BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Michelle Rhee, can you remember the first time somebody suggested to you that you could become the chancellor of schools in the District of Columbia?
MICHELLE RHEE, CHANCELLOR, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PUBLIC SCHOOLS: I do. I remember that very clearly.
The first time that this came up, I was meeting with Victor Reinoso, who is the deputy mayor of education here in the city. And he and I were at an education conference together. And one night he asked to meet with me.
Because of my work with the New Teacher Project, I know most of the urban superintendents across the country. And so, the goal of the meeting was for me to give him some ideas about different people that they could consider for this job. And I felt like I walked away from that evening giving him four solid names.
And the next day he came up to me and said, ”So, how about you?”
So, that was a little bit of a shock.
LAMB: What was your reaction?
RHEE: I said, ”Absolutely not.”
RHEE: I have been working in urban education for 15 years now, and the last 10 with the New Teacher Project had been working with large urban school districts across the country. I’ve seen everything I think that’s wrong about urban education and have thought that, in large part, urban superintendents are sort of in an impossible situation.
And I really felt that the biggest role that I could play in education reform would be sort of as an outside kind of change agent, poking and prodding the system to do the right thing, but from an external vantage point.
LAMB: What’s the New Teacher Project? Did you start it?
RHEE: I did. About 10 years ago I started this organization. It’s a national nonprofit organization that works with school districts and state departments of education across the country on the recruitment and retention of new teachers.
LAMB: Why did you start it? And why is it nonprofit?
RHEE: I started it, because I actually began my career 15 years ago in a program called Teach For America, was placed as a teacher, a second grade teacher, in Baltimore, Maryland. I was placed at one of the lowest-performing schools in the city and had an experience that changed the rest of my life and that impacts my work every day.
I went in as a first year teacher. I was not particularly successful. The kids, you know, basically ran over me.
I suffered a lot of challenges that I think most first year teachers do with discipline and those sorts of issues.
The summer between my first and second year I decided that I was going to not let eight-year-olds run me out of town, so I spent the entire summer planning and cutting things out and reading, and really making sure that I was prepared for the following year.
Over the next two years, a team teacher and I decided to move all of our students together in one classroom, so we had about 70 kids together in one class. And we looped with them, so we took them through their second and third grade year.
We took a group of kids who were, on average, scoring at the 13th percentile on nationally recognized standardized tests. And by the time that they had completed their second year with us, the vast majority of them were on or above grade level and scoring at the highest levels on standardized tests.
And it was just incredibly telling to us. And for me, in particular, I sort of said, you know what? These kids, their lives didn’t change in terms of their environment, their home life, their parents, their diets – that sort of thing.
What changed was the adults that were in front of them every day in the classroom. And that made all of the difference in terms of their academic achievement.
I then went and saw some of the most promising students that I have leave our classroom and just lose everything that they had. And I just became convinced at that time that teachers and teacher quality was really what was going to be able to make the difference in this country in terms of education reform.
LAMB: So, what were you doing that made all this difference?
RHEE: I think a few things. And none of – everyone said, well, how did you get your test scores that high? How did you move kids so quickly?
And the things that we did were the things that I think every good teacher and lots of successful organizations across the country know work. But it’s no silver bullet.
We first of all set very high expectations for our kids. One of the things that I did back then the ”Baltimore Sun,” I think at one point, sort of listed out the schools in Baltimore City and sort of the test scores or their performance levels. And we were at the bottom of that.
And I brought it in and I showed the kids. I said, ”Here’s the test scores of all the schools in the city, and we’re at the bottom. What do you think people think when they read that?”
And the kids said, ”Well, they probably think we’re dumb.”
And I said, ”Yes. Are we?”
And they’d say, ”No, we’re not.”
And so, I sort of engaged them in this process of why education was important, that we had something to prove to the world.
And I said to them, ”You know, we might be down here right now, but I believe that all of you can be achieving at the highest levels.”
So, just having those high expectations was the first thing.
The second thing that I did was, I worked very closely with the parents and the community. I was in constant communication with them. And that was critically important, because the things that I was doing were very different from what they were used to.
For example, I gave the kids two hours of homework a night. And I got a lot of parents at the beginning who said, ”These are eight-year-olds.”
And now that I have my own eight-year-old, I’m realizing that two hours of homework is a lot. I’m struggling to get through 25 minutes of homework a night.
But back then I would say to the parents, I’d say, ”Look. The kids are starting out really far behind. We have a tremendous way to go if we want to ensure that they really are high achievers, and we don’t have any time to waste.”
So, I need to make sure that they’re not spending their after-school hours planning Nintendo or sitting on the stoop, or watching TV” – which honestly were the options – ”but that they’re engaged in academics at all times.”
And when I explained that to parents, and when they saw that I was dedicated to what I was doing – I came in early and stayed late, that sort of thing – they really sort of understood why I had a different set of demands.
And I’d say the last thing is, we just worked hard. I had the kids in before school. I had them after school. I had them on Saturdays. And it was just a lot of sweat.
LAMB: So, is it safe to assume that teachers do make a difference? Is that what you’re really …
RHEE: That is my absolute takeaway from my first years in this profession and actually in the classroom, is that teachers can make all of the difference in the world in terms of the educational outcomes with kids.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
RHEE: I grew up outside of Toledo, Ohio.
LAMB: What was the family situation like?
RHEE: I had a very happy childhood. My parents are still married. I have an older brother and a younger brother. I think in many ways I sort of had an idyllic childhood and a very privileged one.
