After Michelle Rhee unexpectedly stepped down as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools in October, we wrote in an editorial that we were anticipating where she would pop up next. A woman like Rhee is not the type to fade away.
Sure enough, on Monday morning, Rhee appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and announced that, rather than going to another district, she would be spearheading a new nonprofit organization called Students First. Students First would push her education reform priorities. Rhee promised that she would not shy away from conflict in order to improve education for children.
When Rhee took on her D.C. post, she was a controversial and divisive figure who had the tough task of improving one of the worst school systems in the country. She angered many teachers and parents by closing more than 20 schools and firing or laying off hundreds of teachers that were deemed low-performing.
She presented an alternative to tenure, i.e., giving teachers the potential to earn higher salaries based on performance. In the end, she improved test scores and stopped the decline in school enrollment, but perhaps at too great a cost. On Sept. 14, the man who appointed Rhee, Adrian Fenty, lost his re-election bid for mayor, something that is widely attributed to Rhee’s unpopularity.
In this week’s Newsweek cover story, which Rhee wrote, she stands by her sweeping changes, stating that she moved fast because she believes that children come first. “Waiting meant that another year was going by when kids were not getting the education they deserved,” Rhee wrote.
Rhee is a woman who thinks big. Ambitiously, Rhee said she will raise $1 billion and gain 1 million members for Students First in the first year. The money will partly be used to endorse and put pressure on elected officials to make changes in legislation.
“Students First will work so that great teachers can make a tremendous difference for students of every background,” she wrote. “We believe every family can choose an excellent school — attending a great school should be a matter of fact, not luck. We’ll fight against ineffective instructional programs and bureaucracy so that public dollars go where they make the biggest difference — to effective instructional programs. Parent and family involvement is key to increased student achievement, but the entire community must be engaged in the effort to improve our schools.”
We are excited to see where Rhee takes Students First. One of the things we like most about her is that she backs up her immense passion for educating children with guts and efficiency. She isn’t afraid to move at a fast speed and she doesn’t cater to adults when they are obstacles.
It’s interesting to see Rhee move on the national level instead of going to another school district. This has the potential of boosting the United States up to where it should be, education-wise. According to Rhee, the United States is currently 21st, 23rd, and 25th among 30 developed nations in science, reading, and math, respectively — which is frankly shocking.
It’s clear that we need education reform, and we need it fast. We need to embrace Rhee’s message and methods. ♦
Visit Students First at www.studentsfirst.org.