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.
National Journal
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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