From seventh through twelfth grade I went to a very small, private day school, Country Day School, and I think was afforded opportunities that most kids in this country don’t have in terms of rigorous instruction, extracurricular activities, internships – all those sorts of things.
LAMB: What kind of business was your father or mother in?
RHEE: My father was a physician. He just recently retired. And my mother is an entrepreneur. Back then she used to run a clothing store called (INAUDIBLE) Fashions.
LAMB: Were they born here, or were they born …
RHEE: No, they were born in South Korea. And they immigrated here in ’65.
LAMB: So, you were born in the United States.
RHEE: I was born here in the United States.
LAMB: You went to Cornell.
LAMB: Why, and what year did you graduate?
RHEE: I graduated in 1992. I actually started off my freshman year at Wellesley College, and didn’t initially want to go to Wellesley. I wasn’t all that excited about going to a women’s college. Now that I look back on it, I think it was a great experience. But then transferred from Wellesley to Cornell.
I initially thought that I wanted to go into hotel restaurant management, and they have a great hotel school there. So, I transferred to Cornell but ended up majoring in government.
LAMB: Jumping to where you are right today, why did you – well, let me just say first of all that there have been six heads of the school in this town in 10 years.
LAMB: And you know, if people that don’t live here – and most of the people watching this don’t live here – there’s a swirl of controversy around you and the beginning of the school year and all that.
You knew that coming in here. Why did you take this job?
RHEE: Why did I take this job? I took this job, because I think that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Like I said, I’ve been working in urban districts. I’ve seen the situation that most urban superintendents are put in, which I think is a very, very difficult one to be successful in, and which is why, when the mayor’s staff initially approached me about this idea, I told them I wasn’t interested.
What changed my mind was the mayor. I think that we have an incredibly unique opportunity here in this city, with this mayor and the new governance structure.
I remember one of the sort of pivotal conversations that he and I had. I said, ”You don’t want me in this job.”
And he said, ”Of course I do. I do want you. You are my choice.”
And I said, ”No.” I said, ”You’re a politician. Your job is to keep the noise levels to a minimum. You need to keep your constituents happy.”
And I said, ”My job is to be a change agent. And you can’t see really drastic and transformational change without getting opposition and a lot of pushback. So, I’m going to be kicking up dirt all over this town.”
And he looked at me and he said, ”You know what? As long as you felt like what you were doing was in the best interests of kids, I don’t mind the noise.”
LAMB: The ”Washington Post,” as you know, is all over this story, and the ”Washington Times.” And here are some statistics. And we’ll have these statistics and these articles online for our audience to click on to.
Last year, last school year, $1 billion spent on the schools, 11,500 total personnel working in the schools …
LAMB: … 4,500 teachers and 56,787 students, 141 schools. And you are in the middle of visiting every principal of every one of those schools.
What will that do for you?
RHEE: You know, I think that principals are critical to our success in this district. I met with them when I first came into this job. My first week on the job they – or I think my second week on the job – was they had a principal conference.
So, I stood up and I sort of introduced myself. And I said, ”A lot of people are asking me, ’Are you going to put together a kitchen cabinet of folks from across the country to kind of tell you what to do and where you need to head?’”
And I said, to these principals I said, ”For all intents and purposes, you are my kitchen cabinet – all 141 of you.”
I gave them my cell phone number, which somebody actually called right then and there as I was giving it out, to make sure that it worked.
And I said, ”I’m going to be working closely with all of you to make sure that I understand what’s going on in your building, that I’m knocking down the barriers that stand between you and being able to do your job effectively. And at the same time, I’m going to hold you accountable in a wholly different way, in a way that you haven’t been held accountable in the past.”
LAMB: What was your first day on the job?
RHEE: June 12th.
LAMB: Have they called you on that cell phone?
RHEE: They have. But I will tell you that they’ve been calling me very sparingly. I was not deluged with calls.
In fact, in the first I think six weeks, I only got maybe a half-a-dozen calls. Now that we’re entering into the beginning of school, I’ve been getting a few more.
But people, I think, are incredibly – I think they like knowing that they have access to me, and they’re being sort of careful about when they use that. And really coming to me, I think, only in the cases where they feel like only my intervention is going to be able to make the difference to them.
LAMB: Well, in a town where you have members of Congress and all the Cabinet officers, and all that stuff, you make a lot of money here. You make $275,000. You got a $41,000 signing bonus, and you have a car.
LAMB: But the one thing I noticed when you came to the studio today, which is almost unheard of, you had no entourage with you. Why not?
RHEE: It’s interesting, because everywhere I go, people say, well, where are all your people?
And I don’t travel with a lot of people. I don’t travel with an entourage. I have staff members who work for me, and they’re all at the office working, trying to get ready for school opening, which is where they should be.
And I usually work until about 11 o’clock at night, between community meetings and that sort of thing.
And I think that my staff has a lot better things to do than to follow me around all day.
LAMB: Have you run into any resistance on the money? I know you’re not – I mean, the Fairfax County school superintendent makes almost as much as you do, and I’m sure others.
Are superintendents around the country paid a lot of money?
RHEE: I think, probably, superintendents across the country are not paid enough money for the jobs that they have.
I think there are a couple of things. One interesting thing, I mean, I talked to a few business folks. And one of the things they said to me was, you’re running a $1.1 billion organization. Two hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars is not too much money for that.
And the other thing is that, I think that there’s no more important job in this city than fixing the schools. I have brought in a team of people, and I’m continuing to bring in people from across the country who I think are the best people to help me.
