Fixing Washington D.C.’s School System

No one is attacking Washington, D.C.’s stagnant culture more boldly than Michelle Rhee, head of the city’s failing schools. Is there a lesson here for our nation’s leaders?

Fixing Washington D.C.’s School System
Aiming High: At Scott Montgomery Elementary, all the kids are black and 95% qualify for free lunch. “We have a system that does wrong by poor kids of color,” Rhee says. “If we're going to live up to our promise as a country, that has got to stop.” | photo by Alessandra Petlin Aiming High: At Scott Montgomery Elementary, all the kids are black and 95% qualify for free lunch. "We have a system that does wrong by poor kids of color," Rhee says. "If we're going to live up to our promise as a country, that has got to stop." | photo by Alessandra Petlin

Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, D.C., is one of the worst schools in one of the worst school districts in America.


“The mentality of excellence? We wish we could have that,” said principal Harriett Kargbo, as we toured the school one morning in May. “But this,” she said, pointing at the metal detector guarding the entrance, “is the reality.”

This, too: Dozens of kids wandering the halls during second period. Corridors littered with fliers, candy wrappers, potato-chip bags. One second-floor foyer reeking of marijuana. (“I smell pot smoke,” I said. “Really? I don’t,” Kargbo replied.) In the five-year history of No Child Left Behind, the school has never met the law’s benchmarks; in 2007, just 24% of its sophomores tested “proficient” in reading and only 20% made the grade in math.

As we walked from one teaching area to another — Dunbar is one of D.C.’s last open-plan schools, with dividers and old filing cabinets separating the “class- rooms” — it became clear why the students weren’t learning. Of the dozen classes we visited, only in one history session were all of the students doing something approximating work. “Why isn’t anyone teaching?” I asked Kargbo as I watched one student do a meticulous inventory of the contents of her wallet. “It’s the end of the period,” she said. Half an hour later, second period ended.


That afternoon, Kargbo was fired.

The woman who orchestrated the “contract nonrenewals” of Harriett Kargbo and 30 other principals that day was Michelle Rhee, the 38-year-old chancellor of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). When she was appointed by Mayor Adrian Fenty just over a year ago, Rhee had never led a school, let alone a school system with 10,000 employees and a budget of nearly $1 billion. Since then, she has shuttered 23 schools, canned 15% of the central-office staff, fired 250 teachers who failed to get NCLB-required certification, and bought out more than 200 others. As the new school year gets under way, she is pushing a revolutionary contract that may simultaneously kill the entrenched seniority hiring system and make Washington’s teachers the highest paid in America.

Rhee seems an unlikely crusader. She’s a Korean-American doctor’s daughter who went to an elite private academy in the burbs of Toledo, Ohio, yet she now has in her care a student population that is 83% black, with 80% poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Everything she does provokes shrieks of protest — from teachers, parents, and local politicians. But if she has any doubt about the tumultuous course she’s taking, she doesn’t show it. A few weeks after Kargbo was fired — on the kind of warm spring day when the hands of classroom clocks seem barely to move — I accompany the chancellor to Scott Montgomery Elementary (100% black, 95% free-lunch eligible). She’s there to read Miss Nelson Is Missing to third graders; it’s a classic about kids who don’t know how great their teacher is until she’s replaced by the witchy substitute Viola Swamp. To get her audience into listening mode, Rhee tells one of her favorite stories, about the ornery third-grade class she taught at an inner-city school in Baltimore in the early 1990s. One day, a bee buzzed into the classroom, and her kids freaked out. “I killed the bee,” Rhee says to the kids. (“Whoa!”) “Then I popped it into my mouth and I ate it.” (“Eeewww!!”) “From that day on, they were a little better because they thought I was just a little bit crazy.” (“Ohhhh!!!”)


Hiring a maverick is always risky, whether for a corporation or a government agency. But perhaps only an outsider — and someone who may be just a little bit crazy — could set in motion the fundamental change needed to transform a creaking bureaucracy. “This is a high-octane, political place,” says U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. “There are expectations — and an instant-gratification principle at work. Michelle is a person who will not blink first.”

Although the latest test scores show significant improvement over 2007 results, Rhee says it will take at least three years to begin to see sustainable academic progress in D.C. Whether she succeeds or fails in a town where everyone talks about change but few seem committed to making it happen, the implications will extend far beyond the district.

