5 questions with StudentsFirst's Michelle Rhee on education reform

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The name Michelle Rhee most likely rings a bell because of all the hard work she put towards reforming the Washington, DC public schools as Chancellor from 2007 to 2010. During that time period, she hosted hundreds of community meetings, even creating a Youth Cabinet to bring students' voices into DC Public Schools reform.

But beyond that, Michelle Rhee has been working for the last 18 years to give children the skills and knowledge they will need to compete in a changing world. Each chapter of Michelle's story has convinced her that students of every background and ZIP code can achieve at high levels and that for our schools to become what children deserve. "Even in the toughest of circumstances, all teachers are called to turn the incredible potential that fills their classrooms daily into the achievements worthy of our children and country."

She says she has always been guided by one core principle: put students first. So, it's no surprise in late 2010 she founded StudentsFirst, a national intitiative to defend the interest of children in public education.

Continue reading as we dive deeper into StudentsFirst and Michelle's point of view on education reform.

1. What is StudentsFirst's mission overall, and what are you specifically trying to accomplish in 2012?

We have more than one million members nationally, and they are advocating for policies that are in the best interests of children. In the coming year, we will be working in about a dozen states to pass common-sense laws aimed at transforming U.S. schools so they work better for all children. A great education is a basic civil right, but sadly it’s being denied to many kids, especially those in poverty and minorities. We’ll be advocating for policies that boost teacher quality and ensure families have transparent information about their schools and more educational choices.

2. If you had to pinpoint the source of the problem for public education in the US, what do you believe it to be?

Too often, the decisions made and policies enacted in our education system are there to serve adult interests, not kids’ needs. That’s detrimental to student achievement. It’s evident, for example, in how educators are evaluated, retained, and rewarded. There is no in-school factor that’s as critical to student learning as teacher quality. A new study by Harvard and Columbia economists found effective teachers have far more widely reaching and long-lasting effects on their students’ lives than previously recognized. Knowing that, we have to reward and recognize great teachers for the critical work they do and ensure that effective teachers are leading all of our classrooms.

3. Many say significant change isn’t possible within the public school system without completely starting over. What are your thoughts on this?

Where things are working in our schools, we should continue with these approaches. An example would be the move toward greater accountability and better collection of data detailing how our students and educators are doing. But, sadly, much of what is happening in our schools isn’t working for kids and should be replaced with new policies. This is often reflected in how schools are staffed, how teachers are evaluated and rewarded and how information is shared with families. In some districts, schools have failed to serve children well for a long time. These are the places most in need of radical change. If we fail to act, another generation of kids will lose out on what ought to be their basic civil right--a great education.

4. Where would you begin with education reform?

We have to adopt student-centered reforms at the federal, state, and local levels. One area of concern, for example, is the way teachers are evaluated. We know the work of a teacher is vital, but our current policies typically don’t reflect that. Most teachers are evaluated infrequently in a flimsy way that doesn’t even account for student learning. We should instead require regular evaluations that are based on multiple measures of success, including classroom observations and the academic progress of students. We also have to reward and retain our most effective educators. Now we do the opposite, offering teachers few chances to advance professionally and paying them in lockstep, based on factors not linked to student success. Similarly, when budget shortfalls lead to teacher layoffs, seniority rather than job performance typically determines who stays and who goes. Research by the Urban Institute shows that leads to the loss of some of our schools’ best educators.

5. When we talk about “the open source way,” we are talking about openness, transparency, collaboration, diversity, and rapid prototyping. Which of these characteristics do you believe are most important in education reform?

Transparency is essential. While our schools do a good job collecting data on student achievement, they rarely make that widely available to the community in an accessible way. Moms and dads should be given useful and clear information about their kids’ schools and should be empowered to bring about changes when those schools aren’t serving kids well. For example, some states have enacted laws allowing parents to come together to insist on key reforms at chronically failing schools. These may include overhauling the school leadership or turning the school into a public charter school, which tend to operate with more flexibility than traditional schools and therefore often serve as models of innovation. Many successful charter networks do a great job serving high-needs populations, and we should allow such models to expand. Too often, laws and policies stand in the way of that. Of course, we must have accountability in all our schools. Any school, whether it’s a traditional district school or a public charter, must demonstrate that it is helping all kids learn at high levels.

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Mary Ann Bitter is a Creative Strategist for Red Hat's Marketing Communications & Design team. She lives at the intersection of business and design and believes the open source values have never been more relevant than they are today.  She is passionate about problem solving and working with people who give a damn.