Our goal is to make the central office much more efficient and effective, and much more streamlined, so we can push more money down to the schools.
And in order for me to do that, I need to bring the best talent from both locally as well as across the country to do that. And I need to be able to compensate them accordingly.
LAMB: There’s a – the ”Washington Post” used a little kind of a logo during their series that they did on the schools. And it was Cardozo High School here in town. Passing grades, 14 percent of the students. Crime incidents, 185. Qualified teachers, 38 percent. Urgent repairs pending, 36. Delay of repairs, 405.7 days.
I don’t need to go on. That’s not the greatest bunch of statistics.
LAMB: How often have you found that in the schools in the District of Columbia?
RHEE: Very consistent across schools …
RHEE: … all throughout the city.
Well, we are in the midst of a major facilities crisis in our district. Every building that I go into is having significant issues. Even, unfortunately, some of the newer buildings that we have are having issues, because they’re not being maintained well. The older buildings are suffering from significant issues.
And I think part of the problem is that, I believe that we send a message to kids about how valuable they are and how important education is by the learning environment that we’re creating for them.
And when we have dilapidated buildings, when we’re expecting them to work in un-air conditioned spaces where it’s literally 90 degrees in the summertime, we are not sending the right message to them.
I am incredibly thankful that, in the mayoral legislation around the governance structure, that he actually pulled out facilities. And we have a great facilities director in Allen Lew, who has had experience building the convention center and the new baseball stadium. And he’s an expert in facilities.
So, we’ve been working very closely together to make sure that all of the school facilities are up to snuff. But it’s been amazing what we’ve seen.
We, for example, were told that there was a backlog of 13,000 work orders in schools that had never been filled. And as Allen and I and the mayor toured the schools, what we realized was that that was only a fraction of the projects that needed to be completed.
Principals got so used to turning in work orders and not having anything done, that they’ve actually stopped turning them in, stopped filling them out. So we’re actually anticipating that the number of projects that need to be complete are three or four times that.
And so, Allen is taking on a project I conjunction with the schools that he’s sort of calling the ”clearing the slate” program, where over the course of this school year, we will complete everything that needs to be done in terms of sort of maintenance issues in the schools. And by next year at this time, we should have a clear slate.
LAMB: Is it true that you have $2.3 billion for renovation?
LAMB: For what period of time?
RHEE: That is over a 10-year period of time. Well, actually, there’s a little bit of miscommunication. At different points, the plan for facilities has been a 15-year span or a 10-year span.
What Allen is very interested in doing is accelerating that process and trying to see whether or not we can actually complete all of the renovation and construction projects that need to be done, in a quicker timeframe, because it’s very hard to communicate to parents and the community and students that you’ve got to wait eight years before your building is in the queue.
LAMB: Your maintenance chief was characterized in a ”Washington Post” article as saying, ”What he thought was bad is worse,” that there are now 70 schools getting fixed. This is Allen Lew, the maintenance chief.
Why would this happen in the shadow of the capital of the United States, with all of the money that’s here? What’s the – how did this happen?
RHEE: Excellent question, and one that I don’t, unfortunately, have an answer to.
What I do know, looking forward and looking proactively, is that I believe that this city has more in terms of sort of cultural resources, capital resources, social. I mean, all of these networks that exist, and all of these resources that exist in this city, I think it’s about time that those resources actually began to have an impact on the public schools and the quality of education that we’re delivering to our students.
LAMB: Where does your daughter, your eight-year-old daughter go to school?
RHEE: I have two daughters, actually. I have an eight-year-old and a five-year-old. And they are in the midst of moving out right now. They have been with me to-date. And I will be sending them to Oyster Elementary.
LAMB: Here in the city.
RHEE: Yes. It’s a DCPS school.
LAMB: Is the principal nervous?
RHEE: I don’t know if the principal is nervous or not.
It was funny, because those people were telling me – asking me where I was going to send them to school. Somebody commented, ”I bet all the principals are sitting around right now saying, ’Please, not my school.’”
But I had several conversations with her before she actually knew that the kids were going to go there, because for a while, I really wasn’t sure where I was going to live and where my ex was going to live.
And since that time that she’s known, I think she’s all right. I think she just is very confident in her teaching staff and their ability to ensure that the kids get an excellent education.
LAMB: Another thing the series in the ”Washington Post” showed was how much money is spent per student. And it’s the third highest in the United States …
LAMB: … according to these figures. It’s about $13,000 per student a year. The only two cities that are higher than the District of Columbia are Boston and New York. Boston is $16,000. New York is $13,000.
Again – and the national average is $8,700 – again, why, with all this money, has the district deteriorated this much? And why are the scores so low?
RHEE: It’s a question that I ask myself every day. And I have begun the process of really digging into our budget, to understand where the resources are going.
And if you look just at a very cursory level at where we’re spending our money, you’ll see that we’re not using the resources efficiently or effectively.
For example, we right now spend $72 million a year on transporting our special education students, which amounts to about $17,000 per year per child.
LAMB: How do you do that?
RHEE: I keep telling people. I say, for $17,000 a year we could buy the kid a car in the first year and pay for a driver every year after that. I mean, that’s the level at which it’s happening.
We spend about $200 million a year on non-public placements of our special education students.
Everywhere I look, as I’m looking at the expenditures, I do not think that they dollars are being used effectively and most efficiently. And more importantly, I don’t think enough of the dollars are going down to the school level.
LAMB: Well, just $72 million to transport 13,000 special ed students.
RHEE: No, it’s less than that, because a lot of the special education students don’t require transportation.