“We have a system that does wrong by poor kids of color,” says Rhee, who first encountered what she calls the “stark reality” of urban public education during her senior year of high school, when she volunteered as a teacher’s aide in an all-black, inner-city fourth-grade classroom in Toledo. “If we’re going to live up to our promise as a country — supposedly the greatest country — that has got to stop.”


She knows that this is, to borrow a word from her lexicon, a “ginormous” challenge. According to Margaret Raymond, director of Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, “D.C. is the Superfund site” of public schooling. Tim Quinn, managing director of the nonprofit Broad Superintendents Academy, calls it “the most challenging turnaround in America. This is a business involving our most emotionally loaded, important asset: our children. Imagine trying to fix Enron — but worse.”

“This is a business involving our most emotionally loaded, important asset: our children,” says one educator. “Imagine trying to fix Enron — but worse.”

Early in the summer of 2007, when Rhee was considering the D.C. position, she called her friend Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star who founded St. Hope, a charter-school operator in Sacramento, California. (In November, Johnson will be in a runoff election for mayor of Sacramento.) He told Rhee that if she took the job, she would need to reach out to Washington’s black churches. So every free weekend since her appointment, Rhee has gone to church, not because she believes — when I ask if she’d grown up religious, she shoots back, “Oh, God, no!” — but because she wants the people to believe in her.

One recent luminous walk-in-the-park Sunday, Rhee sits in the second row at the New Beginning Way of the Cross church in Anacostia. The little building is packed, a Crayola box of Sunday best, all magenta and cornflower blue and spring green, from the feathered tops of the ladies’ hats down to their matching shoes. Behind pastor Bennett Gamble is a banner that proclaims STANDING ON THE PROMISES … EMBARKING ON A NEW JOURNEY, and quotes from the Book of 1 Samuel: “Now therefore stand and see this great thing which the Lord will do before your eyes.”


“I can’t wait to see what God’s going to do,” Pastor Gamble declares. “He’s got great things in store.” As the congregation shouts their hallelujahs, Rhee, a wisp of a woman in a black-and-white polka-dot wrap dress and peep-toe patent-leather black heels, sits almost motionless. Hands clasped under her chin, she nods her head slowly and firmly, as if trying to will the pastor’s words into coming true.

It takes faith to believe that Rhee will be able to resurrect the D.C. schools. This is a system where, in a high-school world-history class, the students may get a worksheet that asks just two questions: “What is your favorite place to shop?” and “Why do you like to shop there?” Education Week, in its annual grading of the 50 states and D.C., ranked the district last, giving it D-plus overall and F for K — 12 student achievement and college readiness. In the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, D.C. also tested behind all 50 states, with only 8% of eighth graders proficient in math and 12% in reading. Just 43% of Washington students graduate from high school within five years, according to a 2006 study commissioned by city officials (the national average is 68%).

Yet D.C. spends nearly $17,000 per pupil per year, more than any other urban district except Boston. “It’s not for lack of resources that our schools have failed,” says council member David Catania. “We need a product commensurate to our investment. We ought to be producing fully rounded young people ready for the country’s top universities. We’re not.”


This is not news. Public education has been dismal in D.C. for decades. Thirty years ago, the average high-school freshman here tested at the level typical of a sixth grader elsewhere in the United States, with a significant achievement gap between students in higher- and lower-income areas. Each of the seven superintendents that D.C. has had in the past dozen years talked about shrinking that gap and fixing the system. None did it.

“An unfortunate reality about large urban districts,” says Kent McGuire, dean of Temple University’s education school, “is that they’re set up to satisfy the adults who work in them, not the kids they’re supposed to serve. Kids don’t vote.”

“An unfortunate reality about large urban districts is that they’re set up to satisfy the adults who work in them, not the kids,” says Temple dean Kent McGuire. “Kids don’t vote.”

In June 2007, Mayor Fenty gained oversight of the D.C. school system. This ended a setup in which the district had one CEO (the superintendent) and four “chair-men” — the mayor, the city council, the school board, and the U.S. Congress — who all had to approve every major decision. Fenty wanted a leader for DCPS who would instill accountability, and for advice, he turned to Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City schools. Klein’s counsel: Hire Michelle Rhee.


Klein had been wowed by Rhee’s work with the New Teacher Project, an offshoot of Teach for America that she built into a stand-alone nonprofit with a reputation for important education research. In 2005, Rhee and her team analyzed teacher hiring in New York. Their conclusion: Filling jobs based on seniority rather than merit led inevitably to a mixture of unqualified and underqualified teachers. Klein was impressed by Rhee’s ability to zero in on what matters most. “How come Google is such a great thing? Larry and Sergey got that search would be the perfect platform,” he says. “Well, Michelle got the platform right here.”

