USC Price School of Public Policy

Michelle Rhee Addresses Education Reform

Former D.C. Schools Chancellor Addresses Education Reform

By Matthew Kredell

Michelle Rhee Michelle Rhee is interviewed by media during an event hosted by the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy.
Photo by Tom Queally

Political gamesmanship needs to be taken out of the equation for education to improve in the United States, Michelle Rhee stressed May 5 in her talk concluding the 2010-11 Distinguished Speaker Series offered by the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy.

Education has been driven by special-interest groups with no one advocating for the children, which is why Rhee founded StudentsFirst in 2010 to build a national movement for public school reform that defends the interests of youngsters.

“Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in society,” Rhee said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, rich or poor. We have a public school system so that every child can have an equal shot at life and, if you work hard and do the right thing, you can live the American dream. That is not the reality for most of the children in inner city America today. The reality for them is, if you live in Watts or Compton versus if you live in Beverly Hills, you get two wildly different educational experiences.”

Rhee spoke in front of more than 200 leaders from philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, government and industry over lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Featured in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman for her efforts to turn around the District of Columbia school system as chancellor of public schools from 2007 to December 2010, Rhee also has appeared on the cover of Time calling for school reform.

“She shared the lessons she’s learned in the trenches and had some insights about what’s possible,” said James M. Ferris, director of the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy. “I think people were probably most surprised when she said we know what works, we just have to have the will to do it.”

The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through its research as an integral part of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

The center’s annual Distinguished Speaker Series provides a venue for leaders from different vantage points to share their views on philanthropy and public policy, stimulating a conversation about the changes occurring in philanthropy and the implications for public problem solving.

Rhee became a polarizing figure in Washington after she purged the district of ineffective teachers and principals. She believes that a great teacher is the single-most important factor in a child’s education.

“We know that, in particular for minority children, if they have three highly effective teachers in a row versus three ineffective teachers in a row, it can literally change their life trajectory,” Rhee said. “The probability that they will graduate from high school and go to college goes up hugely if they have those three highly effective teachers in a row.”

She dislikes the last-in, first-out rule that is part of California state law, requiring that the last teacher hired must be the first teacher fired regardless of performance. Although most people disagree with the law, any movement to change it gets caught up in bureaucracy.

For philanthropists, Rhee advises not putting more money into a broken system but to try to use the potential of funding to bring about change. As an example, she cited her own negotiation with the teacher’s union in Washington, D.C. The city did not have money to put toward raises. So she went out on her own and raised extra money from national foundations, then told the union members this money was available only if they signed a contract with no tenure or seniority.

“As philanthropists, one of the things you want to do is figure out how you can use your dollars not just for direct programming but as leverage,” Rhee said. “… What we did was create a dynamic where they were essentially walking away from millions of dollars on the table so that they can hold on to their age-old practices. It wasn’t flying in the public discourse, and it definitely was not making sense to their rank-and-file members.”

The union leaders tried to negotiate the terms for three years, claiming their membership would never go for it. But when they finally allowed the contract to go for a vote, it passed with 80 percent approval. The vast majority of teachers had no problem with higher levels of accountability if it created a system where they could be paid twice as much if they were highly effective.

“She’s certainly an eloquent, articulate speaker,” said Joshua Lewi, who just completed his Master of Public Administration degree at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. “She made me think about what I can do to raise awareness and support education reform. Even though I may not go into a career in education, I certainly want what’s best for my future kids and their children.”

Rhee believes in public education and the possibility of improvement, even in California. StudentsFirst has more than 40,000 members from California, more than any other state. Unfortunately, there’s no bill currently moving in the state for people to mobilize around.

“These legislators, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, have been allowed to operate in this manner with zero accountability,” Rhee said. “We did a poll that said 75 percent of Californians believe that last-in, first-out policies are wrong and should be changed. But there’s nothing happening with your elective officials to make that a reality. You have to bring these things together. You have to get active. It’s the only way, in my mind, that we are going to change the public education system in California and America today.”