LAMB: But are there 13,000 special ed students?
RHEE: Yes. We have about 13,000 special ed …
LAMB: Out of 55,000.
LAMB: Or 56,000.
RHEE: About 18 percent of our kids are in special education.
LAMB: Isn’t that high?
RHEE: Actually, when you look at it compared to other urban districts, that’s a little on the higher side, but it’s not completely out of whack. I think part of the challenge that we face is, we have special education and we have non-special education students.
And what we need to do is to develop some interventions for students who are operating far below grade level, but who aren’t actually special education, because right now, I think they’re being classified as special education, when really what they need is an intensive academic intervention.
LAMB: Has any superintendent, chancellor in the past, met with all 141 principals, that you know of?
RHEE: I don’t know. But in my conversations with principals – and I’ve told them that in the first few weeks of September I’m going to sit down with every single one of them. We’re going to look at their school-by-school data. We’re going to come up with an action plan.
They’re going to tell me what they’re going to be able to guarantee in terms of results. I’m going to ask them what they need from me in order to deliver on that.
But I think it’s incredibly important for the principals to have that kind of relationship with me, for us to be able to sit down and for me to be really clear about what the expectations are.
LAMB: So, let’s pretend for a moment that I am a principal, and you’ve come to me.
What would you do? Would you ask me questions? Or would I tell you what’s wrong?
RHEE: Well, a little bit of both. I’ve been meeting with principals over the last few weeks while I’ve been here.
And those sessions have mostly been listening sessions for me, to understand what they think the major barriers and hurdles are to them being able to do their jobs efficiently.
I think in the next few weeks as I’m sitting down with every single one of the principals, it’s going to be a different conversation, because we’re going to sit down and we’re going to look at the data.
Our test score data just came back, so I have a very clear view into how the students at each one of our schools is performing. And we’re going to talk with the data as an anchor. And then I am going to listen to them about what they think, again, they can deliver.
LAMB: Well, let me just try things. I’d say to you, chancellor, the biggest problem I have is, I can’t pay these teachers enough. Would you buy that?
RHEE: Well, what I would say – and this is what I believe – is that it’s going to be difficult for us to hold principals and teachers accountable until we at the central office are doing our job.
And so, if you look at the priorities that I have for my time over the course of this year, a lot of it is going to be spent cleaning up the central office and making sure that we can fix a central office bureaucracy that I think is very, very broken right now.
I think we have some hardworking, talented and well-meaning people within the central office, but I think that right now they’re working in a broken system that we’ve got to fix.
LAMB: Well, give me an idea – I mean, it’s notorious in the federal government that you can’t fire anybody, or it’s very difficult to fire anybody.
Is that on your agenda, to fire some of the people who have been there, not doing their jobs for these years?
RHEE: The first thing that’s on my agenda is about setting clear expectations, because I think that’s the most important thing.
I went – one of my appointments cancelled the other day and I started walking through the building. And one of the first things that people said to me is, ”What are you doing down here? The superintendent never comes down here.”
So, that tells you something right there.
The next thing was, I started knocking on people’s doors. And I’d go into offices and I’d say, ”Tell me what you do.”
And usually the people would say, you know, ”Well, I’m the director of such-and-such grant program.”
And I’d say, ”No, I don’t want to know what your title is. I want to know what your job – what do you do every day?”
You know what the most common answer was? ”I do whatever Mr. So-and-So tells me to do.”
That’s not a job. That’s not OK.
If people can’t articulate what it is that they’re responsible for, what we’re holding them accountable to and how we’re measuring their success, if they can’t talk about how their work is linked to student achievement, then we’ve got a significant problem.
I actually just put a restriction on the hiring of new central office staff. They all have to be approved by me, because what I didn’t want to do is add more people to the problem.
And if you ask a lot of the central office folks, why aren’t things operating correctly, why are we, you know, a few days before school starts and we still don’t have our textbooks, et cetera, and people will most often say, ”We need more staff. We need more people.”
And I actually think that’s not the right move, at least right now, until we can articulate for every single employee, what do you have to do to be successful in your job, and then we have a way to track their progress towards that.
I’m very hesitant to bring anybody new into that fold.
LAMB: Well, do the 11,500 personnel that work for the school system, versus the 56,000 that are in school, what’s that ratio like on a national basis?
RHEE: That’s a good question. I actually don’t know exactly what that number looks like on a national basis.
I’d say, based on some of the anecdotes that I’ve seen from other districts, I think we probably have more staff than most districts do.
LAMB: What’s the central office? How many people do you have working directly around your operation?
RHEE: That’s an excellent question, and one that I’ve been trying to find the answer to since I’ve been here.
There are some difficulties in trying to give me that information, because DCPS – the District of Columbia Public Schools – used to actually serve two functions, both as the local education agency, as well as the state education agency. And we’re actually separating those functions out now. So, some of the headcount that we currently have will move over to the office of the state superintendent for education.
The last count that I heard was that we have something like 900 people who actually work in what would be considered the ”central office.”
LAMB: How hard is it for you to let somebody go from their job?
RHEE: Right now, if we look at the rules and regulations, it’s very difficult.
RHEE: There are a lot of personnel rules and requirements. There are – most of the central office employees are career service folks, career service staff. And there’s just a lot of bureaucracy to cut through if you want to terminate an employee.
As I look at where we are right now, I don’t think that this job is going to be for everyone. We’re going to bring a higher level of accountability to what we’re doing. There’s going to be a tremendous amount of pressure on people to perform.