But understanding a platform and implementing it in the messy political reality of D.C. are vastly different things.

Apart from the two security checkpoints and the unfortunate mauve carpet, the office that Rhee shares with three aides has the feel of a Silicon Valley startup. It’s called the Cowpen — a play on Fenty’s Bloomberg-style bull pen — and from the moment Rhee strides in each morning, usually with a phone pressed to her ear and her open laptop held high to get the best Wi-Fi connection, the chatter is pretty much nonstop. Staffers wander in to discuss this principal or that school; Rhee yells for her chief of staff; her press secretary fends off a Washington Post reporter; Rhee asks nobody in particular, “Can we get some microwave popcorn?” On an easel in the corner, in Rhee’s teacherly handwriting, is a reminder of their mission: ENSURING THAT ADULT ISSUES NEVER COME BEFORE THE BEST INTERESTS OF CHILDREN.


The go-go-go energy and informal vibe are new to the central office, where reform efforts have traditionally gone to die. Ximena Hartsock, a former D.C. principal who is now in charge of bilingual and special education, recalls her shock when she arrived with the rest of Rhee’s crew: “Every day, we learned something new about the unbelievable lack of efficiency.” They found 4.6 million documents that had been left unfiled for up to 20 years. And they learned that, although there was a central payroll staff, some departments also had their own payroll people.

This kind of thing pushes a button in Rhee that makes her blurt — often — “That’s crazy!” It seems crazy to her that she had to lobby the city council for six months for the right to fire nonunion employees. Reducing staff, she argued, would improve efficiency, save about $6 million a year, and help boost accountability. “People often think this business is just about changing schools one by one,” says Warren Simmons, director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, “but a bad central office undermines schools.”

Ultimately, she eliminated 118 jobs — about 15% of the central-office staff — a decision that’s still drawing criticism six months later. Council member Phil Mendelson, who has opposed nearly everything Rhee has proposed, calls it a “terrible management move.” Philadelphia Schools CEO Arlene Ackerman, who ran D.C.’s system from 1998 to 2000, says her own biggest mistake there was firing 48 human-resources staffers just six months into her tenure. “I mistook bad processes for bad people,” she says, adding that she wishes Rhee “spent more time being respectful of the people who do the work.”


Rhee insists that such lamentation is misplaced: “Children are losing their lives because we’re not educating them well. But we’re concerned about those adults? I’m not firing people because I’m mean or heartless or don’t care about people. I’m just not willing to forsake the future of thousands of kids for the comfort of a few adults.”

Rhee says she’s not willing to forsake kids’ futures for adults’ comfort: “I’m not firing people because I’m mean.”

Such bluntness is trademark Rhee. Sometimes it’s funny. When I ask her why she had no idea what Facebook is, she shrugs and says, “I’m old.” Other times, it seems more an expression of exasperation. After the principal at Oyster Elementary, her daughters’ school, was fired in May, Rhee’s younger daughter, Olivia, asked, “She wasn’t that horrible, was she?” Some parents had the sametakeasher6-year->old, Rhee recalls: “They said, ‘Ms. Guzman can’t be one of the worst in the district.’ Is that the bar now?” She sounds incredulous. “I told them that I do not make personnel decisions by consensus or committee — no CEO does. But if they think that I’m going to make a decision for my daughters’ school that is not in the best interests of all the children, then they’re crazy.”

Rhee, only the second DCPS chief in decades to have school-age kids, loves to tell stories about her daughters, who are her personal focus group. One wintry day, 9-year-old Star came home and told her mom that the other kids were making fun of her because school hadn’t been canceled in D.C. as it was in the suburbs. They accused Star’s mom of putting them in danger. “What’s your answer to that?” Star demanded. Rhee explained that every snow day is a day when many poor kids won’t get breakfast and maybe lunch. Star replied, “Good answer!” A few days later, Star reported that kids were bombarding her with rumors that her mom was going to lengthen the school year. “I’ll back you on the snow-day thing,” Star said, “but I am not backing you on this one.” (Note to Star’s classmates: Rhee has no immediate plans to add days to the school year.)


