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Educational “Rhee-form”: A Discussion with Michelle Rhee

February 2, 2011

Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools

Michelle Rhee – former District of Columbia Education Chancellor – offered advice as she kicked off her SmartTalk presentation about ways to improve the American education system.  From suggesting invested parents serve in executive positions (“Moms serve as superintendents”) to offering Warren Buffet’s advice (“Make private schools illegal.”), Rhee presented her experience to an audience of government officials, parents, teachers, administrators, business executives and education advocates.

Rhee noted how “impatience” and “parental urgency” guided her actions to provide “great education now” for her poverty-ridden school district.  Taking on the “most dysfunctional” district with a 70% achievement gap, Rhee battled with parents, teachers unions, and politicians as she closed 23 schools, re-negotiated a teachers contract rewarding teaching excellence, and instituted economic efficiencies and business partnerships that saved her district millions of dollars.

With a goal of “insuring that every DC child receive a great education,” Rhee supported voucher programs, emulated selective Charter school “best practice” systems, and “offered teachers opportunities to double their salaries using transparent performance measures.”  Citing Gates Foundation research, Rhee indicated that teacher excellence dictates student success, directly affecting high school graduation rates and college enrollment.  And graduation rates foreshadow global competitiveness and future economic development.   Using international statistics, Rhee stated “153M new high skill/high pay jobs will be created:  American kids are only prepared to fill 1/3 of those skilled jobs,” opening the door for significant career advancement by “technology-driven countries such as India and China.”

With global business surging, Rhee noted American students rank 23rd , 27th , and 29th in Reading, Math and Science in international standings.   And private schools don’t do much better:  5% of all top high school seniors rank 23rd in overall subject areas.  She noted that America has “lost its competitive standing” and suffers from “complacency” where students – and teachers – are not asked to stretch their capabilities.  Rhee noted she wanted her team to actually “be good – not just feel good.”

Finally, Rhee noted the American education system lacks fiscal accountability where elected and appointed education leaders rarely “follow the money” and “politics” guide most education decisions.

Rhee closed her session by offering some solutions.  Most notably billionaire Warren Buffet  advised that education inequities among socioeconomic classes would be solved by  “Making all private schools illegal.”  Although the suggestion is impossible to enforce, she noted public schools, “are considered historically the ‘great equalizer’ in American society.”  She added,“randomly assigning all kids to attend public schools throughout a district from President Obama’s children to foreign ambassador’s kids, to kids living in homeless shelters would  create a dynamic that would change the education system and allow public schools to offer children an equal shot at life.”  She noted that it was the “biggest social injustice that skin color and zip code determined a child’s education and future opportunity.”

P.I.E. looks forward to Rhee’s continued impact on education reform and future plans for the nonprofit organization, StudentsFirst, a lobbying organization — founded by Rhee — representing student interests.

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