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Michelle Rhee only spent a few years as a teacher through Teach For America, but she developed a passion for helping underprivileged students. She plans to apply that passion and commitment to excellence as the new head of the DC Public Schools. Included: Plans for improving an urban school system.

Michelle Rhee is not a typical superintendent, but then nothing about her journey to the chancellor's office of the District of Columbia Public Schools has been typical.

Rhee is one of the first leaders of a large school district to come through an alternative education program, Teach For America .

She earned votes of confidence from D.C.'s mayor and school board, even though she only spent three years in a classroom.. Rhee began her education career in 1992 at Harlem Park Community School in Baltimore, Maryland, where she taught second and third graders scoring at the 13th percentile on nationally recognized standardized tests. By the end of her second year with the same students, the vast majority of them were scoring at the 90th percentile, according to information from the D.C. public schools.

Prior to taking the position in D.C., Rhee was the president and chief-executive-officer of The New Teacher Project , a nonprofit consulting organization that recruits, trains, and places teachers in hard-to-staff schools. Rhee founded The New Teacher Project in 1997.

Now Rhee is determined to improve the D.C. public school system, one of the lowest-performing in the U.S. She talked with Education World about her motivation for accepting the chancellor's position and the goals she has for the students and community with which she will be working.

Michelle Rhee
Education World: Why did you want to be chancellor of the District of Columbia public school system?

Michelle Rhee: Quality schools should be a fundamental right of every child who grows up in the United States. Unfortunately, for too many children, that is not the reality. I accepted Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's nomination because I saw an opportunity to create in our nation's capital the kind of schools that we want to see across the country -- schools that push students to realize their dreams and prepare them for success by educating them at the highest levels. It is an honor to serve in the District and a challenge that I am looking forward to meeting.

EW: What different perspectives do you bring to the job as someone who did not major in education?


"I saw an opportunity to create in our nation's capital the kind of schools that we want to see across the country -- schools that push students to realize their dreams and prepare them for success by educating them at the highest levels."

Rhee: I am not sure that my perspective is different because of my major. There are outstanding individuals of all backgrounds and experiences who are working tirelessly to ensure that every student has access to a high quality education. Some of them majored in education; others found their way to these issues through another path. My perspective is that we must work with exceptional urgency to improve student outcomes in our schools. That viewpoint has been informed by my background as a teacher and reformer, and more recently it has been informed by my role as a parent of school-age children who attend public school.

EW: What are your priorities as chancellor?

Rhee: My main goal for the DC Public Schools is to raise achievement for all students. While there are a number of strategies and priorities that will play a part in reaching that goal, I am singularly focused on the end outcome. In the short term, I expect to focus on establishing clear expectations for all adults who work with the DC public schools, from teachers to principals to central office staff. It will then be my responsibility and the responsibility of my team to make sure that staff members have the support to meet those expectations. Additionally, I will be focused on investing students and their families in the learning process. As I mentioned during my speech after accepting Mayor Fenty's nomination, I am ultimately accountable to the students who attend our schools.

EW: What aspect of your education or experience helped form your philosophy of education?


"I benefited throughout my education from high expectations. I was surrounded by teachers and administrators who believed in my potential and who pushed me to excel."

Rhee: I benefited throughout my education from high expectations. I was surrounded by teachers and administrators who believed in my potential and who pushed me to excel. When I became a teacher, I quickly realized that children of all backgrounds respond to high expectations in the same way -- by rising to meet them.

EW: Some people are concerned about your lack of administrative experience. How would you respond to those concerns?

Rhee: For the past ten years as CEO of The New Teacher Project , I worked at scale in some of the largest urban school systems in the country. Our accomplishments, which include recruiting 23,000 talented new teachers into the profession, speak to my ability to work at scale in an administrative role. I have come to believe that the same principles that have made The New Teacher Project a leader in its field -- clear goals and a relentless drive to meet those goals -- can be the foundation of success for the DC Public Schools.

EW: I understand that you will be the first schools' chancellor in 40 years who is not African-American. What have you done, and what are you planning to do, to reach out to the African-American community?

Rhee: It is important for me to acknowledge that as a Korean-American, my heritage is different from that of many families in the District. But like all people, there is more to me than my ethnicity. I am also a parent and a committed, experienced educator who has a track record of success in a number of urban communities nationwide. I have found that what parents want in a chancellor is someone who can get results for their children. As I have engaged with parents in living room conversations and forums during the past few weeks, the message to me has been loud and clear -- parents in DC are hungry for success and they are ready to support leaders who share that hunger.

This e-interview with Michelle Rhee is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Published 09/19/2007


 

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