“This is going to make me sound like a loser,” Rhee says over lunch one day. (Despite her slight build, she eats heroically: It was a buffet, and she went back twice.) “If I had my druthers, what I’d really like to do on Saturdays is stay in bed and work.” She’d write emails and read white papers on education — for fun. Her father, Shang, takes some responsibility for her workaholism. “I told my kids, we are in the minority, so you have to do more to compensate,” he says. “In Michelle’s case, it’s probably overcompensation.”

Rhee is data-obsessed. Every aspect of her plan for the D.C. schools is rooted in data, from overhauling and streamlining DCPS’s 27 uncoordinated information-management systems to creating a culture of accountability for student performance (read: test scores and, for special-needs students, individualized education plans). Each time she interviews job candidates, she asks for quantitative and qualitative evidence that they can deliver results. “To work here, you’ve got to be a bottom-line person,” Rhee tells me. “How do I know you’re successful? You say, ‘We raised productivity from this to this.’ “

Rhee’s passion for data explains why she’s a fierce backer of the Bush administration’s controversial No Child Left Behind legislation. Although she’s a Democrat, she declares herself “terrified” that, if elected president, Barack Obama would seek NCLB’s end. “He has taken on this ‘NCLB is evil, sucking the life out of teachers’ angle,” she says. “I have a laundry list of things I’d change,” but the law has been essential “because it brings accountability to a system that sorely needs it.”


Business leaders see in Rhee’s talk of data and accountability evidence of a philosophical comrade and have responded generously to her call for stronger partnerships. Last November, Accenture provided a team of 10 employees for six weeks to do transcript reviews for all DCPS seniors; Rhee asked for help after discovering the system’s record-keeping was so poor that the schools had no idea which students would need extra help to graduate. The CityBridge Foundation, the philanthropy of Atlantic Media’s David Bradley and his wife, Katherine, has designated $1 million and a full-time staff of three to DCPS for Rhee’s use. “She’s keenly aware of the steps she needs to take to fix this crisis situation,” says Stacey Stewart, senior vice president at Fannie Mae, which early on gave $1 million to DCPS so that Rhee could hire forensic auditors to get a handle on the district’s chaotic balance sheet.

But Rhee bristles when I assert that businesspeople love her because she speaks the language of business. “I know what ROI is, but I don’t know business. That’s not where I live,” she says. “Language of business — that’s so stupid. When you talk about kids’ lives, you need results.”

Rhee insists that the “vast majority” of parents back her reforms. But you wouldn’t necessarily conclude that, given the opposition she has faced. Many parents don’t seem to have much faith that her innovations will have a positive outcome. In the D.C. school system, “change has always gone badly,” explains Mary Levy, a longtime education activist who wishes Rhee would be clearer about what she’s planning. “It’s unfortunate because people use their imaginations — and imaginations tend to run to the negative.”


Especially if you’ve said you’ll close schools. D.C. has lost more than 20% of its public-school students since 2000. Charter schools are now educating 14,000 children, and 80% of the public schools are underenrolled. This excess capacity costs the district an estimated $14 million a year. “Economically, it makes no sense to have a school built for 500 kids with 100 kids in it, but emotionally, it’s tough [to shut a school down],” says Rikki Hunt Taylor, a DCPS alumna tapped by Rhee to be the new principal at Takoma Educational Center, a K — 8 school near Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “Remember, this is a small town — everyone knows someone who’s affected. Frankly, [Rhee] had a lot of proponents of change until people started losing their jobs.”

The rumor mill — which Rhee has called “my worst enemy” — worked overtime late last year as the proposed list of school closures was being prepared. People whispered that she wanted to destroy the public schools to help charters or that she intended to sell the land to developers. Then she bungled the release of the preliminary list. Nearly everyone, including most of the city council, learned about the proposed closings in The Washington Post. “That caused a whole lot more backlash from the council and the community than she had to have,” says council member Tommy Wells. “The closings had to be done, and I have no sympathy for those who are trying to slow things down. But I have to be able to answer my constituents. I can’t say to them, ‘I have no idea.’ It’s not a matter of respect — it’s realizing that council members do have a role.”

Rhee refuses to play the traditional, subservient role of a D.C. agency chief with the city council, which, despite its limited authority over DCPS, has repeatedly questioned her decision making and management. Sometimes, late at night, she says, she’ll turn on the TV, watch a council hearing, and see her own version of a horror movie: “There’s this crazy dynamic where every agency head is kowtowing. They sit there and get beat down. I’m not going to sit on public TV and take a beating I don’t deserve. I don’t take that crap.”

