on your state or city, about pending legislation, or action that we need to take that will influence the outcome of a vote on education. The impact that we are already making across this country is significant, but we need more voices to join in.
SG: Do you ever take education and throw it to the side and allow yourself a little down time?
MR: I’m a bit of a workaholic, I’m always thinking about work in some, way, shape, or form. But the time when I can compartmentalize is when I’m with my kids and I can focus solely on them.
SG: What are the ‘I’m not focusing on education, I’m focusing on family’ things that you all like to do together? I hope they’re not learning games!
MR: (laughs) No! We like to cook together; we all love to eat! I have two little girls and we like to shop and they love arts and crafts. We have a pretty mellow time together.
SG: At your core, you’re a busy mom, juggling it all, in the midst of a power-packed career!
MR: That’s right, I’m just a regular mom trying to figure out how I can avoid feeding my children cereal for dinner!
SG: The path over the last years cannot have been easy, personally or professionally. You’ve encountered harsh criticism, lawsuits and the wrath of an angry union. Why do you stay in the fight?
MR: I have such a strong belief in children and I also have a lot of confidence that all parents want the best for their kids, and that’s not happening right now in our public education system. We’ve fallen further and further behind over the last couple of decades and that is not who we are as a country. We have to regain our competitive edge. We should have the best public education system in the world, and I believe we can get there.
SG: I love asking this question, tell me, who inspires you?
MR: Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City school system. He has such a passion for this work and he’s so focused on making sure that we’re doing the right things for kids. Every time I see him, I get inspired again.
SG: I mentioned to the HerExchange followers on Facebook and Twitter that I was speaking to you and I received message after message from people that wanted me to tell you how much they admire you and thanking you for fighting for their kids – our kids. You inspire many of us – thank you.
MR: Absolutely! Tell all of those people and I said thank you and I’ll keep fighting!
Visit StudentsFirst.org for much more. Register, sign the pledge and find out how to Save Great Teachers – get involved!
-Stephanie Goetsch, June 2011