DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
Observers have used many words to describe the Washington D.C. school system -dysfunctional, ineffective, floundering to name a few. The system is one of the highest spending per student, but lowest performing in the nation. The District of Columbia's 55,000 mostly low-income students ranked far below the national average in basic math and reading skills.
A former teacher, who has never ran a school system or even a school for that matter, might seem an unlikely choice to turn the D.C. schools around. But Mayor Adrian Fenty, who recently assumed control of the school system, has tapped just such a person for the job. Thirty-seven year old Michelle Rhee is a well-known education reformer and alumna of the Teach for America Program. Rhee have been running the New Teacher Project, a non-profit she founded to train mid-career professionals as teachers and supply them to urban school districts.
Michelle Rhee joins me in the studio to talk about the challenges ahead. Welcome, thank you for coming in.
Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Acting D.C. Schools Chancellor; CEO and President, New Teacher Project): Thank you for having me.
ELLIOTT: You come from a group of reformers - I'll say who worked as teachers in the Teach for America Program. What did you learned through that experience?
Ms. RHEE: So I was a teacher in Baltimore, Maryland for three years through the Teach for America Program, and took a group of kids who were very low performing academically. I taught them for two years. I lived with them through their second and third grade year, and just saw incredible gains in their student achievement. By the time I ended with them, a vast majority of them were scoring at grade level or above with a significant percentage of them scoring at the 90 percentile above on nationally recognized standardized tests.
And basically what that showed me is that the academic achievement of our kids had absolutely nothing to do with their ability and their potential, which was endless, and everything to do with the quality of instruction in the classroom and what we were doing. And it is that experience that I had that drives my work every single day. Not because I've sort of read this in a textbook, you know, all kids can learn or that I prescribed to that slogan, but because I saw it happened.
ELLIOTT: I read where you attended a recent meeting with parents and community leaders, and you looked around the room and you said I know you're wondering what's this Korean lady doing here, and someone from the audience said: Oh how did you figure that? You know, you are different. This school system is predominantly African-American and has always or at least for the last generation had a black chancellor. Is that something that you're a little bit concern about as, you know, what kind of response did you get from the people in that audience?
Ms. RHEE: You know, when I went in there, I said that the woman actually said to me, she's like that was exactly what I was thinking. How did you know that? And I said I can tell, and that's okay. It sort of broke up, you know, some of the tension, are wondering that the parents were having when I walked in the room. But at the end of that hour and a half, every person in that room came up to me and said: You know what? We believe in you. We want you to be successful. We don't have any choice left for these schools to turn around and we will do whatever we can to help you with that process.
As I go out and talked to community members across the city, this is the last thing that they are focused on. What they're doing is asking me the right questions, which is: How are we going to improve instruction in our classrooms? What are we going to do to recruit better teachers into the system, etcetera?
And I think the bottom line is, as a mother of two kids, there are - any parents that I have ran into yet who want anything different for their children than I want for mine.
ELLIOTT: You've talked a lot already about getting teachers in the classroom, getting good teachers, getting good instruction. Is that the problem in the D.C. school system? Are teachers the problem?
Ms. RHEE: No, I think there are - I think there a lot of problems and what I see teachers as the solution - a big part of the solution. Because of the situation that we're in with our school district, and because of the environment that our kids are coming into, we need people who are singularly dedicated to ensuring that we're going to attain student achievement gains. We have a lot of them in the system already, and we need to find ways to recognize and reward those folks. And then we also need to ensure that we're recruiting the best new teachers into the system.
ELLIOTT: There's also the environment of the schools themselves. I was surprised to read that nine times a day, there is a violent incident reported in the D.C. public schools.
Ms. RHEE: Yeah.
ELLIOTT: I mean, how do children learn in that kind of environment?
Ms. RHEE: You know, I think that we send a very strong message to our children about how much we value them by the learning environments that we're creating. When a school is in disrepair, when there's no air conditioning and the paint is peeling and the toilets don't work properly, we're sending a message to them that we don't want them to have. In terms of what you're referring to on the violence front, you know, we often found with older children is that they are not actively engaged in the learning process. We need to find ways, creative ways to ensure that all students are effectively invested in what they are doing and. And that can look a lot of different ways.
ELLIOTT: You mentioned keeping the physical property in shape, there are D.C. principals who say they report a problem, a serious structural problem maybe and it could be more than a year before it gets fixed. These are very daunting problems.
Ms. RHEE: Absolutely. And this is why one of the things that we need to look at very seriously is the responsiveness of the system. I was visiting a school yesterday where the principal was pointing out similar facilities issues and he was talking about the amount of time that he spends with different people to try to get them to donate money or services to help with the school facility. And the mayor said to him stop doing that.
Basically what we're sating is the principal's primary responsibility is for ensuring academic achievement in that school, which means that the principal should be in classrooms. They should be working with students, they should be working with teachers on how do we improve our instruction to the extent that principals are spending their time on issues like facilities - is taking away from that, which is not going to further our goals.
ELLIOTT: Well, if nobody else is doing it though, they have no choice.
Ms. RHEE: Which is why we're going to put systems in place to ensure that those issues get taken care of quickly. I feel it's not a core confidency of school districts to think about facilities and maintenance. It's the core confidency of a school district to think about instruction.
ELLIOTT: There is an entranced bureaucracy that you're up against here and I'd like to quote now from a recent Washington Post editorial. It said, quote, "Superintendents who arrive with hope and energy depart, one after another, dispirited and defeated. Will Ms. Rhee also be chewed up and spat out by a dysfunctional system? She has never managed a school system."
Ms. RHEE: Again, I would say that what I have shown over the last 10 years is that what I can do is go into an entrenched system and I can break down the barriers and that you can see systemic change that impact kids in a real way through teacher quality.
ELLIOTT: How do you start to break down that system? How do you get through the bureaucracy?
Ms. RHEE: I think the first thing, honestly, is that we need to get everyone's focus in the same place and on the thing that's most important, which is on students. It is interesting to me the fact that as I've talked to administrators, as I've talked to central office staff, within the District, people have lost that focus. And rightfully so, I mean, I understand it. But they've become caught up in compliance and in systems and in processes and they're making decisions about the system rather than taking a step back and thinking what's going to be the best thing for our schools?
What I'm looking for and what I need in the system are adults who are saying despite all of those obstacles, it's our responsibility to ensure that the kids are successful. So we are going to find whatever way we can around those challenges to ensure that our kids succeed.
ELLIOTT: Michelle Rhee is the acting school chancellor for the District of Columbia. Thank you for talking with us.
Ms. RHEE: Thanks for having me.
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