The many faces of Michelle Rhee, action administrator
And now Michelle Rhee exits, and for perhaps the first time in modern political history, the face-saving declaration that the decision is "mutual" turns out to be exactly right. For many months, Rhee had privately said that there was no way she could serve under Washington's new mayor, Vincent Gray. And although Gray had always maintained publicly that he hadn't made up his mind about whether to get rid of Rhee, he had.
That much was clear in how he spoke to voters about what Rhee had done to the D.C. public schools during her three years as chancellor. Gray lamented the loss of so many experienced black teachers from schools that many Washingtonians think of more as community centers than as places for pushing children into more advanced modes of thought. And Gray was appalled by Rhee's impolitic manner and righteous arrogance--exactly the qualities that made her a folk hero to some--read white--parents.
Rhee herself was a media magnet, a too-good-to-be-true caricature of the impatient reformer who cared only about getting things done and not a whit about how she looked in the process. Except that she did care, and she read every word and she reacted to what reporters wrote in sometimes vindictive and petty ways.
All of which made her a challenge for those who sought to explain her to the public. I spent about six weeks in an effort to figure out what made Rhee Rhee, and the result was a cover story in the Washington Post Magazine that sought to trace the roots of Rhee's determination and steely self-confidence to her parents and their expectations of their (private-schooled) daughter. But I don't claim to have solved the puzzle of Michelle Rhee, and each of the many profiles that appeared about her took a different tack.
Where I focused on the family, June Kronholz of Education Next magazine emphasized the numbers, the test scores and other metrics that showed that although Rhee could point to some successes, the depth of dysfunction in an urban school system like Washington's was not remotely susceptible to a quick fix.
Writing in Fast Company, Jeff Chu saw Rhee as a business leader, a tough, numbers-obsessed administrator who expected that she would ultimately be judged by her ability to improve test scores and demonstrate greater efficiency on the part of teachers. This turned out not to be the case, of course, as Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty were driven out more because of their political failings than anything to do with the success or failure of school reforms.
Clay Risen, writing in The Atlantic, was one of the few reporters to case his Rhee profile in the context of the role that the public schools have traditionally played in the District. Former Mayor Marion "Barry quickly grasped that the school system could do more than just facilitate his own rise," Risen writes. "With its thousands of well-paying jobs, it was an ideal way to rebuild the black middle class—and, not incidentally, it was a limitless source of patronage." Risen was also the only profiler I've read who managed to get Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America and the spiritual godmother of the contemporary school reform movement, to talk about Rhee (She loves her.) The Risen piece wisely posits Rhee's self-image as a technocrat against Barry's insistence that education, like anything else government does, is ultimately an act of politics. "Whether or not you and the mayor want to take it out of the political arena, you cannot, because education all over America has political implications,” Barry told Rhee. “Parents are also voters.” Rhee has presumably now taken that lesson to heart.
The most famous Rhee profile, by Amanda Ripley in Time, is known more for its cover photo than for the content of the story. The picture of Rhee wielding a broom said it all for those who saw Rhee as a heartless exterminator of jobs.
And now the broom has been wielded in the other direction. Let the Rhee retrospectives begin....
| October 13, 2010; 11:52 AM ET
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