Michelle Rhee Presses for Ed Reform

Sara Joe Wolansky

Former Chancellor of the D.C. Public School System Michelle Rhee addresses an audience at the Harvard Education School. Rhee kept the tone lighthearted, citing a need to confront issues regarding educational reform rather than "sugar-coat" them.

Michelle A. Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, engaged with a packed auditorium last night, fielding questions, reflecting on her personal life, and elaborating on her polarizing views on education in urban America.

Rhee—who received a master’s of public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 1997—shared her experiences with a struggling school system and discussed the leadership tactics she used to make changes in the D.C. schools, during a talk at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Telling anecdotes that mustered hearty laughs from her audience, Rhee recounted her foray into the superintendent’s role three years ago. At the time, there was nothing that she would have liked to do less than be an urban superintendent, she said.

Rhee, who was 37 when she became chancellor, started the job facing skepticism from the community. Many called her too young and inexperienced, she recounted.

But Rhee made sweeping changes, closing more than 20 schools in the district within the first year of her tenure.

“If we’re going to change education in America, it has to revolve around educator quality,” Rhee said last night.

Rhee outlined her methodology for bringing change to a school district in which only 8 percent of eighth graders were performing at grade level—a statistic that she described as “criminal.”

Rhee brought in “the best talent” and dismissed those who did not meet the standards she set.

“I’m a total softie for kids,” said Rhee, who has two daughters of her own. “When kids are getting screwed, it pisses me off, and that’s what drives me.”

During the question-and-answer section at the event last night, Rhee argued that education in the United States should put effective teachers before qualified ones.

Rhee resigned from the school system last month.

“In 10 years, I’m going to be 50 years old. That’s terrifying,” she said.

“At the end of the day, nothing has changed. That doesn’t work for me...We wanted to see a transformation.”

Rhee was recently featured in the controversial documentary “Waiting For ‘Superman.’”

—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at xyu@college.harvard.edu.

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