Michelle, Founder @ StudentsFirst
I have been a person who I think has been used effectively in that divisive dynamic, right? People all the time would use my name and say, "People like Michelle Rhee believe in X, Y, Z." Half the time — more than half the time when I hear that stuff, I think, "Actually, that's NOT what I believe."
The crazy thing about it is that in some ways everybody is a little bit right, and nobody is all the way right.
Michelle Rhee has been working in education reform for over 25 years - fighting to ensure that every child has equal access to great schools & great teachers. She was Founder of The New Teacher Project, the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, and Founder of StudentsFirst, a bipartisan grassroots movement to improve America’s schools. She is also a mom of two daughters, Starr and Olivia. Michelle was interviewed as part of our #EdLeader series by RE-ENVISIONED Co-Founder & Executive Director, Erin Raab
The first question is just to tell me a little bit about you and your journey in the world of education.
Sure. I started my career as a teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. I taught second and third grade. That experience changed my life. As with anybody who's in the classroom, once you have students counting on you every day to get a good education —your focus and your priorities shift a lot, and your perspective too.
I was not a great teacher my first year at all: I struggled as most first-year teachers do. But in my second and third year I looped with one group of kids from second to third grade, and became super close with them and their families. I became more embedded in the community and ended up having a very different experience.
One of the things I realized is that the quality of education the kids got was so grounded in who the adults were in front of them every single day.
For that reason, teacher quality became a real focus area of mine. When I left teaching, I went to the Kennedy School of Government. I did a Master's in Public Policy with a concentration in Education Policy. I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do with that degree; I just knew that I wanted to have a bigger impact on public education systems in our country.
After I graduated I started The New Teacher Project. Our goal was to help school districts and state departments of education across the country recruit, select, and train high-quality teachers. At the time that I started TNTP the nation was in the midst of a teacher shortage - there was tons of data out there saying we need 2 million teachers in the next decade, and talking about how quickly teachers were leaving the profession, et cetera. So that was my area of focus. Over the course of the ten years that I ran TNTP we worked with a lot of the large urban school districts across the country. I saw all the impediments that were preventing schools from being able to hire and keep great teachers. We did a number of studies and continued to work with school districts on these barriers.
At about ten years after founding TNTP I was approached by the DC public schools to become the chancellor. That was the last thing that I wanted to do. I always thought, "Those are the worst jobs in the world." But I took it on because I decided that it was important to not just talk the talk as a person who was consulting with school districts, but actually walk the walk. And so I took the job on, was in it for three-and-a-half years. As chancellor, the scope of my work was more broad, but I did continue to focus on educator quality. We put in place a lot of different reforms related to that.
After that I had a political advocacy organization called StudentsFirst, the focus was on how to change state-level policies to be more aligned with the best interest of students. I stepped away from that about a year-and-a-half ago or so. I'm doing other things now, but I'm still involved in education. I do still some consulting and some work with a few different educational organizations.
That's awesome. That's quite a journey. I’m impressed at how concise you are, considering how much must have happened through all of those experiences, how much you learned. Thank you.
So, the next couple of questions are all centered on a kid you care about.
I'm going to ask you to just take a minute and think about a kid that you really care about. And when you're ready, tell me a little bit about who that kid is.
I have two children, so obviously I'd pick one of them. Their personalities are wildly different, so I'll pick Starr who is my oldest daughter. She is very motivated, super diligent, a “by the book” great kid. My younger daughter, Olivia, is very not rules-oriented. She’s more creative and an “out of the box” thinker but equally ambitious. So they have sort of opposite personalities.
That's the same with my sister and I too – very different personalities. It's interesting how that happens. Well, if there are times in these questions where your answer might be different for Olivia please do speak to it.
So when you think about Starr out of school, maybe in her 30s as a grownup - living her life - what is it you hope for her? What is a good or a successful life?
I would hope that she has a job she loves and is challenged by. I hope that job allows her to provide for herself and her family. And, I would hope that she is a contributor to society, that somehow she is making the world, and society, or her community better by whatever she's doing every day.
Is there anything you worry might get in the way of her achieving that or being able to create that kind of good life?
