January 3, 2008
Written by C.N.
In their end-of-year issue, Newsweek magazine profiles several dynamic, “up and coming” personalities that are likely to make news in the upcoming year. Among those profiled is the only Asian American on the list — Michelle Rhee, the newly appointed chancellor of the Washington DC public school system. As the article describes, her style is getting people’s attention:
One day [in 1993] a bumblebee got into the classroom and the students were more out of control than ever. . . . When the bee landed on Rhee’s desk, she swatted it, popped it in her mouth and gulped it down. For the first time, it seemed, her students were quiet. After that day they paid more attention, even if they were just waiting to see what she’d do next. . . .
She has already piqued unions and parents by announcing plans to fire more than 100 administrative workers and close down 23 schools. “If the rules don’t make sense for kids, I’m not going to follow them. I don’t care how much trouble we get in,” she warned [Washington DC mayor Adrian] Fenty [who appointed her to the position].
No one is more aware than Rhee that she is an unconventional fit for D.C. She has never run a school district. Then there is the issue of a Korean-American running predominantly African-American schools. Rhee has tried to defuse racial tension with her blunt talk. “I bet you are wondering what this Korean lady is doing here,” she told one all-black audience. . . .
She has met with every school principal, telling those at failing schools they could lose their jobs if they don’t raise test scores. Her imperial style has irked some. “Good. I don’t want them to be comfortable,” Rhee says.
I had never heard of Michelle Rhee until I read this article, so I really don’t know anything more about her other than what the article describes. Nonetheless, I admire and support her desire to challenge the status quo and to take some risks in trying to change things around and make a real difference in her students’ lives.
If the status quo means chronic underperformance and routinely failing to live up to its mission of providing their students with a high quality education, then the status quo — and those who support it — need to be changed.
Normally I am a staunch supporter of unions (being a member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association myself), but in many cases that I’ve seen/read about, sometimes the biggest impediments to improvement are teachers’ unions, as much as a liberal like me hates to admit it.
It is indeed unfortunate when people in any organization are more concerned with maintaining the status quo for their own comfort rather than actually trying everything they can to help their students get a good education.
Of course, not all teachers are as complacent and in fact, most teachers are caring, dedicated, and passionate about making a difference in their students’ lives. Nonetheless, there seem to be too many out there who abuse the privileges and protections of their position and care more about their job security rather than their actual performance.
Therefore, I think Michelle Rhee’s strategy of shaking things up is exactly what underperforming school districts like Washington DC needs. I wish her the best success in her efforts to improve the lives of her students.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Up and Coming School Reformer: Michelle Rhee" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/01/up-and-coming-school-reformer-michelle-rhee/> ().
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