“I said, ‘I am a change agent. And change doesn’t come without significant pushback and opposition.’” As Michelle Rhee recounts an early conversation with Adrian Fenty, the DC mayor who brought her in as a first-time citywide schools chancellor, she presents herself as she always does, a champion of innovation and children. She proposes that even as an elected official must concern himself with politics, with bureaucracies and institutions and expectations, she can and will take heat.
It’s a self-characterization that remains in place throughout Frontline‘s examination of Rhee’s tenure in DC. Airing this month on PBS and online, The Education of Michelle Rhee begins by explaining that the team followed her for some three years as she worked to reform DC’s broken public schools system. Granted what the show terms “extraordinary power” (“It’s not a democracy,” she tells correspondent John Merrow), she goes on to meet with every principal in the District (an unprecedented effort) and also to develop evaluation protocols, for students, teachers, and administrators. Initially, many viewers will remember, her seemingly tough standards were hailed as pioneering, but soon she’s faced with the “pushback” she anticipated.
Rhee’s “education” begins with great fanfare, and questions too. As Fenty introduces her and the “revolution” she means to implement, she admits she has no administrative experience, but cites her work as a teacher in Baltimore, at “one of the lowest performing elementary schools in that city.” She cites the problems that many teachers in urban areas cite: the kids go home to chaos: “Drug infestation, prostitution, kids staying up until 11, 12 o’clock at night, watching TV and eating cereal out of a box for dinner. That’s the life that my kids had, when I was a teacher.” Her classroom offered n alternative, she says, a space where her belief in her students was unwavering, where she pressed them to perform to high standards. One former student remembers that Rhee taught her long division in second grade; another recalls the “bee incident,” where she swatted a buzzing bee with her lesson plan and then ate it in front of her suddenly rapt audience.
Such theatrics served Rhee as she advanced, Frontline reports. Among her early efforts in DC was the exposure of basic administrative incompetence, bringing a TV crew with her as she toured a warehouse stacked high with cases of undistributed classroom materials. “By the time I got onto the second floor,” she recounts, “I thought I was going to throw up. It was glue and scissors and composition books, things that teachers not only are dying for but spend their own money on. And they’d been sitting there for years.” The footage is striking, certainly, evincing Rhee’s showmanship, her understanding of how media work.
That understanding is less visible when Rhee brings Frontline along during follow-up meetings with principals, some of whom she fires. That too provides striking footage, as her biographer Richard Whitmire observes, “Who would do that? Who would think that that was a good idea? To fire a principal on camera, even if you can’t see that principal’s face. And I think the answer is just kind of a zealot.” He goes on to suggest that her passion here has to do with what she says, that she’s “someone who so strongly believes that kids are getting cheated.”
Other interview subjects suggest her interests lie elsewhere, that she’s focused on her own career, and hat cheating takes another form. Rhee herself is unable to answer coherently when presented with questions concerning the cheating scandals that emerged during her tenure in DC. She “never did investigate possible cheating” on students’ test scores during her first year; she points her interviewer to other “markers” of what she meant to do, the attempts to fix the terrible numbers she confronted in 2007, that only “eight percent of the eighth graders were operating on grade level in mathematics” and teachers were told they were “doing an excellent job.”
When teachers and administrators begin to protest publicly over their firings (footage shows demonstrators on the street, announcing, “Michelle Rhee better watch her back because the way it’s looking, she’s going down”), stories about more problems with students’ test scores emerge. Rhee suggests these stories are functions of the pushback. When Merrow asks Rhee about the reported high “erasure rates” on tests (possible indications that staffers changed answers, supported here by anecdotal reporting of same), she has no good answer.
“Should those things be investigated? A hundred percent, no, there’s no doubt about it,” she says. “But I can point to, you know, dozens and dozens of schools where, you know, they saw very steady gains over the course of the years that we were there, or even saw some dramatic gains that were maintained. So I think, in isolated places, could something have happened? Maybe.”
It’s a difficult interview moment, and Frontline does nothing to resolve it. Instead, the show reports that the Inspector General was asked to resolve the question of cheating (re-reported by study by USA Today), an effort where results were also inconclusive. Today—after Fenty and Rhee’s exits in 2010, as well as that of George Parker, the teachers’ union leader who frequently opposed Rhee’s strategies—DC public schools’ performances remain among “the nation’s worst, and DC’s high school graduation rate is dead last.”
Asked about her effect in the District, Rhee sums up, “I don’t think our kids are broken. I think the system is broken.” What remains unclear is who constitutes “the system,” and more importantly, who will be responsible for it.