And I don’t think that everyone is going to like operating in that environment, and that’s OK.
LAMB: Give me an example, though, of something that you would change, if you could right now, that will be a higher level of accountability.
RHEE: I’ll give you a specific example.
When I – the first couple of weeks that I was here, I attended a meeting, a DCPS meeting, that was called the ”opening of schools task force meeting.” And I walked in and there were probably about 50 people in the room, you know, the heads of each department. And they were talking about where they were in terms of the preparations for the opening of school. And each person would talk, and they’d kind of put on a dog-and-pony show.
And the next meeting I came in and I said, ”That is the last meeting like that we are going to have. My goal is not to have you come in and try to impress me with the things that you’ve done. I want to know what’s not happening right now and where our weakness areas are.”
I said, ”So, everything is going to be measurable. We’re going to start to put numbers around everything that each of you individually have to do. And then I’m going to have a scorecard when I walk into these meetings. I’m going to understand, are you red, yellow or green.”
And it was interesting to watch the dynamics and the culture change over the weeks after that. I remember one week where I said to a gentleman, I said, ”You know, this is your second week being red. You’ve got to tell me what’s going on.”
And he said, ”No, no. I’m red because we haven’t hired all of the employees that we need to in my division. And that’s part of being ready for school.” He said, ”But we just held a career fair. I have all the people in process.” They don’t count yet, because they’re still being processed.
And I said, ”Where are you going to be next week?”
And he said, ”Green. I promise I’m going to be green.”
So I walked in the next week and I said, ”OK, you’re on the hot spot – on the hot seat.” And everybody laughed. And I said, ”Where are you?”
And he could rattle off for me, it’s like, ”I hired all 50 of my people. I have 30 more in the queue. In case any of those people don’t work out, I’ve got a pool of people.”
And he was able to articulate very clearly. And it was just a different way of operating, where we’re looking at data, we’re looking at the numbers. We’re facing the hard facts about where we are, so that we don’t have any surprises on the first day of school, as opposed to, you know, everybody kind of closing their eyes and hoping for the best, and then seeing these things pop up.
LAMB: Go back to when you were in the Baltimore school system.
LAMB: The grade you taught was?
RHEE: I taught second and third grade.
LAMB: You described to us earlier that you stayed all day and into the night, and you gave it all you could, and all that.
You look at the qualifications of the teachers in the district, and something like, what, 38 percent of them in this one case were qualified.
What does that mean? And were they any more qualified in the Baltimore schools? And how do you get Michelle Rhee to stay in the classroom and do what you were able to do with those kids several years ago?
RHEE: Well, I think overall – I mean, the numbers that you’re quoting are referring to the percentage of teachers in our system who are deemed highly qualified by the No Child Left Behind Act.
LAMB: Highly qualified.
RHEE: Highly qualified.
And I actually – I think that one of the great things about No Child Left Behind has been this additional focus on teacher quality through the highly qualified provisions. But I actually think that they’re slightly flawed.
I think that we have to move away from looking at people’s qualifications before they get into the classroom, and we have to look at highly effective teachers. You know, who are teachers who are in the classroom and effecting significant gains in student achievement?
LAMB: Do the teachers in the district have tenure?
RHEE: Yes. If you actually pass through the provisional, all of the provisional requirements initially in your first couple of years, then you have tenure after that.
LAMB: And what does tenure mean in the district?
RHEE: Tenure in the district means that you’re no longer a provisional teacher. When you have tenure in the district you have more job security and you have a different level of sort of privilege and rights.
LAMB: There are 4,500 teachers. How many of them have tenure?
RHEE: I actually don’t know that number off the top of my head.
In our first couple of years – we, on average, we have about, I’d say 400 new teachers coming into the – between 300 and 400 new teachers coming into the system per year. So, if you look at that over this coming year and last year, maybe between 600 and 800 provisional teachers. So, the remaining teachers would probably be tenured.
LAMB: What’s the starting salary for a teacher in the district?
RHEE: We are in the high 30s, and competitive, I think, with other school districts across the country.
LAMB: If you stay forever – meaning 30 or 40 years – what kind of money do you make?
RHEE: We don’t – we aren’t able to actually crack the six figure mark. I believe that the highest paid teachers that we have are sort of in the high 80s.
LAMB: We’ve talked about teachers. We’ve talked about some of the people, the personnel that work in the schools but we haven’t talked about parents.
Of the 56,000 kids, how many of them have two parents?
RHEE: I don’t have that statistic off the top of my head.
I will tell you that we have a fair amount of students – a pretty significant number of students – who come from single-parent households.
LAMB: How important is that? And how well, from your own experience in Baltimore, do single parents do? Does that make any difference?
RHEE: Well, I think that there are many, many, many single parents who do a great job, and who have a significant number of challenges that they face every day.
So, I don’t think the classification of whether or not somebody is a single parent, or whether a child comes from a single-parent household, whether that puts them at a disadvantage or not.
LAMB: What about truancy? Isn’t that quite high in the district?
RHEE: We have issues and challenges both with truancy as well as discipline problems in the district. Yes.
LAMB: How high is truancy?
RHEE: I don’t have the exact truancy figures. But we face significant challenges with chronically truant students and with students who are suffering from significant ongoing and recurring behavioral problems.
LAMB: So, if I’m a student, and I’m in the District of Columbia, how am I at the end of the year going to know – when am I going to see the difference? What’s the difference going to be for me? Let’s say I’m …
RHEE: At the end of the school year?
LAMB: At the end of a school year. I mean, say I’m an eighth grader.
