Most people who have heard of Michelle Rhee know her as the unforgiving face of contemporary school reform, the hard-edged chancellor of the long-failing Washington, D.C., public schools who graced the cover of Time standing in a classroom with a broom in her hands—only to be swept from the nation’s capital herself when her patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost a reelection bid last September that was in large part a referendum on Rhee’s reforms.

The Bee Eater:
Michelle Rhee Takes on
the Nation’s
Worst School District

by Richard Whitmire
Jossey-Bass, 296 pp.

Less well known is that Rhee is part of a generational shift in school reform. She’s one of a new breed of “social entrepreneurs” who have sought to create a performance-driven brand of public schooling on behalf of the nation’s disadvantaged students. Some of these new education entrepreneurs are shaping federal education priorities as senior officials in the Obama administration’s Department of Education, where they have pushed for school reform through the federal Race to the Top competition and other signature Obama plans.

Like many of the new reformers, including Richard Barth, the chief executive of the well-known KIPP network of charter schools, and Kim Smith, a founder of the venture philanthropy NewSchools Venture Fund, Rhee got her start at Teach for America. Founded in 1990 by Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp, TFA is a public service program that aims to end “educational inequity [and] the reality that where a child is born determines the quality of his or her education and life prospects.” It recruits students from the nation’s best colleges and universities, who spend at least two years teaching in some of America’s worst schools.

Rhee, herself an Ivy Leaguer, put in three tough years at a failing Baltimore elementary school that had been turned over to a for-profit company. In 1997, she left TFA to launch the New Teacher Project, a TFA offshoot that contracts with public school systems to recruit new teachers from outside schools of education, which attract few of the nation’s best and brightest college students.

In 2007, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, at Kopp’s urging, brought Rhee to Washington and tasked her with fixing the city’s dysfunctional school system, which couldn’t manage to calculate daily attendance, deliver textbooks on time, or keep its buildings clean, much less successfully educate its 48,000 students. With the help of a veritable SWAT team of former TFAers and others, Rhee closed nearly two dozen underenrolled schools, introduced twenty-first-century information technology, slashed the system’s bloated bureaucracy, and replaced nearly a third of the city’s principals. Most notably, she won a new teacher contract that ended tenure, introduced performance pay and a comprehensive new evaluation system, and made D.C. perhaps the only city school system in the country to fire significant numbers of teachers for incompetence. These actions, predictably, made her both a hero to the advocates of urban education reform and the nemesis of teacher’s unions and other traditional voices in public education.

In his new book, The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District, Richard Whitmire, a former education editorial writer at USA Today, provides a lively narrative on Rhee’s personal history and the political and public policy drama that marked her three and a half years in Washington. He delivers an insightful commentary on one of the first pitched battles between the new generation of school reformers and the nation’s urban educational and political establishments.

Whitmire’s portrait is a sympathetic one, and rightly so. He chronicles Rhee’s evolution from privileged daughter of an ambitious Korean immigrant doctor; to student at an elite private school in Toledo and, later, Cornell; and then to a young woman drawn to TFA by a television documentary and subsequently overwhelmed by the task of teaching in inner-city Baltimore (where, to show her young students how tough she was, she reportedly ate a bee she swatted in her classroom). The Baltimore experience radicalized her to the cause of helping impoverished urban kids get a decent education.

What drives Michelle Rhee, and the entrepreneurial wing of school reform as a whole, is disdain for the commonly held belief in traditional public education theory that if students are unlucky enough to live in poverty, they shouldn’t be expected to achieve at high levels—and, more to the point, that schools shouldn’t be expected to get them there. (The frequent refrain is: “We’re doing the best we can with the kids we have.”)

Rhee and her allies also have little tolerance for public education policies that put the interests of adults ahead of those of students. This stance led her as D.C. chancellor to end the long-standing practice of laying teachers off on the basis of lack of seniority rather than inadequate performance, one of many steps that drew the ire of the city’s teacher’s union and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers.

Even though Rhee wrote the introduction to Whitmire’s previous book, on the challenges of educating boys, and his research for Bee Eater was funded by foundations that also back Rhee (which he fully discloses), Whitmire, whom I’ve known professionally for several years, is candid about Rhee’s shortcomings during her tenure in the nation’s capital. His analysis of where she went wrong is a particularly engaging part of the book, both for readers wanting to know more about the celebrity schools chancellor and those thinking about the larger consequences for school reform.

Whitmire reveals the kind of brash and sometimes bullying style and supremely bad judgment that led Rhee to do the Time cover. He tells us, for instance, that D.C. city council members first learned in the Washington Post of Rhee’s plans to close schools in their wards, and that she invited a television camera crew along when she fired a principal in his school. When Whitmire asked her why she had such a hard time finding strong school leaders, she responded, “The problem is we have extraordinarily high standards.”

Mayor Fenty, himself a young, supremely self-confident urban reformer and one of the nation’s few mayors to control his city’s school system, failed to restrain Rhee. Eventually, Whitmire writes, one of the city’s leading philanthropists stepped in to try to rescue her from herself by paying Anita Dunn, the former Obama White House communications director, to handle her public relations. But it was too little, too late.

