Michelle Rhee: Hope, Controvery and Mystery

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Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of Washington, D.C. Public Schools, has garnered praise and critiscm for her no holds barred approach to reforming the city's troubled school system, including firing scores of ineffective teachers. Washington Post Columnist Marc Fisher recently profiled Rhee in the Washington Post Magazine. Fisher reveals what he learned about Rhee and how her background may have shaped her tough approach.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, coming out in middle school? One reporter says it's becoming more common. We talked with that reporter and in our parenting conversation two parents and a teen who are living the story now.

But first, we open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, which we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. This week, a story about one of Washington's most controversial leaders, Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of D.C. public schools. The city's public schools have, over the years, been considered some of the worst performing in the country. Leaders came and went through revolving doors citing frustrations with everything from congressional meddling to union intransigence to parental indifference.

So, when Rhee was appointed by Mayor Adriane Fenti, there was a hunger for a leader who would change the game. That was more than two years ago. Since then, Rhee and her approach have been a subject of both wild enthusiasm and fierce criticism.

In his new story for The Washington Post magazine, post editor Marc Fisher examines Rhee's successes and failures and how Rhee's background shapes her much debated approach. Marc Fisher joins me here in our Washington studio, welcome. Welcome back, I should say.

Mr. MARC FISHER (Columnist, Washington Post): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Marc, I'm curious about why you're interested in this subject because this is actually rather well-ploughed ground and you point in the article to a TIME magazine cover for which Michelle Rhee posed, which we'll talk about later. But she's become this huge national figure. So, what is it that you were looking for that was new?

Mr. FISHER: The key word in your question is national. She's become this enormous national figure on the cover of Time Magazine, big PBS series about her. Across the country, she's hailed as this great reformer and yet in the city she's much more controversial and she has catered her message to that national audience. So, does she have larger goals here? Does she want to be secretary of education? All these suspicions about her in Washington, where she runs what is really a fairly small school system as big urban systems go, but a deeply troubled one.

And so, I was curious to know is it really possible that someone could be as tough and brusque and frank. And she defends herself by saying, you know, I don't play those games. I'm here to do a job and she portrayed the school system from day one as essentially criminal operation that is destroying the lives of children.

MARTIN: But what were you looking for in reporting on this story? What was the story that you were…

Mr. FISHER: I wanted to find out if that's a real person? I wanted to find out if this is just an act that she puts on to be politically successful or if there's really someone out there who is as tough and frank as she is. And my theory going in was this had to be just her way of getting things done. And I surprised myself by going back and talking to her parents, talking to kids she'd grown up with.

She's always been this way. Her family is like this. She attributes it to her Korean immigrant upbringing, her parents being immigrants. And there is this sort of tactlessness and this brutality of language, and yet there's a certain charm there as well and a certain (unintelligible) that I discovered in the reporting.

MARTIN: One of the things that you discovered is that this kind of no-nonsense, go right there person, you say, has always been, give an example of that.

Mr. FISHER: Go back 20 years or so. One of her oldest friends was telling me about how she's told Michelle about the new boyfriend in her life to go out on a couple of dates. She's kind of smitten. She thinks this is something and Michelle turns to her and says you better dump him right now. You got to get rid of him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHER: And that friend was taken a banging. Even a friend doesn't normally put it quite that bluntly and yet the friend did as Michelle told her and came to believe that Michelle was absolutely right and that she's pretty much always right.

MARTIN: And there was this whole question of is she the real deal when it comes to nearly caring about the education of this majority African-American school system, even though the city is only marginally, slightly majority African-American now. The school system is overwhelmingly African-American. And so, the question is does she really care about the education these kids? What did you come to conclude?

Mr. FISHER: She's the first non-African-American leader of the school system in many decades. And so, this is a fierce source of pride for a lot of Washingtonians as bad and as difficult as school systems has been over these years, it was a sense of this is ours. And maybe we've mopped it up in some ways but it's ours to fix too. And so there was tremendous skepticism of her coming in. And yet, she won over the parents very quickly and very effectively by essentially portraying herself as one of them.

And that's a hard message for a Korean woman coming into this system to get across. But she said don't look at me for who I am ethnically. Look at me as another parent. First of all, I send my growing kids to this school system.

MARTIN: Which she does.

Mr. FISHER: Which she does. And second, that's all that I'm here for as she keeps telling people. And I am not willing to accept and you shouldn't be willing to accept the conditions under which your kids have been educated up until now.

MARTIN: Let's go back to that famous TIME magazine cover. She's portrayed with a broom and, you know, the broom is a metaphor for, you know, let's sweep the place clean, clean output. It took on dimensions that she did not expect. And that played into the perpetually explosive issue of race and class in Washington, D.C. Tell us how?

Mr. FISHER: She is dressed all in black with that broom in front of her. She looks like a witch, and another word that rhymes with it. And she is, on that cover, looks like the person who has come here to sweep out hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers, many of them black in this black school system.

MARTIN: And that plays into one of the key issues that she has tried to or key changes that she has tried to make is to exchange job security for pay. So, if you're willing to give up your job security, we're willing to pay you more. Hugely controversial. How does this play into race? Why is this a racial thing? I mean, this is the same kind of deal with administrators are trying to bring in, in lots of other areas…

Mr. FISHER: All across the country.

MARTIN: …all across the country in lots of different professional areas. Why is this such a big deal here? How does it play into reigns?

Mr. FISHER: Because Washington is a different place. And Washington is a place where there are two different power structures: one white and one black, one federal and one local. And this is a school system that has been in the defensive crouch for decades. And so, people who work in this school system and many of the people who live in the city see anyone coming in to turn this system on its head as an attack often racially.

MARTIN: Finally, Marc, you didn't you really touch on this in your piece. I want to raise issue with sexism. I mean, how many male executives have come in, have been blunt, tough talking, and have been applauded for. And so, I have to ask why should people be surprised by that? Because she's a girl?

Mr. FISHER: Well, maybe that's a piece of it. Little, little disconnect when you see a diminutive Asian woman saying these things and being that tough. So maybe people are thrown off by that, but she likes when people are thrown off by that because it means they're going to look at her with maybe a raised eyebrow and say what is she up to and maybe she's up to some good things.

MARTIN: Washington Post Enterprise Editor Marc Fisher was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. If you want to read the piece that we've been talking about in its entirety, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to the new npr.org and look for programs. And click on TELL ME MORE. Mark Fisher, thank you so much for talking to us.

Mr. FISHER: Thanks.

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