Q & A with Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools

On May 13 IFE’s INFO Breakfast series was hosted D.C. Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee for a second time. She returned to give a frank overview about the school system’s progress and problems. She delighted her audience with her openness during the Q-and-A period, including former Mayor Anthony Williams, who introduced her. Chancellor Rhee also made time to answer additional questions from IFE high school journalism interns Christina Valentine, Georgie Milanovic and Jenny Shore. The Q-and-A from the lively INFO Breakfast discussion follows.

What are the three biggest challenges facing the D.C. public school system?

The most important challenge is that the majority of our students are not reading, writing or doing math on grade level, when in fact our students are very smart and capable. It is going to take a lot of hard work from everyone to change this, because we have to do more than catch up. We want our students to be able to compete with students in the top schools in the country, and I know they can. We know they are absolutely capable of doing it if they get a solid education.

All the other challenges we face are the obstacles we have to remove in order to get there. This includes slogging through broken and disconnected data systems to fix them, and recruiting more excellent teachers when we can’t reward them yet for doing a good job. The new contract would be instrumental in changing this.

What role will charter schools play in the future of the D.C. educational system? Where will most of the political and financial support for charter schools come from?

Successful charter schools have been instrumental in improving the public school system. They are actually the reason I have a job! Enrollment has declined for the past 30 years in DCPS, and many said that unless city leaders did something about it very quickly, there would be no more DCPS, because all of the students would be in charter schools. So the D.C. Council and Mayor Fenty worked to change the way the school system was run. Instead of a school board making all the decisions (this meant a lot of people had to agree on almost every big change!), now the mayor is responsible for improving the system. It’s working, and enrollment has virtually steadied for the first time in decades.

Bad charter schools don’t help anyone, but great ones provide models for success. They also bring out the competitive spirit in the rest of us, which is so important, and it is leverage for the District to enact greater change.

Regarding support for charters, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are very supportive of charter schools, and much political and financial support is coming from their efforts.

In the future, what standards will you use to determine when to close inefficient schools in the DCPS?

So far we have been using enrollment, so that if there aren’t enough children at the school to provide all the resources that kids need, we would close a school (this is mostly because schools with less kids don’t get as much money from the government, so sometimes the students don’t have things like art or music teachers, which isn’t fair).

Moving forward, we’d like to add performance to that, so that if students aren’t learning as they should be, we would close the school. Usually this happens under the first criterion of enrollment, because if a school is not doing well, parents are more likely to choose a charter school, making enrollment go down and putting a school on the possible closure list. We’re working on a School Scorecard — which is like a report card for parents showing how well the school is doing on a number of measures — and until we have that, we wouldn’t expect to close schools based on performance alone.

How do you envision performance-based compensation working out in the long run? What are the main issues that still need to be resolved?

In the long term, we want performance-based compensation to reward the very hard work that happens in the school system, and to attract even more high performers to our schools. Performance pay seems to happen everywhere but in schools, but teachers deserve that kind of bonus as well. What still needs to be resolved is that the teachers would have to vote yes on the contract, which is up for a vote in the next few weeks! If that doesn’t happen, we can still use the performance-based TEAM awards, which rewards all the school staff at a school that does very well. However, those don’t allow a teacher who is in a school that is not doing well to get a bonus for doing a phenomenal job. I don’t think that’s fair to teachers, and we are hoping the contract goes through.

Of the $65 million raised for D.C. schools from foundations, $45 million is tied to you keeping your job. How did this situation evolve, and where do you think it will end up?

The funders actually have fewer conditions than most do when they give to school systems and other organizations. They believe in what we are doing, and want to make sure that their money isn’t wasted if leadership changes and someone comes in who didn’t believe in the same things we do. They just want to make sure that they are on the same page with what the system’s goals and intentions are, before they fork over millions of dollars. If it were my money I would want to do the same, so I think this is fairly standard and reasonable.

How will D.C. schools prepare students to be participants and leaders in the global issues facing our country?

