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A Teacher from Toledo
ONE DAY IN AUGUST, I SPENT THE MORNING with Rhee as she made surprise visits to Washington public schools. She emerged from her chauffeured black SUV with two BlackBerrys and a cell phone and began walking--fast--toward the front door of the first school. She wore a black pencil skirt, a delicate cream blouse and strappy high heels. When we got inside, she walked into the first classroom she could find and stood to the side, frowning like a specter. When a teacher stopped lecturing to greet her, she motioned for the teacher to continue. Rhee smiled only when students smiled at her first. Within two minutes, she had seen enough, and she stalked out to the next classroom.
In the hallway, she muttered about teachers who spend too much time cutting out elaborate bulletin-board decorations or chitchatting at "morning meetings" with their third-graders before the real work begins. "We're in Washington, D.C., in the nation's capital," she said later. "And yet the children of this city receive an education that every single citizen in this country should be embarrassed by." (See pictures of teens and how they would vote.)
In the year and a half she's been on the job, Rhee has made more changes than most school leaders--even reform-minded ones--make in five years. She has shut 21 schools--15% of the city's total--and fired more than 100 workers from the district's famously bloated 900-person central bureaucracy. She has dismissed 270 teachers. And last spring she removed 36 principals, including the head of the elementary school her two daughters attend in an affluent northwest-D.C. neighborhood.
Rhee is convinced that the answer to the U.S.'s education catastrophe is talent, in the form of outstanding teachers and principals. She wants to make Washington teachers the highest paid in the country, and in exchange she wants to get rid of the weakest teachers. Where she and the teachers' union disagree most is on her ability to measure the quality of teachers. Like about half the states, Washington is now tracking whether students' test scores improve over time under a given teacher. Rhee wants to use that data to decide who gets paid more--and, in combination with classroom evaluation, who keeps the job. But many teachers do not trust her to do this fairly, and the union bristles at the idea of giving up tenure, the exceptional job security that teachers enjoy.
Rhee grew up in a nice neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio, a middle child, between two brothers. Her parents immigrated from South Korea several years before she was born so that her father could study medicine at the University of Michigan. He became a specialist in rehabilitation and pain medicine, and her mother owned a women's clothing store. Education was highly valued in the family, as was independence. After Rhee finished sixth grade, her parents sent her to South Korea to live with an aunt and attend a Korean school, a harrowing experience for a child in a strange land with limited skills in its language. When she returned a year later, her parents sent her to a private school because they found the public schools lacking.
After Rhee graduated from Cornell University in 1992, she joined Teach for America. She spent three years teaching at Harlem Park Elementary, one of the lowest-performing schools in Baltimore. Her parents visited and were stunned by the conditions of the neighborhood. "The area where the kids lived reminded me of a scene after the Korean War," says her father Shang Rhee.
Rhee suffered during that first year, and so did her students. She could not control the class. Her father remembers her returning home to visit and telling him she didn't want to go back. She had hives on her face from the stress.
The second year, Rhee got better. She and another teacher started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests. They held on to those kids for two years, and by the end of third grade, the majority were at or above grade level, she says. (Baltimore does not have good test data going back that far, a problem that plagues many districts, so this assertion cannot be checked. But Rhee's principal at the time has confirmed the claim.) The experience gave Rhee faith in the power of good teaching. Yet what happened afterward broke her heart. "What was most disappointing was to watch these kids go off into the fourth grade and just lose everything," Rhee says, "because they were in classrooms with teachers who weren't engaging them."
The summer after her second year of teaching, Rhee met Kevin Huffman, a fellow Teach for America member. They married two years later and had two daughters, Starr and Olivia, now 9 and 6. They moved to Colorado to be closer to Rhee's parents, but the marriage faltered. Huffman and Rhee separated, agreeing to joint custody of the kids. And then Rhee got the offer to run Washington's schools. Huffman, now head of public affairs for Teach for America, had no illusions about the challenges Rhee would face. But when he heard about the job offer, he decided to follow her to D.C. "Even though moving didn't sound like a whole lot of fun," he says, "the reality is that I genuinely believed that she had the potential to be the best superintendent in the country. Most people think about their own longevity, about political considerations." He adds, "Very few people genuinely don't care about anything other than the end result for kids. Michelle will compromise with no one when it comes to making sure kids get what they deserve."
WHEN THEY ARRIVED IN WASHINGTON, Huffman and Rhee anted up. They enrolled Starr and Olivia in Oyster-Adams, a public elementary school. Although the school is considered among the best in the city, Rhee quickly concluded that it was inferior to the Colorado public school her daughters had been attending. Among other things, the homework was sporadic and unchallenging, she says. Rhee dismissed the principal before the school year was out, a move that sparked outrage across the city and in her own home. "That," she says, "was probably the decision I got the most grief about."
Rhee is, as a rule, far nicer to students than to most adults. In many private encounters with officials, bureaucrats and even fundraisers--who have committed millions of dollars to help her reform the schools--she doesn't smile or nod or do any of the things most people do to put others at ease. She reads her BlackBerry when people talk to her. I have seen her walk out of small meetings held for her benefit without a word of explanation. She says things most superintendents would not. "The thing that kills me about education is that it's so touchy-feely," she tells me one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn't respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. "People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."