RHEE: What would you see that’s different? Is that your question?
LAMB: Yes. I mean, how will I feel your impact on the whole system, if you have your way?
RHEE: Yes. I think that there are a few things that are going to happen over the course of this first year. One of the things is that we are going to ensure that the central office is functioning in a much more effective way.
And how that’s going to translate to the average student or their parents or the teachers in the schools is that we’re going to be much more responsive.
LAMB: Like for what?
RHEE: For anything that they have …
LAMB: Well, tell the story …
RHEE: … we’re going to be much more responsive.
LAMB: I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Tell the story about the textbooks, because you’ve just been through that.
So, one of the things that I think is a recurring problem – not just in the District of Columbia, but in urban districts across the country – in getting ready for the first day of school is, do you have all of the textbooks that you need in the schools.
And when I came in, one of the things that I had heard was that the textbooks in the city had been ordered and delivered earlier than they ever had been, and that they’d come in in May. And so I thought, OK, that’s great. That’s one thing I don’t have to worry about.
And as I was out in the field visiting schools, I realized that the teachers and the principals were telling me that they didn’t have all the textbooks they needed.
So, I was trying to figure out what was going on, and understood that we had had a new adoption of social studies and science textbooks. So I decided to visit the warehouse where our textbooks are held.
And when I went to the warehouse, what I found was astonishing to me. It was three floors of all kinds of materials. I mean, we’re talking about pallets of construction paper and copy paper, boxes of composition books and glue and scissors – the kinds of things that teachers spend their own money buying, getting ready for school.
And here all of this was in this warehouse, just sitting around.
Many of these boxes had been delivered to the warehouse years ago. They had dirt and dust on them.
And it was just, I think, very representative to me of a system that is broken and has stopped working for kids.
That evening, I got an e-mail from a parent who said to me – first of all, she shot me this e-mail very early, probably midnight or one o’clock in the morning. And she was surprised that I had responded to her.
And I thought to myself, well, you know, you’re up at one o’clock in the morning looking out for your child’s best interests and education, so I should be up, too.
But she said to me, you know, ”You have to explain something to me.” She said, ”We are going through a ninth grade transition in our community,” meaning the ninth graders used to be at the junior high school and now they’re moving to the high school.
She said, ”All the ninth grade books got delivered to the middle school. And we’ve got to get them three blocks away to the high school.”
She said, ”I have all the parents ready. They’ve donated their time and they’re all in the minivans. They’re ready to go. DCPS is telling me that we have to send the books to the warehouse.”
And I had just been to the warehouse, so I said to this lady, ”You are not sending those books to the warehouse.” I said, ”Thank the parents for me. That’s great. They shouldn’t have to do this. This is our job. Have them count the books. Transport the books and make sure you count them when they’re there.”
But we’re working in this system where – in what world does it make sense that we would take these books and send them clear across the city, to sit in a warehouse where we can’t guarantee what’s going to happen to them, and we run the risk of actually those kids not having their books for the first day of school?
But this is how the systems and the processes are set up, in such a way that, actually, we’re asking people to do things that don’t make common sense to the average person.
LAMB: By the way, the mayor is 36, the chief of police 39, and you’re 37.
LAMB: What’s it like to be 30-something and running a city?
RHEE: Well, I think we have people of lots of different ages who are helping to run the various agencies in the city.
In terms of the mayor, what I see is somebody who is incredibly thoughtful, very energetic, very, very focused. I mean, his commitment to the schools and ensuring that the schools have what they need to be successful is unprecedented.
I mean, literally, since I have been here, everything that I’ve talked about needing and all of the dysfunction that we’ve been uncovering, every time I meet with him – which is very often, because he’s very involved – this man has not flinched. He has not blinked once in just his relentless focus on getting the schools what we need at all costs.
LAMB: Did you find anybody resenting your youth?
RHEE: I think that people are skeptical initially of a lot of things. I think they’re skeptical of the fact that I am not African American, that I …
LAMB: Eighty percent of the students are African American.
RHEE: Absolutely – that I’m Korean, specifically, that I’m young.
And what I have found is that, after I can sit down with people, and I talk to them and they hear what I’m trying to do and why, that that very quickly dissipates.
Today, I was at the convention center and I was addressing all of our teachers. Our teachers came back to the convention center for a ”welcome back” event. So, we had, with our teachers and the paraprofessionals and counselors, librarians, everybody, we had over 5,000 people in the convention center today.
And it was interesting to me, because my staffers, who were sort of all around the building, one of them came back and said, ”It was fascinating to watch the audience turn when you got up to speak,” she said. Because, you know, I was standing towards the back.
And she was like, you could see in the body language, people had their arms crossed. They were very skeptical of what I was going to get up and say. And some of the women sort of even made comments about, ”Oh, gosh. Here’s another one.”
And she said, ”By the end of your speech, they were clapping, they were screaming. They were so excited. And they sensed that something was going on.”
And she said that one of them said to her – you know, the woman sitting next to her – ”I didn’t think I was going to like her, but I get it now.”
LAMB: What are they basing that on, though? What are you saying to them that – you know, number one, you probably aren’t telling them you’re going to fire anybody. Or are you?
RHEE: What I told people, very clearly, is that I am going to hold them accountable in a different way. And so …
LAMB: What’s that mean?
RHEE: … I have been very clear about that.
That means that we are going to be looking at the performance of every single individual in this city, in the city’s school district. And we’re going to look at what progress they’re making towards their goals.
