'Fast reform was our moral imperative'

29th June 2012 at 01:00
US school chief who fired 1,000 teachers defends her philosophy

Walking around the Durand Academy in South London wearing her backpack, Michelle Rhee looks more like a foreign exchange student than the educational reformist who has divided the US with her actions.

The diminutive former chancellor of Washington DC's public schools became a national figure on the other side of the Atlantic for the radical changes she introduced, not least taking on the teaching unions to abolish "tenure", which protects teachers from being sacked without just cause.

In the first year of her almost three-year term, Ms Rhee closed 23 schools and fired 36 principals. It was just the beginning: she went on to dismiss about 1,000 teachers and two-thirds of her 148 heads, even firing a school leader in front of a television crew.

She became the darling of pro-reformists in the US, receiving the backing of both the Republicans and the Obama administration, and appearing in Hollywood documentary Waiting for Superman and as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Ms Rhee's approach and ideas have earned her a number of admirers on these shores, too. She has a particular fan in education secretary Michael Gove, who is keen to replicate some of her changes and whose office invited her to Britain this week to give a number of talks. Like Mr Gove, Ms Rhee believes that the nature and speed of her reform programme was wholly necessary.

"When I spoke to people and they said, 'You need to slow down', I noticed they did not have children," she tells TES. "If you are running a school district where just 8 per cent of the eighth graders (Year 9) are on grade level in mathematics, it is hard to imagine moving fast enough to try to fix that system. And in my mind, being as fast as possible was our moral imperative."

This "moral imperative" has given Ms Rhee the near-religious zeal to go about her business. And it chimes closely with Mr Gove, who has made no apology for the often breakneck speed of his own reform agenda, regularly pointing to the thousands of children who are being "failed" by England's school system.

Such is Ms Rhee's belief that children need to be placed front and centre in the education debate that she has established a charity, StudentsFirst. The organisation attempts to put young people's interests in policy formation ahead of the textbook manufacturers, exam bodies and teaching unions that she believes have greater resources and vested interests in education.

"We are not against anything except the status quo, and what we are for is kids," she says. "There is not a problem with national interest groups, but there hasn't been a national interest group for kids; there hasn't been that balance.

"We want to bring influence to the table that will support courageous politicians who are willing to put kids first."

Ms Rhee says that when it comes to implementing reforms, the UK has a head start owing to its centralised system, which allows it to make changes more quickly than in the US. But interestingly, she does not agree with one of Mr Gove's central beliefs about a more market-driven school system.

"I am a big believer in choice, but not choice for choice's sake," she says. "I am not a free marketeer. I do not believe the market will correct itself. I believe in a choice dynamic that has a very, very strong regulatory component to it."

However, any doubts that she may not be such a staunch believer in reform must be dismissed by her advocacy of ranking teachers in league tables, as introduced in Los Angeles two years ago and this year in New York, with the results published in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

"What I say to teachers is that if you are willing to grade kids then how can you say 'I don't want to be evaluated and (for it) to be public knowledge'?

"It shouldn't be newspapers that produce league tables, but for the community to be able to know who the most effective teachers are, I think that is a fair thing. You're paying taxpayer dollars, you're sending your kid to that school. Should you have the ability to see (who are the better teachers)? Yes, absolutely."

There have been rumours that Ms Rhee was being lined up by Mr Gove for a top job within the Department for Education, or even at the helm of Ofsted before that role went to Sir Michael Wilshaw - something she denies, despite being attracted to a more simplified and effective education system.

And asked whether she is concerned that her reputation for being a hard-nosed, even tenacious force for reform might precede her or work against her, she is philosophical. "I am about doing things that are in the best interest for kids," Ms Rhee says. "If people see me as being uncompromising and aggressive to that end, that is not the worst thing in the world."


1969: Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, US

1988: Graduated from the private Maumee Valley Country Day School

1992: Graduated from Cornell University before gaining a master's degree in public policy at Harvard University

1993: Started her first Teach for America job at Harlem Park Community School in Baltimore, Maryland

1997: Founded the New Teacher Project to bring more excellent teachers into schools

2007: Appointed chancellor of Washington DC's public schools

2010: Founded and became chief executive of StudentsFirst.

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