Michelle Rhee in London

Policy Exchange talk

Gove praises her moral leadership


Michelle Rhee was Chancellor of Washington DC schools for three tumultuous years 2007-2010. She visited London this week to talk about education reforms in the USA.

Her main message-put the interests of children first by ensuring there is  a high-quality teacher in front of every classroom every day.

When she became the chancellor of schools in 2007, a mere 8 per cent of eighth-grade students were doing maths at their proper grade level, yet 98 per cent of teachers got satisfactory evaluations. Rhee says ‘our kids were failing, we were saying, “Well done, good job” to the adults educating them.’

Shortly after taking office she was told that DC spent more per student than virtually every other district, yet consistently delivered some of the worst results.  Around $1 billion was spent in D.C, where $90 million was spent in this geographically small district just on busing – this amounted to a staggering $18,000 per student.  As if this wasn’t bad enough the D.C. school district was often sued for failure to make the mandatory accommodations required by law for special needs students, which ultimately required the district to pay for the placement by the district of these students in private schools.  Many of these private school were not even in DC, but in neighbouring states –Maryland, Virginia etc. Schools don’t need more money, Rhee says, they need to be held accountable for how they spend  the money  they have.  The per capita student  spend in DC is  in fact comparatively good.  She says that it is the interests of children that must drive the system. Too often it is the interests of adults and the vested interests they represent that are the driver. These interests benefit from a dysfunctional system because they are not held to account. How teachers performed in DC classrooms   just  didn’t matter.

Introducing Rhee at the think tank Policy Exchange, one of the most influential think tanks, on 26 June, the Secretary of State for Education , Michael Gove,  said that she had the clear  moral leadership to overcome the sheer power of vested interests and had influenced reform throughout the country.

Its often forgotten that Rhee is a Democrat. Democrats tend to be sensitive to lobbying by organised labour. But she realised that she had to get rid of underperforming officials and teachers quickly , which was  never going to be backed by unions.  She closed  two dozen schools, sacked over 1,000 educators, and fired two thirds (36) of the Principals.  She also got rid of security of tenure. Whether teachers were good or bad didn’t seem to matter before she took over.  If teaching cuts were made it was always last in, first out, so the longest servers had security of tenure, regardless of their   performance. But with a new evaluation system in place you could now identify the best and worst teachers. (rated in four categories)

Rhees approach  was  that that you must do for other children want you would want done for your own  children  (its  notable how few local leaders sent their children to DC schools-unlike Rhee).And you must seek to remove partisan politics from the equation and do whatever is necessary  and right for children. Their interests must always guide reform. ( which is why she supports a voucher scheme for the most disadvantaged students against the wishes of many local democrat politicians)

Rhee wanted all teachers to be evaluated in large measure by how much they can boost their students’ scores on standardized tests. Scores are fed into a complex formula that rates how much “value” a teacher has added to each student over the year.  Socio-economic factors are also taken into account and teachers are also observed at least five times in a year in the classroom. Some account is also taken of what teachers contribute to the school outside the classroom.  Rhee says teachers who consistently don’t add value should be fired; those who do well should be rewarded with six-figure salaries. Under her system an excellent teacher could be awarded twice the salary they had in the old system in which 98% of teachers were rated good. Rhee has acknowledged the value-added formulas aren’t perfect, but says they’re the only objective way to assess and compare teacher performance. “That’s the best measure we have,” Rhee  has said.

Rhee reminded the audience at Policy Exchange of Warren Buffets solution for improving  education. Abolish private education and introduce a lottery system for entry to state schools.

Rhee resigned in the autumn  of 2010 after Mayor  Adrian  Fenty ,who had  recruited her, lost an election . It is arguable that Unions were sufficiently angry with Rhee that they campaigned to defeat him. Fenty  had no regrets though  because the reforms worked and didn’t blame Rhee for his defeat.

Rhee has set up StudentsFirst a network of interlocking lobbying groups, advocacy organizations and political action committees which  now has over a million supporters. Launched on the Oprah Winfrey show, its main purpose is to spread and sustain  education reform throughout the States ,putting the needs of students first.


Rhee says that test results show D.C. students greatly improved in maths and reading from 2007 to 2009. DC  became the only major city system to see double-digit growth in both their state reading and state maths scores in the seventh, eighth and tenth grades over three years.In 2009, D.C. outpaced the nation in gains. The District of Columbia was the only jurisdiction in the country to see gains in every subgroup. The graduation rate rose, and after steep declines, enrollment rose for the first time in forty years.



  1. Later review of the statistics for the DC area into question with potential manipulation of test scores and reporting data. It appears that all was not as wonderful in DC under Rhee’s command as she claims. The damage that she inflicted on the areas that she controlled still lingers.

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