Michelle Rhee compares D.C. and Chicago public schools

December 8, 2010

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

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(AP/Susan Walsh)
Former Washington D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee explains her philosophy on school reform.
(WBEZ/Eilee Heikenen-Weiss)
Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C., visited 'Eight Forty-Eight' Wednesday.
(WBEZ/Eilee Heikenen-Weiss)
Rhee began a campaign to raise $1 billion for Students First, an organization devoted to school reform.
(WBEZ/Eilee Heikenen-Weiss)
Rhee launched her campaign on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' and the cover of Newsweek this week.

Updated at 12:00 p.m. on 12/08/2010

Former Washington, D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is taking her reform agenda on the road this week. Before resigning from her chancellor position in October, Rhee closed underperforming schools, instituted a performance pay system for teachers and advocated for charter schools—measures Chicago Public Schools have also recently seen. Rhee visited ""Eight Forty-Eight" on Wednesday to talk with host Alison Cuddy about the lessons she learned and how they might apply to Chicago.

Noting that both Chicago and D.C. have mayoral control over public schools, Rhee emphasized the importance of a strong relationship between the mayor and the city’s head of public schools. “I knew that part of the reason why we had been so successful for three and a half years, was because [outgoing D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty and I] were in lock-step,” Rhee said. That contributed to her decision to leave after Fenty lost his re-election bid. Similarly, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman recently resigned after learning that Mayor Richard M. Daley would not be running for re-election.

Despite the turnover of school leaders in Chicago and D.C., Rhee believes that mayoral control, rather than school board control, actually leads to more stable schools. “Arne Duncan was here for…about eight years…which far exceeds the average tenure of a superintendent who works for a school board structure, which is… a little over two years.”

But administrative leaders may not be the biggest factor in change. Rhee said personal experience—as a parent and as a former teacher—drives her belief that teachers are central to school reform. Rhee taught in an inner-city classroom in one of the lowest performing schools in Baltimore with Teach for America. She said that over her second and third years of teaching, she took a group of kids from the lowest performing on standardized tests to the top. “The environment that these kids were living in didn’t change; who their parents were didn’t change, their diets, the violence in the community, none of those things changed. What changed was the adults who were in front of them every day and that made every bit of difference in their academic outcomes.”

Rhee said it’s not just in the classroom where teachers are important, but also at the negotiating table. “I don’t think that reformers individually can go into districts—or even states—and have as big an impact as they could unless we change the political landscape and the entire dynamic in which we’re operating.,” she said. Teachers’ unions are doing a good job representing their members, she added, but students also need an advocate and she hopes her new school reform organization Students First will fill that role.