Great question! The demands on our graduates are changing quickly as different industries innovate. Industries are coming up with jobs that have never even existed before, and we want our students to be able to compete for those jobs. When the economy struggles, people also have to be able to market themselves as individuals much more competitively than they have had to before. Working for the same company for 40 years just doesn’t happen for most people anymore.

We have a number of ways we’re reforming the system so that schools teach children the different skills they need now. Right now much of that work is coming from our Office of School Innovation, where we are introducing Catalyst Schools that specialize in different themes. Our Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) schools are especially valuable, as they are based on a unique model that keeps teachers’ professional development up to date with changing information in these ever-changing fields, while also teaching students team-building and leadership skills in a very focused way. Feel free to check out if you’d like more information on STEM and the Catalyst Project.

What advice did Mayor Fenty give you when you first accepted the chancellor’s position?

His mantra has always been to move “100 miles per hour” to make necessary improvements. But even more than advice, Mayor Fenty has given me tremendous support in implementing the changes the school system needs in order to become competitive. I would say his most significant impact on the school system has come from his absolute commitment to children, and to the belief that education is the most important part of the solution to a whole host of other challenges the city faces (reducing crime, eliminating generational poverty, etc.). This is so hard to do as a politician, when you feel pressure to go against your principles or avoid taking a strong stand on something because people may not like it at first, or it may affect your popularity polls. He has not buckled under this pressure one bit, and I actually think that his commitment to kids he doesn’t even know is more important to him than keeping his job! To me, that takes a lot of guts that I wish more politicians had.

How do you stay fit? What do you do to relax?

I run on the treadmill after my daughters go to bed.

If you were to recommend one book to a D.C. high school student, what would it be?

Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., by Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood.

Who has been your role model?

I have been fortunate to have a few strong role models. Personally, my parents are my role models. Professionally, Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York’s school system, has been a great mentor to me, and so has Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.

What is your favorite quote on education?

I believe in the idea that public schools can be the “great equalizer” in this country, where if you do the right thing and go to school, do the work assigned, etc., you will have the same shot at the most competitive careers out there as any other kid in this country. This idea has been around since Horace Mann founded public education over 150 years ago. But in this country, it’s not happening yet. It’s starting to, but students can tell that the neighborhood they live in still very much determines the quality of education that a child receives. This is just so old and unfair, and not what I think America is about at all. We have to change it.

What inspired you to name your daughter Starr?

It’s a family name on her dad’s side.

What is it like being engaged to a former NBA player? Some people have speculated that you may leave your job to overcome the distance — are you considering this?

We don’t talk about basketball very much, actually! Kevin [Johnson] is doing incredibly important things as the mayor of Sacramento, and I got to know him through our work in education. He has a lot to accomplish in Sacramento and I have a lot to do here, so we’re going to stick to the bi-coastal relationship. The distance is not going to stop me from staying in D.C.!

How is DCPS addressing Mrs. Obama’s concerns about fighting childhood obesity? Are changes being made in the cafeterias or PE classes?

We are definitely on the same page as Mrs. Obama. In addition to the health risk that obesity poses for students, poor eating and exercise habits also present a learning risk. They both affect behavior and performance in school — not to mention the ways that people are discriminated against in the work world if they are obese. We actually started to work on this back in 2007, when we found that high school students weren’t eating the food in the cafeteria and were going to McDonald’s or other fast food chains instead. When I tried the food, I couldn’t blame them! So we decided to change food vendors and had students taste-test the food and help us pick the vendor, and now students are starting to choose our food more often. We also have some terrific pilot programs going on to bring freshly cooked food into schools and to give students healthy breakfasts — students who don’t eat breakfast are actually more likely to be overweight. Some of these initiatives have been covered in The Washington Post recently if you’d like more details.

About the author

Coach Kathy Kemper, known as “Coach” to many, is Founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a non-profit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership, civility, and finding common ground, locally, nationally, and in the world community.

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