An educator and advocate for education reform, Michelle Rhee served as Public Schools Chancellor in Washington D.C. from 2007 to 2010. Following this period, she founded a non-profit organization called StudentsFirst that works for education reform. In addition to her involvement in the sphere of public policy, Rhee has been very visible with her advocacy work in the national media, having appeared on various television programs, radio shows, and documentary films.
Harvard Political Review: As Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system, you drew a lot of attention by firing hundreds of teachers who were deemed ineffective. Why fire these teachers instead of working with them to improve their teaching?
Michelle Rhee: It wasn’t just punitive measures that we put in place in D.C. We also recognized and rewarded teachers who were outstanding. One of the things that you’ll hear from highly effective teachers is that nobody’s really paying attention to them, nobody’s saying, “Wow, we want you to stay. What you’re doing matters.” While part of what we did was to ensure that ineffective teachers could not stay in the classroom, we also created an environment where highly effective teachers wanted to stay longer… I think it’s easy from a systemic perspective to say, “We should spend a lot of time investing in ineffective teachers and making them better.” From a systemic perspective, that’s fine. But when you’re thinking about things from the perspective of kids and families, it’s harder. It’s hard for me to say, “You know what, Ms. Smith? We know that your child has an ineffective teacher, but we’re going to spend a few years trying to see if we can them better. Meanwhile, your kid might not learn how to read, but this is the better thing for the adult.” That is a hard proposition when your responsibility is first and foremost to the kids.
HPR: Recently, we’ve seen examples of an overemphasis on standardized testing leading to negative outcomes like cheating and pushing low-performing students out of schools. Do you still think standardized tests are a valid evaluative tool?
MR: First of all, I think it’s important to note that nothing forces people to make the wrong decisions and cheat. That’s like saying if you live in poverty, you’re forced to break the law and rob a bank. There are certain morals that you have to uphold when you’re a professional. That said, is there oftentimes a dysfunctional environment where people feel like test scores are the end-all be-all, the only thing that matters? Yeah. And I don’t think that’s good for the culture, and I don’t think it’s good for the profession. So, what I think you need is a balance where people understand that we are going to measure student achievement levels, and those matter a lot, but they matter a lot because what we care about is the fact that kids are learning what they’re supposed to be learning. The test scores and standardized tests are a means to an end, they are not an end.
HPR: Can you talk about why you see the movement to opt out of standardized tests as problematic?
MR: Because I think the focus is on the wrong thing. The focus is that, “The tests are bad, and so let’s opt out of the tests.” And I think that what the tests do is give parents and schools an indication of how the students are performing, and that’s important to know. I think what parents and other community members should be focused on instead, and what’s negative, is not necessarily the tests, but the culture around how people are perceiving the tests and what their role is in the educational process. They are a tool through which we can understand where kids are and what their needs are.
HPR: As Chancellor of D.C.’s public schools, you also decided to close many schools, predominantly in black and low-income neighborhoods. Do you see the disproportionate effect of these school closures on black and low-income students as problematic?
MR: We had a situation in DC, and I think most districts that are closing schools have the same situation, where you are paying to heat, air condition, and staff buildings that are half full. So, when you are taking a certain amount of money, and spreading it over more schools, it’s actually not an efficient use of dollars. When you can take that same amount of money and spread it over fewer schools, but make sure that those schools can be full, then kids can have access to more resources. When you have a building that only has 100 kids in it, which we had a number of those in D.C., and with that only comes a certain amount of resources, you are doing a disservice to those same poor, minority kids. They are better off if you consolidate schools, put them in a school that can be staffed appropriately and resourced appropriately, so that they’re more likely to get the education that they deserve, through the resources that they need.”
HPR: But isn’t that a self-inflicted problem because of the explosion of charter schools in D.C.? It’s not that these schools don’t have enough students, it’s that students are leaving to go to charter schools.
MR: Students are leaving because the families are saying these schools are not serving our kids well. The answer can’t be, “How do we trap families in failing schools? How do we not give them any options so that they have no choice but to stay in this place that has been doing a disservice to the community and the kids for decades?” That’s never an answer.
This interview has been edited.
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