When I first took the job as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools in 2007, I wasn't thinking about being a trailblazer for women or for Korean-Americans. I was thinking about the children in the schools I was leading.
Unfortunately, not everybody shared my focus. Initially, it seemed like articles devoted a huge amount of space to my gender and ethnicity. Reporters even talked about the kind of heeled shoes I liked to wear.
I get why focusing on my gender and ethnicity might have sold papers. The student population of D.C.'s public schools is predominantly African-American. At the time, some school campuses were nearly 100 percent African-American. The population was also poor. District-wide, 57 percent of the students qualified for the free or reduced-price lunch program. What did an Ivy League-educated Asian woman who grew up in Ohio know about poor black kids in Washington?
But it wasn't just that I looked different—I acted differently as well. Unlike previous leadership in the D.C. public schools, I didn't shy away from controversy if it was good for kids. Some of the coverage I received was, I'm convinced, biased by the fact that I didn't fit the stereotype of an Asian woman—delicate, quiet, and subservient. An Ivy League-educated Asian woman from the Midwest and she wants to make radical changes to the system? For some, that dynamic was more interesting than my proposals to make our schools better.
At the time, though, I honestly didn't focus on it. There were too many important things to worry about—like the fact that only 8 percent of our eighth-graders were performing at grade level in math—and so I shrugged it off.
I certainly understand why some people say that it is better for students if their school leaders look just like them and share their background. But every single action I took as chancellor, and every campaign I wage today through my organization StudentsFirst, is based on the truth that all children are capable of learning and achieving at high levels regardless of the color of their skin, their ZIP code, or the family circumstances they grow up in.
Furthermore, varied perspectives can help solve complex problems. And my background certainly gives me a different perspective than many people in the world of public education. Maybe I should talk about that more often. When I was 11 years old, my parents sent me away from Ohio to spend a year in Korea. I did not speak any Korean, but the school did not slow down for me. I was held to the same standard as every other child in my classroom. How did I know? They ranked us and then posted the rankings on the wall for all to see. It was an environment in which competition was encouraged and excellence was the singular focus.
That's the approach I took as chancellor: Do the job, get results, and let the data speak for itself. When I started getting out into the community, talking to people, making my case, the focus on my ethnicity and gender dissipated. People saw that I was passionate about improving public schools. And, over time, they saw the results our reforms were getting for the District's students. Today, D.C. schools are showing bigger gains in student achievement than any other large city school district in the country. The vast majority of educators in the District believe that all of their students, regardless of background, can achieve—and they're being proved right.
For women working in Washington—and anywhere—this is a piece of advice I'd offer: Be vocally and visibly passionate about your cause and your work. That way, you'll be known for the issue you care about rather than something as passive as your gender or ethnicity.
Sure, you might be called "dragon lady," as I was. Perhaps they'll even say you're "radical." But if I had simply gone with the flow and filled the role of the meek, docile Asian woman my critics expected me to be, I would not have made any real difference for D.C. schools. I'd be known now as nothing more than the first Korean-American female chancellor.
At the end of the day, my time running D.C.'s public-school system was marked by the actions I took—and the feathers I ruffled—much more than by my gender or ethnic background. And that's the way it should be.
Michelle Rhee is founder of StudentsFirst. She was chancellor of the D.C. schools from 2007 to 2010.
This article appears in the July 26, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Go Ahead, Ruffle Some Feathers.