And if we have individuals who are not seeing the progress for kids that we want – I mean, first we’ve got to give them the sort of support, training and resources they need to be successful. But if, after that point we still have individuals who are ineffective – teachers or other staff members – then I’m going to say that this is not the place for them to work.
LAMB: But again, I’m back in the classroom and I’m the kid. I’m the eighth grader. I assume you’d say, I’ll see a better-looking school at the end of the year.
LAMB: What about, though, will I have more homework?
RHEE: Yes. I am also very clear with the children, that they need to get ready to work harder than they’ve ever worked before.
LAMB: What if they then – what if the truant percentage goes up?
RHEE: Well, we have to – I mean, I think that truancy and behavior problems are actually linked to academics.
If you talk to our young people in the schools today who are repeatedly not coming to school or repeatedly getting into behavioral skirmishes, what they will tell you is that they’re not engaged in school, that there’s not oftentimes high-quality instruction going on in the classroom.
I meet with students all the time. This is where I get my energy from is kids. And this is what allows me to go in, day in and day out, and sort of do what I’m doing.
And if you talk to kids, they will tell you everything you need to know – about a particular classroom, about a school overall.
I was meeting with a group of students the other day at a community center. And they said to me, ”School is too easy.”
I mean, they’re basically saying ”People don’t have high expectations of us. It’s too easy. We don’t have enough work to do in the classrooms. We get to talk. We get to snack. We get to do all these things. And nobody is pushing us to do our work.”
And when you have that kind of environment, then you can understand why kids are off-task and not behaving properly. You can understand why they might get frustrated and decide not to come to school.
LAMB: How do you change that, though? I mean, you’re going to have your meetings with the principals. Can you tell the principals their teachers have to perform more?
LAMB: But how do you judge it? How can you – how do you know that they’re changing?
RHEE: How do we know that the teachers’ practices are changing?
RHEE: I think that when you step foot in a classroom, you will know whether or not the kids are engaged.
And we have to turn the role of the principal around. Right now in this city, if you look at principals and what they’re spending the bulk of their time doing, it’s not what I would want them to spend their time doing, meaning they are making 12 different calls to try to get somebody to come and fix the leaky toilet. They’re trying to see if they can somehow get paint donated to cover up the graffiti on the side of the wall.
Those issues – those facility-related issues – are now going to be taken care of. And I’ve told principals that I want them in the classrooms, driving quality instruction. And I think it – I mean, it’s possible.
I went to a school the other day that serves almost 100 percent African American kids a huge portion of free and reduced lunch. So, this was a school that, if you looked at it from the outside, it was not – it’s not a great looking school. We have peeling paint. We have all of the ills of urban education in this school.
And I walked into a classroom where I saw the most phenomenal teaching going on. And it was apparent. It was palpable.
This teacher was teaching a lesson – she was teaching a unit on Greek mythology. So she had put posters all around the room, talking about each god, their name and what they were the god of. This was a fourth grade classroom.
And the kids were reading a chapter book. And the book was about a group of kids who had traveled back in time to the days of Greek gods. And they were at the part of the story where they were trying to travel back to their own time.
And the teacher said, ”OK. So, look up at the wall. Look at all the gods and tell me which god do you think is going to be able to help these kids?”
And so I look up at the wall and I see the god of travel, and I assume this is the correct answer.
The first kid raises his hand and he says, ”I would choose Zeus, because he’s the god of gods. He’s the boss of all the other gods. So, it doesn’t matter what anybody else says, if he tells somebody to do something, they have to do it. So, that’s the one I choose.” That was a pretty good answer.
The second kid says, ”I would choose this god, who is the god of children, women and families, because these are kids. And so, she would want to take care of her own people.” Also a very good answer.
A third kid says, ”I would choose this god who is the god of” I think it was music, arts and literature. So, I think to myself, that’s a total misfire, right?
And then the kids explains why. It turns out the story – the way that the kids got transported back in time was they found an old Greek lyre, and they strummed the lyre, and that’s how they got transported back. So he’s thinking, if they want to go back, they’ve got to talk to the god of music.
These kids gave five answers total before somebody said the god of travel. All of them were incredibly insightful.
She had created this environment in her classroom where, first of all, it wasn’t just ”here’s a right answer and here’s a wrong answer, and then we’re going to move on,” but where the kids were critically thinking.
And they were engaged – 100 percent of those kids were engaged in that lesson. They were all reading that book. They were all looking up. They were looking at their environment.
And I just think it was amazing. And it was amazingly apparent what was going on, because I walked into another classroom in the school where not a whole lot was going on in that classroom. And you can tell – it’s palpable – by the engagement level of the kids.
LAMB: How do people who are around you know when you’re mad?
RHEE: It is very apparent when I am unhappy. I think the people at the central office will tell you that I make it very clear.
I am, on one hand, I think people are a little surprised at this. They say, ”Oh, you’re so personable. You’re nice.” And I have that side to my personality.
But I am also very focused and goal-oriented. I have no tolerance for people not operating in what I believe is the best interest of the kids. And we won’t have any tolerance for that moving forward in the system.
And I think, if you talk to the people who are at the central office right now, they will tell you that it is very apparent when I am displeased and when I do not think that things are functioning correctly.
LAMB: So, what do they see?
RHEE: They see somebody – the thing about me is that I am a straight shooter. I don’t namby-pamby around. I don’t fritter around the edges.
If somebody is not performing, if somebody has done something that I think is not in the best interest of kids or not moving our agenda forward, I’m very clear with them.
