Stories like that one—later reported in the Washington Post—have made captivating material for Rhee’s critics, who wonder if Michelle Rhee would have fired Michelle Rhee. But while Rhee’s claims of meteoric test-score gains have since been disputed, it’s clear that she improved dramatically as a teacher. By her third year, her classroom had become a showpiece for Education Alternatives, which then encouraged the rest of the faculty to follow Rhee’s lead. Not surprisingly, some older members bristled at her favored status. “Good Morning America came in to watch,” recalls Andrea Derrien, who worked alongside Rhee. “After that point, it really was like we were isolated from the rest of the school.” The tension culminated in Rhee’s being nominated for Teacher of the Year, competing in a vote against a popular veteran whom Rhee thought incompetent. According to Whitmire’s book and the recollections of several former Harlem Park teachers, the anti-Rhee faction was so determined to defeat her that there were rumors they stuffed the ballot box.
No one who knew Rhee thought she would make a career of teaching. Indeed, by the time Education Alternatives was ousted from its management contract amid conflict with the union, Rhee had moved on to a graduate program at Harvard. From there, she launched an organization called the New Teacher Project. Drawing on the lessons of Harlem Park and the work of economists like Stanford’s Eric Hanushek, she came to the conclusion that teacher effectiveness had nothing to do with years of experience, specialized training, or distinctions like master’s degrees (all qualifications that she herself had lacked). Rhee now describes teaching ability as something akin to an inborn talent, joking that no matter how much she practiced basketball, she could never play in the NBA like her fiancé Kevin Johnson, the former All-Star and current mayor of Sacramento. She created the New Teacher Project to identify other naturals.
Rhee’s organization contracted recruitment services to school districts, targeting career-changing professionals. (“You remember your first-grade teacher’s name,” read a memorable subway ad for the project’s NYC Teaching Fellows program. “Who will remember yours?”) But when Rhee came to the conclusion that union rules were preventing her organization from placing applicants, the New Teacher Project began to branch into politics, issuing a series of critical reports. Her activities met with hostility from the unions but caught the eye of Joel Klein, then New York City’s schools chancellor. When Adrian Fenty, the new reform-minded mayor of Washington, was looking for a schools chief, Klein offered a daring recommendation: Rhee.
Whereas at the New Teacher Project Rhee had focused on bringing talented teachers into urban districts, her work in D.C. was mostly concerned with the negative side of the ledger—prefiguring the debates that are roiling state capitals this year. She moved quickly to assert her authority, deposing many principals and closing 23 schools, and then zeroed in on the teachers union and its expiring contract.
Rhee was particularly influenced by economic studies predicting that the nation could reap outsize gains in educational performance simply by dislodging the worst 5 to 10 percent of teachers. Her team in Washington came up with a system called IMPACT, which incorporates a “value added” statistical model to assess teacher quality. IMPACT was designed to control for variables like the class’s income level and English-language proficiency, and scores teachers on two major factors: classroom skill, as determined by multiple evaluations, and results, based on students’ improvement on standardized tests. Then IMPACT sorts teachers into categories ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.” Value-added models have been around since the nineties, but Rhee’s controversial proposal was to apply them to firing decisions.
During the contract renegotiation, Rhee offered to pay top scorers six-figure salaries, provided the union give up its tenure protection. That meant ineffective instructors could also be canned. Rhee said her plan would reward the best teachers, offer middling ones an incentive to improve, and root out incompetents. But workers suspected her real agenda was to break the union, and they turned the offer down flat.
This past June, Rhee finally got the union to agree to a contract that looked a lot like her original proposal, but the victory came at an enormous political cost. The union sponsored protests decrying mass firings, and backed Vincent Gray, a city councilman who entered the primary against Fenty. Rhee didn’t help her boss by reveling in her strident national image, wielding a broom on the cover of Time. “I don’t mind firing people, because I know it is going to help kids,” she told the Washington Post.
All told, more than half of the district’s 4,200 teaching positions turned over as a result of layoffs, firings, and attrition during Rhee’s tenure. The payoff, she claims, came in test-score increases that showed Washington to be perhaps the nation’s most-improved district. When Fenty lost to Gray, to Rhee’s shock and no one else’s, she went through some soul-searching and concluded that while she could have explained herself better, she made all the right decisions. It was the public she had misjudged. “The idea that when people saw the results they would want more of it was absolutely wrong,” she said in a recent speech.