Rhee doesn’t like to be managed or muzzled by platitudes, and she prefers to travel alone with her BlackBerry, free of handlers. On a frigid winter morning in New York, after a predawn burst of e-mails, she departs her hotel for a whirlwind series of television interviews, evidence of a sudden stardom that is sometimes baffling even to Rhee. “But in the grand scheme of boring bureaucrats,” she says, “I’m really good at this.”
Whisking from Fox News to Bloomberg before heading to the Today show, Rhee picks up a copy of the Journal and scans it for a column under her own byline arguing that fiscal crises around the country could usher in “the best of times” for education reformers. By lunchtime, she’s in the back of a Town Car on her way to the Capitol Building in Trenton, to be Christie’s guest of honor at his State of the State address. “No one in America has been more clear that we must change our public-education system from one that caters to the feelings of adults to one that prepares our children for the 21st century,” the governor says as he introduces her to the crammed chamber. “Michelle … I want you to count New Jersey among those who, like you, are finally putting students first.” When he finishes, Christie strides over and wraps Rhee in a bearish hug, and they recede to a closed-door meeting in the governor’s chambers. Then Rhee is speeding back to Cipriani’s on 42nd Street, where Davis Guggenheim, the director of Waiting for “Superman,” is to receive the award for Best Documentary at the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures’ annual gala.
Milling around awkwardly during the cocktail hour, as Christian Bale makes his entrance through a gully of flashbulbs, Rhee is greeted by director M. Night Shyamalan. They met a few years ago, over a dinner in Washington, where the director asked her to explain what five factors are most essential to a child’s education. Rhee told him there was really just one thing: “Have a good teacher three years in a row.”
Her answer to Shyamalan may sound simplistic, but it’s the reform movement’s creed. Rhee cites recent studies that suggest a string of effective teachers can make a huge difference in a student’s test scores, and that a few lousy ones can sentence a child to a life of underachievement. She argues that there are far too many of those bad teachers clinging to jobs, especially in poor urban districts, and shutting out bright newcomers. “My thing is to differentiate,” Rhee says, “figure out who your highly effective teachers are, and then terminate the ineffective ones.” This sort of pruning is easier when funding is scarce, and Rhee argues that these lean times offer a rare opportunity: a chance to purge the public-education system. “Nobody wants to be in a fiscal crisis—this sucks,” Rhee told me earlier that day, on the ride back from Trenton. “But it is providing this opportunity for us to bring these things to life. Look, teachers are going to lose their jobs. That’s not a good thing. But as long as that is a reality that we’re facing, let’s do it in a smart way.”
Rhee’s talk of progress through pain can come across as callous, or worse, but her many admirers say she’s merely speaking hard truths. “She’s someone bringing a clear and honest voice,” Guggenheim tells me later, “where everyone else talks in this sort of edu-speak.” Her ability to make clear choices out of complex trade-offs—between the interests of adults and children, fairness and the bottom line—lends her message an appeal that reaches far beyond the realm of politics. Rhee launched StudentsFirst in an appearance on Oprah; last week she sat for another gauzy Today show interview with Jenna Bush Hager. Most important, perhaps, for Rhee’s ambitions, her cause has struck a chord with a cadre of wealthy philanthropists, billionaires like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, whose foundations help drive the national education agenda.
“She’s attracting lots of people who haven’t been involved in education philanthropically,” says Broad, who says he plans to be a “major donor” to StudentsFirst. As he explains it, his rationale for underwriting Rhee mirrors her view of the nature of teaching: It’s all about her individual talent. “We don’t have that charisma, frankly.”
Four years ago, few people outside the pedantic confines of education policy had ever heard of Rhee. When I asked the professor and historian Diane Ravitch to explain her brash emergence, she replied, “She’s in sync with the narrative of our time.” Ravitch does not mean that as a compliment. A former Education Department official under the first George Bush who has come to consider the reform movement misguided, she recently wrote a book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, that offers an astringent critique of the proposition—voiced most zealously by Rhee—that teachers are the root cause of, and solution to, all of the system’s problems. Until fairly recently, everyone took it for granted that parents, educators, and communities shared the responsibility for schooling children, and presumed that outcomes were the product of a complex web of circumstances. Now the calculus has been narrowed to a single variable, the instructors, who are offered all the credit and shoulder all the blame.