Commentary Magazine

The Making of an Education Reformer

Radical: Fighting to Put Students First
By Michelle Rhee, Harper, 286 pages

In 2007, Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty tapped Michelle Rhee to be chancellor of district schools and turn around the failing local school system. Rhee had already built a reputation as an uncompromising reformer, and the move boded well for the district’s children. But as she recounts in her compelling new memoir, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, the press conference at which Fenty formally announced her hiring wasn’t exactly a triumphant scene. A few attendees clapped, but most watched in puzzled silence. Rhee recalls thinking at the moment that “there would be no opportunity to mend fences or smooth ruffled feathers.” Rhee is a public figure with a fraught professional history.

Her observation of that day serves as an apt summary of her entire career, and Radical reflects Rhee’s uneasy effort to balance ideological strength of purpose against the necessities of politics. Rhee was born in 1969 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her parents had immigrated to the United States from Seoul because, she says, America “had become heroic” in her physician father’s mind “for preserving his way of life” during the Korean War. Her family eventually settled in Toledo, Ohio, where her father treated managers and workers alike in the union-heavy town. The Rhees were stereotypically strict Asian parents: As a child, Michelle was allowed to spend only one night away from home, and only until 11 p.m. “The main priority in our family was education,” she writes. “It drove every conversation, admonition, and decision in our household.” It was a commitment that Michelle began to appreciate once her parents sent her to South Korea for sixth grade. There she found “a society where competition and excellence were rewarded”—where academic achievement was a matter of personal honor.

The United States had also long boasted a competitive society, but by the time Rhee came of age, the American ethos was being squeezed between Lyndon Johnson’s expansive welfare programs and the more radical identity politics sweeping the culture during the 1960s and 70s. Rhee briefly flirted with the latter when she helped found a group called RAW—Radical Asian Women—as an undergraduate at Cornell. But she was also learning more useful lessons during her college summers spent managing a small restaurant back home. One such lesson was that “firing people never feels good, but there are times when you have to show an employee the door.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Rhee had to decide between entering graduate school or joining Teach For America, which recruits top college graduates to lead the country’s toughest inner-city and rural classrooms. It is a common choice for recent graduates these days, but in 1991 the organization had been around for just one year, and the achievement gap between poor students and their affluent peers barely registered on the national radar. But urged on by her public-minded father, Rhee joined TFA and decamped from Ithaca to Baltimore, where she was assigned to an especially difficult elementary school.

Rhee’s account of her TFA training and the three years she spent in a second-grade Baltimore classroom make for some of her memoir’s most engaging and enlightening passages. Nothing quite prepares an outsider for the wretched, demoralizing state of the nation’s worst public schools, and most of Rhee’s first year was spent trying desperately to take control of her classroom. Her students endlessly cussed, horsed around, and threw objects at each other. “Screw you, Chinese bitch!” they’d yell when she tried to impose discipline. Amazingly, however, the same students would behave like little angels when they entered the classrooms of the school’s most effective educators. It was an eye-opening realization for Rhee: “It’s not just about kids who come to school hungry, from families who don’t care about education, through streets with a gauntlet of drug dealers,” she writes. “I was creating the kind of environment where they could act up and be crazy….It was me!”

The conclusion Rhee reached—that, as leaders of their classrooms, teachers are the most important factor in whether the students under their charge make academic gains—is now a bedrock of the education-reform movement. Rhee kept that theory at the center of her work long after she left the classroom.

It is an idea that goes against everything teachers’ unions and traditional education schools stand for. The latter are awash in radical ideologies, propagated by the likes of the Marxist educator Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), holding that teachers and students should join hands as equals in the struggle against established authority. One can imagine how the professors who spend years marinating future teachers in such hokum might react to Rhee’s statement that, in fact, most children from poor communities are hungry for “rigid structure, certainty, and stability.”

Teachers’ unions, meanwhile, don’t like the idea that teachers should take ultimate responsibility for their classroom outcomes, regardless of where their students come from or what their home lives might be. Union leaders prefer to wield urban America’s social ills as a shield against claims of teacher malfeasance or the prospect of even modest reforms. All of which explains the cool reception of Rhee’s appointment in D.C. And soon after she became chancellor, a sign appeared in one of her elementary schools, reading, “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do.”

Rhee recalls being “enraged,” and it’s a word that crops up throughout her memoir. Rage is what drove Rhee to fire hundreds of principals, assistant principals, teachers, and central-administration staff soon after taking over. Washington, she writes, had “one of the worst bureaucracies” in the country: The school year hadn’t started on time for many years; textbooks would pile up unused in storage; teachers remained on the payroll long after they’d left the district; under-enrolled schools drained resources; and the district’s dropout rate hovered above 50 percent. Rage was exactly what the school district needed. Rhee’s first year in office saw reading and math scores rise significantly. She closed under-enrolled schools by the dozens and ensured that enrollment was on the rebound.

Yet her most important accomplishment was the “grand bargain” she and Fenty struck with the district’s teachers’ union. By playing hardball with the local union and its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers, Rhee managed to secure a lasting package of reforms that has since been used as a template by reform-minded leaders across the country. Among them were the introduction of rigorous evaluations and merit pay for highly effective teachers. The latter was a concession obtained, to be sure, thanks to hefty across-the-board raises paid for by private foundations. And for championing reform, Fenty paid a price: By the time of the 2010 reelection, he was targeted by the unions in a particularly mendacious campaign that vilified him and his chancellor as insensitive to the needs of the district’s black community. Washington voters in 2010 drove Fenty out of office and Rhee along with him.

Rhee took the political failure hard, but it also sparked a new realization: The reform movement needs a grassroots political arm similar to that wielded by the labor unions. StudentsFirst, the organization Rhee founded after leaving the chancellery, has since grown into a serious political operation, recruiting and supporting reform candidates and targeting establishment ones. (News Corporation, which owns the parent company of the Wall Street Journal, where I work, is a donor to StudentsFirst.)

Rhee spends the latter third of her book setting out her political vision. It is in this section that her effort to match the square peg of her no-nonsense reforms to the round hole of leftist education politics creates an unworkable jam. “I am a Democrat and I support unions,” she declares at one point. Rhee calls herself “a political agnostic on matters of public education” and chastises conservatives for allegedly fetishizing free-market ideas. These attempts at evenhandedness are unpersuasive, since on most substantive issues—including school vouchers—Rhee ultimately sides with conservatives. She’d do well to leave the fences unmended and the feathers ruffled. It’s a piddling price to pay for the improved education of American children.

About the Author

Sohrab Ahmari, an alumnus of Teach For America, is assistant books editor of the Wall Street Journal.

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