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WASHINGTON WATCH: Michelle Rhee On Education Reform, Closing Schools, New Book “Radical” (VIDEO)

A report recently published by Harvard University found that students in Latvia, Chile and Brazil are making gains in academics three times faster than American students, while those in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia and Lithuania are improving at twice the rate. Unfortunately, African-American and poor students bear the brunt of the problems with America’s educational system.

Michelle Rhee is the founder of Students First, a political advocacy organization for education reform, and she believes part of the solution to the problem might be found in who’s teaching our children. 

MR. MARTIN:  Welcome back.

A report recently published by Harvard University found that students in Latvia, Chile and Brazil are making gains in academics three times faster than American students, while those in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia and Lithuania are improving at twice the rate.  Unfortunately, African-American and poor students bear the brunt of the problems with our educational system.

Michelle Rhee is the founder of Students First, a political advocacy organization for education reform, and she believes part of the solution to the problem might be found in who’s teaching our children.

Michelle, welcome back to “Washington Watch.”

MS. MICHELLE RHEE:  Thanks for having me.

MR. MARTIN:  And for our audience, first of all, I’m a member of the StudentsFirst board of directors, so we[’ve] got to have full disclosure with that.

So, I want to get right to this.  Your book is called Radical:  Fighting to Put Students First.

MS. RHEE:  Yeah.

MR. MARTIN:  And when you think of the term ”radical,” people freak out.

MS. RHEE:  Yeah.

MR. MARTIN:  “Oh, my God.  You’re radical” – when, in fact, when you look back at American history, change has been created by folks who had radical vision, radical thoughts, radical solutions.

MS. RHEE:  Well, an interesting thing about this is, you know, a lot of the book is about my experiences when I was the chancellor here in Washington, D.C., overseeing the school district.  And when I came into the job in 2007, it was the lowest-performing and most dysfunctional school district in the entire country – right?  Eight percent of the eighth graders in the city schools were operating on grade level in mathematics.  So, it was an absolute shame.

And so I came into that situation.  I had the charge from the mayor to fix the schools, and the things that I was doing were the things that I thought were just obvious – right?  You want to close down low-performing schools. You want to remove ineffective employees and take the effective ones and pay them a whole lot more.  You want to cut the central office bureaucracy in half.

And I was doing these things, people kept saying, “Well, gosh,” you know, “you’re a lightning rod.  This is so controversial.”

And finally, I thought, “Well, if bringing common sense to a dysfunctional system makes me radical, then so be it.”

But I actually don’t think that they’re such radical ideas.  The reason why people are sort of out of sorts is because these things just hadn’t been in place before.

MR. MARTIN:  Well, what jumps out at me – I look at what’s happening in Chicago, where they had a number of significant school closures.  One of the things that folks didn’t want to own up to is that that school system also has 150,000 fewer students –

MS. RHEE:  Yes.

MR. MARTIN:  — than they had a decade ago.

MS. RHEE:  That’s right.

MR. MARTIN:  And so when we begin to hear about school closures, people begin to freak out.  And is it because we somehow want to hold on to that institution, as opposed to ask, to me, the most important question, and that is, “Are the kids who’re in that school actually getting the high-quality education?”

MS. RHEE:  That’s exactly the question that we have to be asking ourselves.  I mean think about a city like Detroit, where, you know, a decade ago there were 150,000 kids in the system.  Today, there are 42,000 kids in the system.  You cannot run that school district with the same number of schools, but when you try to close schools — you’re right – it’s a very emotional and sentimental process, because people who attended those schools when they were young don’t want to see that institution disappear.

But the bottom line is that if you look at the statistics and the academic achievement levels of the children in those schools right now, you wouldn’t want your own kids to go to those schools because the academic achievement levels are so low.  We have to be saying, “How do we get the children who are trapped in those schools now into better schools?”  And that’s what our focus should be, as opposed to, “How do I keep this institution open because I” – you know, “it’s my alma mater?”

MR. MARTIN:  How do you deal with people who say that an attack on a school, an attack on an education system is an attack on teachers?  Because the point that I’ve always said is I don’t like sorry teachers, principals, administrators, school boards, politicians.   And so, for me, it’s not just, oh, I’m putting the onus on that teacher.