Whitmire doesn’t shy away from reporting the questions that have been raised about Rhee’s claims of dramatic increases in her students’ test scores during her TFA stint in Baltimore, and he’s careful to attribute the claims to Rhee and her principal in Baltimore, neither of whom could produce evidence to substantiate the statements on her resume. Recently, USA Today published a series of stories suggesting that cheating on standardized tests in the Washington public schools was common during Rhee’s tenure as chancellor. The paper found that there were unusually high rates of wrong answers that had been erased and changed to right ones on student tests at more than half of the system’s public schools between 2008 and 2010. Rhee, who routinely used improving city test scores to justify her reforms, initially attacked the paper’s reporting, but she more recently acknowledged that there may have been isolated cases of cheating and has endorsed a probe of the paper’s findings that is currently under way by the city’s inspector general.

Rhee’s biggest failing, Whitmire argues, was her inattention to the racial dimension of her reforms. The racial side of school reform is not frequently discussed in policy circles, and Whitmire makes a valuable contribution by addressing it head on.

Unfortunately, many of Rhee’s changes in Washington—the purging of patronage hires from the central office dating back to the Marion Barry era; the performance-based firings of principals and teachers; the ending of teacher tenure—led to the undermining of job security for many middle-class African Americans, for whom urban public school systems have long been an important source of stable government employment.

As a result, blacks saw Rhee’s reforms as a threat to a system that sustained many members of their community. As Whitmire writes, “White voters thought Rhee was cleaning house; black voters saw no reason to sweep out a head of household with a steady paycheck.” In addition, Whitmire reports, many of the city’s African Americans saw the large number of predominantly white TFA and D.C. teaching fellows that Rhee recruited to her central office and classrooms not as new talent to help the city’s struggling students but as “cultural tourists.” Whitmire blames both Rhee and Fenty, an African American, for failing to convince the city’s working-class blacks of the connection between performance firings and school quality.

So when Rhee sought to attract both black and white middle-class families to public schools in transitional or mixed-race neighborhoods by introducing programs like preschool education and International Baccalaureate classes, representatives of the city’s many impoverished African American neighborhoods interpreted the moves as Rhee currying favor with white residents at the same time she was laying off blacks. It didn’t help that she was firing working-class African Americans during the height of one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history.

Rhee also hurt herself by introducing a plan to make teachers’ jobs and pay dependent on their performance before she had put a defensible teacher evaluation system in place. Washington teacher evaluations, like those in most school systems, were cursory and undependable when Rhee arrived. Declaring that she was going to end tenure and introduce performance-based pay before teachers knew how they were going to be judged guaranteed that they and their unions would oppose the plan.

Nor could Rhee bring herself to build more health screening and other student and family assistance into her reform agenda, a strategy that Fenty’s deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso, advocated. That move would have improved her many needy students’ readiness to learn and signaled to teachers and principals that she recognized the many challenges they faced in educating students from impoverished backgrounds. Doing so would have won her allies without spending a lot of additional money or relinquishing her commitment to high standards and accountability.

By the time Rhee introduced the new system, in 2009, opposition to her reforms was already widespread among the rank-and-file. The enmity toward Rhee among Washington’s African Americans contributed to Fenty’s resounding defeat in the city’s black wards in last fall’s Democratic primary and spelled, shortly afterward, the end of Rhee’s important work in Washington. She has since launched a national advocacy organization, Students First, to counter the influence of teacher’s unions.

Rhee’s crusade in Washington was about transforming a system driven by bureaucracy to one shaped by performance incentives. This shift remains the core challenge facing reformers in urban school systems and public education generally. That Rhee got as far as she did is a testament not only to her take-no-prisoners personality but also to the importance of mayoral control of urban school systems. If Rhee had had to deal with a traditional elected school board, and if Fenty hadn’t cleared a political path for her, she might not have been able to push through the most important reforms.

It’s hard to overestimate how much Rhee accomplished, despite her flaws—or perhaps in part because of them. Reformers have sought for decades, without much success, to implement many of the changes she was able to make in Washington during her brief tenure. She put an end to hiring and firing by seniority. She shrunk D.C.’s famously bloated central office and closed struggling schools. She created a new staffing model with clear standards and a state-of-the-art teacher evaluation system built not just on student test scores but on classroom visits by both principals and trained school system observers.

It’s an impressive system, albeit one that needs to be improved to win teachers’ respect, a key to its longevity. The other key to its longevity is political support, and that, surprisingly, seems assured, at least for a while: Fenty’s successor, Vincent Gray, has named Rhee’s deputy and close ally Kaya Henderson to replace her as chancellor.

Of course, the ultimate measure of any set of reforms is whether they improve student performance. In D.C., despite the allegations of cheating on the city’s standardized tests, students’ scores on the federal NAEP test, which is very hard to cheat on, rose during Rhee’s tenure. If those increases continue under Henderson, it will be hard to argue that the system Rhee created wasn’t worth the pain it took to build.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Thomas Toch

Follow Thomas on Twitter @thomas_toch. Thomas Toch is director of FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.