Does the educational historian Diane Ravitch have it wrong, or wasn't it discovered that the test scores Michelle Rhee claimed to have achieved were inaccurate? I thought both Rhee and her methods had been thoroughly discredited, so I'm surprised to see her quoted here.

No doubt, Ms. Rhee's methods are suspicious at best. Note this article about her 'practices' here:
I too question her being championed on Opensource.

Ms. Rhee's methods have been proven scientifically. The major opponents have been the unions that have a vested interest in the status quo.

In addition to the changes she suggests we need open source text books. The cost of text books is not warranted in elementary school. Math is math and does not change that often.

It is ludicrous to expect children to all take the same amount of time to learn the same things. Some children need more time in school and we should give them the extra help that they need. Finland got their overall high scores by tutoring the bottom third in student achievement.

Proven how? From her days at TFA Baltimore until now, she has;
- lied on her resume.
- padded her percentile score improvements which were proven to be out and out fabrications.
- fired a principal at one of her schools on camera, publically humiliating the individual.
- fired over 600 teachers without an even an interview.
- hired unprepared teachers to replace veterans.
I am willing to give a little and understand that people can change but this is an individual with a suspect character.
I would of course love to see some data proving her methods.
I am a firm believer that open source in education works, just not with Ms. Rhee at the helm.

So much focus on the teachers, not enough on the kids. It's nice to think that every child has the same capacity for learning as the next, but I don't think that's any truer than thinking every child could be a Renior or Picasso. Idealistic, yes. Realistic, no.

There is also no focus on the family. A recent Colorado study highlights the importance of parents in the development of literacy skills in young children.

How can you effectively evaluate a teacher's performance based on the academic achievement of their students when:
1. Every student has a different capacity for learning.
2. Every student has different influences outside of school.
3. They get a new batch of students every year.

To use a sports analogy, this would be like saying the coach of the last place team is worse than the coach of the first place team. However, the first place team has a history of winning and easily recruits the best players, whereas the last place team has a history of losing and has difficulty recruiting any players. If the losing team does manage to find a diamond in the rough, that player usually leaves as soon as their contract expires (same for the coach if he/she manages a winning season). Success breeds success. The same is true for schools, the best schools/districts attract the best academic talent.

If I were a teacher, I'd no sooner go to work at a failing school than I'd go to work for a company on the verge of bankruptcy. By labelling a school as failing, you are effectively driving the best teachers out of the school. It's foolish to think you'll be able to recruit the best after that, they have better offers.

It will be interesting to see what happens in KC, now that students are free to go to other districts. Will achievement in those districts decline? Will there be a new migration to the exurbs?

Society has a problem. Some children are failing to learn as much as they should.

When something is not working properly society should search for a solution. No component of the failing process should be exempt from scientific scrutiny. When people involved in the failing process just blame all of the problems on others then their assertions should be considered but not blindly accepted.

When a teacher tries to put all of the blame on parents it is not helpful without a suggested solution. Society is composed of many unsatisfactory parents and some unsatisfactory teachers and administrators also. The real question is what can be done to solve the problem when one component of the traditional and failing process clearly fails. The other components must take up the slack. It is not fair to abandon the child and treat the child's failure as a problem that can not be solved.

If the problem is a bad teacher fire the teacher. If the parents are on drugs and neglecting the child then the child would be better off with foster parents. If the child is homeless -- provide a home. Society should not allow this problem to go unsolved. Society should do whatever it takes to insure that all children with a normal mind receive a normal education. For children with profound disabilities society must just do the best it can given the child's impairment.

Many children are just not motivated. Since early Greek times corporal punishment was the normal solution. Society has banned most of those excesses, but substitutes must be scientifically identified.

Perhaps a longer school day is one solution. Perhaps a longer school year. Perhaps smaller class sizes. Perhaps more physical exercised during the day. Perhaps some teachers have rare skills in dealing with difficult children and others have exceptional skills with only the brightest. Only by scientific evaluation of all of the options can this matter reach intelligent optimal solutions. The solutions will not be the same for every child. Whatever it takes, solutions should be found. No one involved with a process that fails a third of all children should be exempt from scrutiny and be allowed to just point fingers and pass the blame to others. If that is their approach they should be encouraged to seek a different profession.

My personal belief is that any failing child should get more help in the form of longer school days and more school days. If they only have a motivation problem the extra time might motivate them to try harder. If they just take longer to learn then more time would solve that problem also.

This woman is totally self-serving and clueless. I heard her speak on MSNBC this morning. She said students needs MUST come before any adult needs. Ok Michelle, when the oxegen masks come down on the airplane, put yours on a child, I'm sure they will know how to take care of you. Please stop using our educational system for your personal gain.

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