MS. RHEE:  Right.

MR. MARTIN:  I also don’t like sorry parents who are sending kids to school ill-prepared.

MS. RHEE:  That’s right.  And you’re absolutely right.  The accountability has to sit everywhere in the system.  The children have to be held accountable for what they’re doing every day; the parents, teachers, school administrators, all the way up.  You can’t look at the system, and there’s no one place to lay blame.  Everybody’s got to be part of the solution.

MR. MARTIN:  I recently interviewed Dick Parsons, and he said he believes the key to education is you have to have high expectations –

MS. RHEE:  Yeah.

MR. MARTIN:  — and that what is happening in our schools [is] in many ways we are lowering expectations and then somehow saying, “Oh.  If you cross that, you did a great job.”

MS. RHEE:  Yeah.  I think that expectations are really a key.  I think this is absolutely right.  Children will rise or fall to the expectations that we set of them.  I would talk to kids in D.C. all the time; and, you know, one day I remember kid coming up to me and saying that one of his teachers had said to him, you know, “You’re dumb.  You’re not worth anything.  You’re not going to make it in life.”

And the kid was trying to, you know, struggle through that; and he’s, like, “You know, I’m getting messages like that,” when other teachers were telling him, “You know what?  You can do anything you want if you work hard and do the right thing.”

And if we’re creating the kind of environment where we say to kids, “We know you can achieve.  Even though there are challenges, we know you can achieve at the highest levels,” then kids will believe that, and they will work towards that.

And I think part of the challenge that we have today in this whole education reform debate is that there’re a lot of people who, I think, have good intentions, frankly – right?  They’re not mean-spirited people or anything like that.  But people who say, “Well, because so many children are coming to school from situations of poverty, from less than idea home lives – right – they don’t have proper healthcare or nutrition, et cetera – “how can we possibly expect them to come to school and learn?  And how can we possibly hold the schools accountable?”  Right?

But the bottom line is that even though living in poverty makes coming to school every day to learn harder and makes the teaching job harder, it can’t be an excuse for why kids aren’t learning – right?  ‘Cause if we care about poverty in this country, then we have to know that the best tool that we have to fight intergenerational poverty is making sure that that kid gets a great education.

MR. MARTIN:  I have – there’s as a woman who is the wife of a member of Congress, and every time I see her she goes bonkers because she’s like, “How dare you sit on that board of StudentsFirst!”  And she believes that the organization, and believes that you are an absolute negative dealing with education.

And my response is, “Wait a minute.  I need” – “I believe everybody has to be at the table” –

MS. RHEE:  Yeah.

MR. MARTIN:  — because there’s no one way to educate a child.

MS. RHEE:  That’s right.

MR. MARTIN:  And so how do we get people out of that mindset that there’s only one way to educate a child, in this brick-and-mortar [setting].  So you have people who oppose online schools –

MS. RHEE:  Right.

MR. MARTIN:  — who oppose charter schools, who oppose magnet schools, who still think there’s only one way to educate a child in America?

MS. RHEE:  You know, I think that it’s absolutely naïve to believe that there’s a formula for doing this – right?  And, honestly, I think that the way that people have to think about this is the way that they think about their own kids.  Every parent knows that each one of their kids is different, and what works for each of those kids is slightly different.  And, quite frankly, if you were a parent – right – and your kid – or, your house was zoned to a failing school, there is no way that you’d say, “Oh, I’m going to keep my kid in this failing school ’cause this is the way that we do things.”

No.  As a parent, you’d be looking for any option that is better for your kids, whether it was an online school, whether it was a charter school, whether it was a private school through a voucher.  You’d do anything that you could to make sure that your kid was getting a great education.

The problem that I think we have today in this country is that there are too many policymakers out there, too many politicians who are willing to make policies for other people’s children that they would never accept for their own.  And that’s what we have to change.

MR. MARTIN:  And, of course, many of the[ir] kids don’t even go to public schools.

MS. RHEE:  That’s right.

MR. MARTIN:  The book is called Radical:  Fighting to Put Students First.

Michelle Rhee, well, we certainly appreciate it.  Thanks a bunch.

MS. RHEE:  Thank you.