For her, no. I mean, she's always been diligent and she knows what she has to do. She's about to head out to college. I'm sure she will graduate in four years. She's very rules-oriented, and she kind of knows what is expected of her. She's fiery, and she gets what she wants, and she is somebody who doesn't have a lot of tolerance for spending time doing things that she doesn’t think are productive. With her I don't worry about her getting caught up in expectations of having to do certain things versus others, because she's a super independent thinker. And so I'm confident she will find her way.
That's great. We're trying to figure out the right way to ask this question, so maybe you can help us think about it. We're trying to understand if there are things about the world — like the kind of society you'd like her to live in.
If we're creating both individuals and our society through schools, what's the kind of world or the kind of society that you would want her to live in, now and in the future?
I think one of the broader societal challenges that we face right now — and education reform is a microcosm of this - is that we have increasingly become a people who are divided. If everyone believes there is a clear right and a clear wrong, and that whatever I believe is right, then automatically other people who have different views are wrong. That kind of thinking is what leads to the polarization we’re seeing.
Instead, we need people to be more accepting and understanding that there are lots of different ways to think about things, the solutions that we need to come to are never just one sided.
I hope that a decade from now our society will have sort of evolved to less of this - everybody staking out their position in their camp about what's right and what's wrong. I hope we kind of are able to have more discussions and realize that it's going to be a combination of what lots of different people believe that is going to get us to the right solutions. So when you asked what I'm worried about, I worry about our ability as a society to get there, given where we are today.
Yes. That's part of the reason for what we're doing at RE-ENVISIONED.
It's interesting for me to talk about this angle of it because I have been a person who I think has been used effectively in that dynamic, right?
People all the time would use my name and say, "People like Michelle Rhee believe in X, Y, Z." Half the time — more than half the time when I hear that stuff, I think, "Actually, that's NOT what I believe. Yes, I think that this is important, but I also believe this, and I also believe this," right?
And so I think it's been more front and center for me because I see myself and my own views being used in this very polarizing manner. Whenever I see it happen, I think, "This is just not helpful. This is not good. It's not productive. It's not going to get us to where we need to be." What we need is to have more conversations in the middle: I always say,
“The middle is where the answers are.”
The real solutions are going to happen if we're having conversations in the middle to say, "Yeah, that's true. I could be right on this. You could be right on that.” Compromise, I think, is a tough word because people feel that means it's somehow lessening what they believe, and I think it's less that and more to figure out a middle ground that could actually be the solution. At least in education reform we don't have those kinds of conversations — and, I think, increasingly outside of education reform - when it comes to almost any issue that's a politically hot-topic issue these days, I see similar dynamics. Although, there are spaces where I think, "Okay, that community has the right conversations and the right dynamics going on."
I totally agree. I'd love to follow up with you on your ideas because that's worth thinking about — not right in the middle of this interview :) It’s part of why we’re doing these interviews and fostering these conversations.
I do feel strongly about this because it's so saddening when I see these polarizing things happening.
And part of the challenge is that society is moving more in the direction where everything is based on soundbites and 140-character tweets and that sort of thing. You can't have real and substantive conversation when it's that limited.
That's where I feel we get in trouble - with the soundbites and with just the short snippets. You have to build the relationships with people. You have to build and gain their trust, and then through those relationships and trust-building you can have these dialogues.
Nothing is going to be solved in a short period of time, right? It's about working through things together and then having those real conversations.
Like I said, I've got to know what the venues are in which to have the conversations. I think that there are lots of potential conveners and facilitators of those conversations, but people have to be willing to engage in them. People sometimes think I'm crazy, and yet, I still have a lot of hope that it is possible, if the right leaders with credibility and respect came forward and said, "Okay, we really want to put together lots of people to have these meaningful conversations." I think it's possible.
I think we have to think it's possible. Without hope you can't keep working and moving forward.
I have talked to a lot of people who are so unwilling to see anything outside of their one viewpoint about how we're going to fix the schools, as an example. It's an unwillingness to see that. They just want to march full force with no kind of understanding or no desire to hear some of the other thoughts. And so that's why I think that it is possible for people not to have hope, because they just believe that other ideas and other things just aren't going to work. It's only their thing. So it's going to take a little work to get people to a place where they have some hope that coming together can produce something positive and worthwhile.
