Michelle Rhee: Go Ahead, Ruffle Some Feathers

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.

Michelle Rhee, former chancelor of D.C. public schools and founder and CEO of StudentsFirst.
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Michelle Rhee
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

(Chet Suss­lin)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.

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