And I’ve said to people in the districts, I say, ”This is not going to work for me. This level of performance is unacceptable. And you need to understand right now” – and I’m very clear with them about what happened that I think was wrong, what needs to happen in the future.
But I don’t mince words. I mean, those meetings last five to seven minutes, and then we move on to the next thing.
LAMB: Well, in the ”Washington Post” article on June 11th, April Witt, who had written a lot of this series on the D.C. schools, talked about an anecdote that one of the former superintendents that had been fired, Franklin Smith, was approached by Army Lieutenant General Julius W. Becton, Jr., who became the chancellor. And this is the quote from Franklin.
”My only advice is that, in this job you turn around and look to see who is following you, because every time you think people are following you, they are not. And that includes the inside staff.”
And you know that everybody talks about how – stab in the back, wait till she gets out of the room – all that kind of stuff.
How are you protecting yourself? And how long do you give this job, if people don’t move for you?
RHEE: So, how am I protecting myself? I would say that I have surrounded myself with a great group of people, some from within the district, some from other places that I’ve worked with before who I brought in with me.
I feel like I have a very, very solid team around me, who I’m very much leaning on to get the bulk of the work of the district done right now.
LAMB: Are they from outside?
RHEE: Some of them are from outside, and some of them are internal people that I very quickly formed relationships with and I trust quite a bit.
So, I think that has been critical.
You asked how long …
LAMB: How long would you stay, if you find that people are shutting down and won’t respond to your requests?
RHEE: Well, shutting down and not responding to my requests is not an option. If people are shutting down and not responding to my requests, then they will be the ones to leave, not me.
LAMB: Yes, but what about what we talked about earlier, where it’s hard to fire anybody?
RHEE: I have some plans for how we’re going to make sure that we can have a central office that is high functioning, and that we can ensure that everyone – every adult who serves in this district will be held accountable for the performance that they see and whether or not the work that they’re doing is moving student achievement forward, which is the most important thing.
LAMB: So, how do you do it?
RHEE: Well, right now, I am working very closely with the mayor and some of his staff to look at what the possibilities are.
I think that it is – I think that people really understand that there has to be significant change in the central office and in this district.
I can’t tell you the number of times that I get pulled aside at community meetings by 70-year-old women who bring me aside and they say, ”Baby, I used to work at the district. I was a teacher and a principal for 30 years, and you’ve just got to blow the whole thing up.” I mean, people say that to me on a regular basis.
I think that I have a very clear public mandate from people – you know, I’ve met with people in living rooms in Anacostia, and I’ve met people in their living rooms west of the park, in boardrooms here downtown, in community centers, in libraries. I’ve been meeting with people non-stop since I’ve been here. And everybody is very clear on a fact, that they want to see significant change go on.
But I’ve been very clear as I’ve been out in the community. I said, you know, this could mean a lot of changes within personnel, and that sort of thing. And they’re like, whatever you need to do to get the job done.
LAMB: Is the number one problem headquarters?
RHEE: My number one priority right now is headquarters, because we have a culture right now within the central office where there is not a really clear understanding of what our orientation should be.
And I walk through the office sometimes and I’ll listen to people talk on the phone or deal with people who have come into the central office. And it sounds like they’re annoyed, like this is a nuisance.
And I’m saying, these people are not a nuisance. This is our job, to serve the – our customers are kids, first and foremost. We are serving them. Their parents, the teachers, the principals, you know, the paraprofessionals, if they’re coming in and asking questions, it is our job to serve them.
LAMB: Yes, but haven’t people told you that this culture has existed for years in the district?
RHEE: It’s going to change.
I went down today. You can well imagine that right now our H.R. department is very, very busy, because we’ve got to get everybody processed and hired for the first day of school and the beginning of school.
And I went down to the H.R. department today, and I sat in the waiting room. And I asked people, ”OK. Why are you here? What can I do to help? Have we made you mad?”
And it was an interesting dynamic, because half the people that were in the room waiting actually didn’t know who I was. And so, they were saying, ”Well, I came to do this.” They’re asking me for advice. They said, ”Well, could you make me a copy of this?”
One young woman, who I saw in the waiting room, I said, ”Are you good?”
And she said, ”Yes, I’m good. I’m ready. I’m just applying for this job.”
And then later I saw her in the elevator. And so I said, ”Did you get everything worked out?”
And she said, ”Not yet.”
And I said, ”Well, what happened?”
And she said, ”Well, I have to go home, because I’ve got to get online to download something.” This woman is probably like six, seven months pregnant.
And I said, ”Why do you have to go home for that?”
And she said, ”Well, how else am I going to get online?”
I took her back upstairs to my office, I sat her up at my computer, because I was leaving the office. And I said, ”Do what you need to do here. If you need anything, ask one of my staff members. Download it here, and then go back down. And then you won’t have to come back again.”
And she looked at me and she said, ”I can’t believe I’m up here. I can’t believe you’re the chancellor. I can’t believe that you’re letting me use your computer.”
This is the kind of thing – I mean, I’m one person, but right now, I think that I can set the tone in the building for how we need to operate.
LAMB: We’re about out of time, but assess the way the media has covered you since you’ve been here.
RHEE: Assess the way the media – I think that the media has been fair. And in some instances I think they’ve been very kind.
I think that the media has focused on a number of things that the average person out in D.C. is not focused on at all.
So, I think the coverage to-date has been fine.
I am not under any illusions, though, because I know that this is probably the honeymoon period, and that very shortly the media will start trying to pick everything that we’re doing apart. And I think that’s to be expected.
LAMB: Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, thank you very much for joining us.
RHEE: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.