Moving back a little bit to Starr, when you think about this life, and you were talking about her really — you want her to have a job she loves and is challenged by, that she can provide for herself, that she is a contributor to society in a way that makes it better.
What is the ideal role of schooling in helping Starr achieve that good life?
I think schooling nowadays is probably different than it was several decades ago. There's the hard academic skills: kids need to be able to read, write, analyze, synthesize sort of the world around them, the information that they're getting, so that they can be critical thinkers. There's that piece of it. But I think increasingly there's a role that schools have to play in opportunity and exposure in a way that wasn't necessary 50 years ago.
I also think that increasingly in schools there's a need to build the softer skills. How do we mold people into great human beings, people who are compassionate, and who care about others, and who are empathetic, but who also are independent and have personal responsibility, character or values. I think that there is an increasing need for schools to introduce it in some cases, in some cases reinforce it. I think that the role of schooling is evolving.
Would you say these are the things that you looked for, for Starr when you chose schools: the academic skills, the opportunity and exposure, and the softer skills?
Yes, this is why I'm a huge proponent of, "One size does not fit all." Because my kids are very different personalities;
I knew almost from the beginning that the kind of environments that each of them would be successful in and the kind of environments that would help each of them would be very different.
For Starr, I would always look for a place that would be academically rigorous and would challenge her academically, because that was important for just kind of her level of learning and whatnot.
But I also felt like she needed to be in a school that had a diversity of opinion. I did not think she would do well if she was in a homogeneous setting, because I think it'd be too easy for her, the rule-follower, to step into one way of thinking. She is so headstrong, I knew she needed to be in an environment where there were lots of kids with lots of different opinions, and who were just as smart as she were, and could argue with her about those things so that she could broaden her horizons. And that's different from my younger daughter.
You were so thoughtful and intentional about it. How did you think about it for Olivia?
When Olivia was little, we put her in a Montessori school just because that was the thing to do, right? "Oh, put them in Montessori." What we realized really early on with her is that Montessori was not a good model for her because she needed structure. When she was in an environment where she knew what was expected of her, then she could focus herself better, and she could feel more at ease in some ways - when she had that structure. The freedom and philosophy of Montessori, it just wasn't good for her personality.
So, she needed something that was more structured, where there was clear accountability. When she didn't know what was expected of her, that made her anxious. She just needed a different kind of environment. I think kids evolve over time and, with her, she needed that structure so that she could organize herself and her thinking first. Now that she's in high school, I guess she's matured and she has that solid base. She's able to be more creative and think outside of the box a little bit more, but she had to have that grounding in a more structured environment first.
It's so interesting how this stuff works.
Do you think that schools did play the role, the ideal role you wanted them to for Starr? You can talk about both of them, but in what ways yes and no? Obviously it's not always 100 percent.
I think in some ways, yes — this is probably what every parent would say, right? Some of it was good, and some of it wasn’t —nothing is perfect.
No school is perfect. No schooling of a child is perfect.
I think that certainly she's a great kid. I think she has gained the academic skills that she needs. Because of experiences that she's had, she has learned a lot of those “outside-of-academic” skills that I would want her to have.
For example, she goes to a public school right now, and a lot of the stuff there she has to scrap for. For example, she's been involved in the debate team, and the debate team needs a lot of resources. So, they have to do bake sales, rent a van to go to a tournament, or other things. But then she sees the students from the private schools across town who have all the money in the world for coaches and all these other resources. Through that experience, she has seen the inequities of what the kids at her school don't have that other kids do.
And then she knows that she's super privileged, because she has more resources at her disposal because of our family than the kids she goes to school with. But that awareness has been an important piece to her education that has to do with who she goes to school with and the circumstances of that school, as opposed to just the academics. I think she's gotten a solid academic foundation. Could it have been more rigorous? Certainly, but when you put all of the experiences together, was it one that I think was one that gives her some skills and some experiences that hopefully will prepare her well? I'd say yes.
We're going to step away from your girls and think about it more broadly in terms of like, "Will schools play the ideal role you'd like them to for all children?"
Obviously we're all working in ED reform, so it's also a question of in what ways yes and no… and I realize that it’s an enormously broad question, but you can approach it as you would like to.
