MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And outgoing D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee joins me now. Welcome to the program.
Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Chancellor, D.C. Public Schools): Thank you.
BLOCK: Chancellor Rhee, you have said a lot of times that it's all about the children, which makes me wonder why you're leaving so abruptly. What's the message you think you're sending to children in D.C. public schools?
Ms. RHEE: Well, you know, it's really important that education reform in this city continues, and that the reforms are embraced by the entire community. And in order for that to happen, the chairman and I sort of talked about what the best path forward would be. And what I know is that for a certain population of people in this city, they're not going to be able to embrace the reforms as long as I'm involved.
But I'm leaving behind my entire team. My deputy chancellor is taking over as interim. My entire management team is staying in place. They are the brains and the talent behind the entire reform effort. So the plan can absolutely continue; the progress can continue. And it can do so without, you know, the distraction of having me - which for some people, just wasn't part of what they had hoped for long term.
BLOCK: And when you say the chairman, you're talking about City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, the presumptive mayor-elect, who defeated Adrian Fenty in the primary.
Ms. RHEE: Correct. Correct.
BLOCK: You know, after Mayor Fenty lost the Democratic primary last month, you said that that result was - and these are your words...
Ms. RHEE: Mm-hmm.
Ms. RHEE: Yeah.
BLOCK: Devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.
Ms. RHEE: Yeah.
BLOCK: And those words were splashed across the front page of the Washington Post. I have to tell you, as a mother of a third grader in D.C. public schools, sitting down to breakfast that morning with that on the table, thinking about children across the city seeing those words, I felt that was a pretty lousy message to send to the kids of Washington. What were you thinking?
Ms. RHEE: You know, I wish that the reporter would have actually expressed the entire sentiment, and not just those words. Because what I said was, it was devastating, I said, because I have received calls from people inside the city and across the nation, who are saying this is the worst thing that could have happened to school reform. We're taking a step backwards. It's a blow. The message is, you know, you should not try to do what Fenty and Rhee did, that you've got to slow down.
And what I said is, that is absolutely the wrong message and the wrong lesson that people should take from this. If people think the results of this election mean that we should be less aggressive about school reform, then the children are the ones that will lose out.
BLOCK: But you did say that the result was devastating for schoolchildren.
Ms. RHEE: Yes, and I said - let me tell you why. And then I said, because if the message that people take away from this was that you should be less aggressive about school reform, that is absolutely devastating to kids.
BLOCK: We just heard in Claudio Sanchez's report about some of your successes in your three years here. The labor contract linked to performance pay, graduation rates increasing, some test scores going up. When you think back, though, on some of the failures - you have been a very polarizing figure in this city - what would you do differently?
Ms. RHEE: Well, I definitely think we made some mistakes. And I would want school district officials who come after me here in D.C., and others around the country, to learn from those lessons. One of the biggest mistakes that we made was we did not have good communication, proactive and aggressively getting out there, talking about what the decisions were that we were making, why we were making them, why it was going to help move student achievement forward.
You know, we didn't communicate particularly well with teachers. And you know, along the way, we've realized those shortcomings, and we tried to course corrections. And so we put some things in over the last year, year and a half, that helped tremendously. And I think what that does is build a really, really solid foundation for interim Chancellor Henderson, and the rest of the team, to be able to move forward even more aggressively.
BLOCK: So communication problems, you say.
Ms. RHEE: That's one, certainly, of the problems. I think if you look overall at where we are as a district, even though we have made tremendous progress over the last three and a half years, we're still at a place where fewer than 50 percent of our children are on grade level in math and reading - which just shows you how much more work there is to be done.
So I think that we have to have a very aggressive stance moving forward, knowing that we've seen some good progress, but this is just the beginning.
BLOCK: Chancellor Rhee, what can you tell us about your future plans as you leave Washington?
Ms. RHEE: I'm going to take a little time to think about all of the options that are out there. One thing that I know is that these problems in public education are not isolated to Washington, D.C. They're nationwide problems. And there are lots of local jurisdictions right now, that I've spoken with, who really do have an appetite to take on the tough decisions and seem to have courageous leaders.
And so, I'm going to sort of think about all those things. And then, obviously, I have a fiance in California. So the closer that I can get to him, the better that would be as well.
BLOCK: Well, Michelle Rhee, thanks very much for talking with us.
Ms. RHEE: Absolutely. Thank you.
BLOCK: Michelle Rhee, who announced today that she is stepping down as chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools at the end of this month.
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