In other ways, however, she’s playing a more conventional political game. She freely and frequently acknowledges that she can do her job only with Mayor Fenty’s support. She’s out in the community shaking hands, giving speeches, attending community meetings, even throwing out the first pitch at a Nationals game. She also does some strategic micromanagement. “In the long term, if the AC is broken in a school, that shouldn’t be my problem,” she says. “In the short term, it’s important that people feel that they have access. If they email me, I will respond personally to every single email, so they know I will get that AC fixed. I’ve got to make people feel like there’s some sort of change happening.”

Rhee has shown she’s willing to be persuaded — if the data are there. When Bruce-Monroe Elementary, a majority-Hispanic school, found itself on the closure list, parents and teachers quickly mobilized. They wrote letters. They called the papers. They protested in the streets. They collected signatures for a petition. Most important, they marshaled evidence to present to Rhee: The school had made adequate yearly progress under NCLB and was not underenrolled. When the final closings list was released in February — this time, council members were notified ahead of time — Bruce-Monroe wasn’t on it.

The district’s contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) expired last October, putting Rhee in the position of having to negotiate a new one a few months into her job. Education policy makers around the country have been watching closely to see what she would ask for — and what she would get. “This is an industry in transformation,” says Andrew J. Rotherham, codirector of the think tank Education Sector. “This is really no different from other quasi- monopolistic industries in the process of being deregulated — and Michelle Rhee’s loyalties really lie with the consumers.”

Rhee has long argued that principals need more autonomy to hire and fire, and if the union and the city council ratify this contract, they will get it. The seniority system for filling jobs will be replaced with the “mutual consent” procedure used in most industries: Teachers apply for jobs they want, and bosses make their picks, ending what some D.C. parents call the “dance of the lemons,” in which bad teachers bounce from school to school. Teachers will be subject to yearly performance reviews. And those who lose their jobs and can’t find new ones will be classified as substitutes for a year, after which, if they aren’t hired, for permanent positions, they’re out.

No other major district has launched such an effective attack against the seniority system. (New York has mutual consent but no mechanism for removing unwanted teachers — it pays them a total of $40 million a year to sit in so-called rubber rooms, where they knit, read, and collect their checks.) Most districts haven’t even tried. When the D.C. negotiators told counterparts in other cities about the contract terms, Rhee says, “They were like, ‘Holy crap! How on God’s green earth did you get any kind of sign-off on that?’ ” She plays the ingenue card: “We didn’t know any better. We’d never negotiated a union contract before. We just asked.”

She also offered a big carrot: D.C. public-school teachers could become America’s highest paid. According to a source with knowledge of the negotiations, starting salaries, now $42,000, will rise to $55,000. (The national average is around $34,000.) A fifth-year teacher with a master’s, now paid $52,000, could earn $99,000. Teachers whose students show strong year-over-year gains are eligible for bonuses of up to $20,000. Teachers with 15 years’ experience may be able to make more than $130,000, something even a 30-year veteran can’t do now. (Existing DCPS teachers will have the option to stick with their current pay scale, but new ones will automatically be placed on the performance-based track.)

The revamped salary scale will create yet another challenge for Rhee: how to pay for it. Some of the money will come from existing city funds. But the rest will depend on the new D.C. Public Education Fund, an independent nonprofit closely aligned with Rhee. Its fund-raising goal, which will test her ability to monetize the business community’s enthusiasm: $75 million per year.

First, of course, the contract has to pass. At press time, it had not yet gone to the teachers for approval — a prospect made more difficult by divisions within the union that have led to litigation charging collusion between the district and WTU president George Parker. Rhee says she has gotten this far only because Parker is “maybe the most reform-minded union leader in the country.” He is less effusive, but he also sees this contract as potentially game-changing. “We have to embrace academic achievement equally as we embrace bread-and-butter issues,” he says. “We’re in competition with charter schools for students. We have a vested interest in our schools being successful. It’s not about selling out. It’s buying in.”

An aide to the chancellor admits that “we’re terrified” about the ratification process. But Rhee insists that the union negotiators would never put forward a contract they couldn’t sell to their members, and that ultimately the bread and butter — all that pay — will win over teachers and council members.

And if she fails? She smiles. “Then I’m screwed.”

See more of Michelle Rhee at Innovation Uncensored 2011.


About the author

Jeff Chu writes on international affairs, social issues, and design for Fast Company. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in April 2013.