It depends so much on the school because schools in a certain community are providing kids with a certain experience, and other communities and other schools are wildly different. But I'd say generally the challenge is that every child is different. For instance, I was just talking about my girls and how they're different, and so they need different things. Every kid is like that to a certain extent. But, that's not the way that our education system is set up right now. When you're trying to do something at scale and have certain standards, you tend to fall into a standard way that you do things. Then, you hope that those kids hone into that way of doing things, so that they can get out of it what they need.
So, the way our system is set up doesn't allow for individualization nor customization for what individual kids need. That's the major challenge that we face. But given all of the constraints that we're operating under — which are significant — we're making progress.
I believe people for the most part are trying to do the right thing, and people are working hard.
There is progress that's being made, but that's sort of balanced against what I think the biggest challenge is: this lack of— individualization.
This almost gets to be a philosophical question. Why do you think we have schools as a society? What's the purpose of school? Why does the government make everyone go to school? : Why school?
I think the original intention around school is exactly right: you want to have an educated society, and you want to provide that education to all children. That's why we have compulsory education, so that all children have an equal opportunity in life. I think that was one of the original intentions around why we have a public school system, which I think is a good and worthy one.
So you think that's still the major purpose?
Yes - preparing the next generation to be productive members of society, where people can live up to their potential. So you're in the environment where you have the opportunity to learn, to excel, and to see what is possible.
And then, based on all that and what your interests and passions are, then you choose a path in life. That paradigm, I think, is a worthy one and one that I think almost all parents would say, "Yes, that's important."
Given your understanding about the purposes and kind of the challenges we're facing in school, how is your work solving these challenges, or creating schools that serve this purpose?
Some of the work that I've done throughout my career has been really focused on equity issues. If you look at our society right now, social mobility in America is not what it once was.
If you are a child who was born into poverty in this country, the likelihood that you will be able to escape poverty is not high. And that goes against every ideal that we have as a country, and it makes me mad - it is the fire in my belly that just pisses me off every day, that we have children who have so much potential and so much to offer the world, and they are not able to live up to that potential because they're not able to attend high-quality schools.
I've spent a fair amount of my career focused on ensuring that the children who need the most opportunities have a high-quality education. In that way, I'm trying to push things forward.
Unfortunately, people have created this dynamic where you believe in one thing: you are in one camp. So people say, "Oh, she's in the no-excuses camp, and those people believe that poverty doesn't matter." No, I don't - I know poverty matters. I know that when kids come from low-income households with fewer resources, that it makes educating them harder. Do I believe that wraparound services are important? Absolutely. It is also absolutely important that we have high academic standards for kids, that we are holding schools accountable for whether or not they are meeting those standards. That was something that has added to the divisiveness of the debate.
Unfortunately, it's because we're not listening as much to the nuances. That's where I would say my work has helped serve that purpose. But in some ways potentially it hasn't, because it has helped to further polarize things or make the conversation divisive, and that has not been good.
That's a really powerful statement and way of thinking about it.
There are good sides to my work, and not so great sides to my work. So I think the focus on equity— which, honestly, 30 years ago I don't think there was this conversation —there have been positive things that have come with that. But like I said, I think there are ways in which my work and what I have done and said in the past has added to this divisive environment, which hasn't been good.
One hopes that the good outweighs the bad in anyone's career. I would hope that maybe it has been a little bit more good than bad, but I need to be honest - it's real.
I've been working on education reform now for more than 25 years. When I started all this as a teacher, I was 21 years old. I would've thought, "Oh, two decades from now we will be so much better," and now I'm looking back almost three decades later, and I'm thinking, "Dang, it's not really better.”
The crazy thing about it is that in some ways everybody is a little bit right, and nobody is all the way right.
Getting people to be in a mindset where they can be partially right, and then everyone that they think they disagree with also is partially right on certain things, I think that's where the answer is.
So how do you bring people together who are willing to engage and be willing to see and acknowledge where they might be right and wrong?
That, I think, is the key, and I don't know how. Like I said, I think we ought to be able to do that. It's just going to take the right dynamics, the right people bringing folks together, the right environments to have those meaningful conversations.
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