Reflecting on her time as the District of Colombia's chancellor of education, Michelle Rhee encouraged those at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to get active in the game if they want to see change in education.
"We need help now," she said. "We can't wait 10 years for the longitudinal study."
During the discussion at Askwith Hall, Rhee shared her experiences and warned the audience that she didn't have a lot of answers to the issues that plague education, but that she certainly had many opinions. The latter Rhee openly discussed as part of the Nexus Series, a new doctoral colloquium that serves as an opportunity for Ed.D. and Ed.L.D. students and faculty to come together and engage with practitioners, leaders, and researchers who work at the nexus of practice, policy, and research.
Rhee's passion for the wellbeing of children and her drive for change were what led to her extensive career in education. Rhee, 40, has worked with Teach For America and founded the New Teacher Project, in addition to her three controversial years as chancellor in Washington D.C.
Looking back on her experience as chancellor, Rhee recognized that focusing exclusively on fixing problems in the district was playing the wrong game. She revealed that she was naïve to think that working hard, recruiting the best teachers, and seeing gains would be enough to persuade people to her side. "We lost because we were not playing the political game," Rhee lamented, urging the student educators to get involved in the politics of education reform.
As a chancellor who became well known for firing more than 20 teachers during her first year on the job, Rhee stood by her position on the importance of recruiting and retaining effective teachers while removing ineffective teachers. "There are a lot of people who are good people but not effective educators," she said, comparing this to her joining a basketball team, not being able to actually play, but being kept on the team just because she showed up for practice.
Rhee said she didn't have a problem with teachers unions because in the end they are doing their jobs. However, she did criticize the role teacher unions now play in driving policy calling attention to the "lopsided" fight between the unions and students in school districts, specifically how children do not have equal representation.
"When kids are getting screwed, it pisses me off," she said.
She mentioned the need for an interest group or a grassroots organization that looked out specifically for children in policy and education reform.
Several students asked Rhee for advice on leadership, as well as her perspective on what makes a good leader. Rhee noted that she thinks leaders can't be afraid to stand in a room with people yelling in anger or who don't want to have the hard discussions. In her view, education is treated too softy in that no one wants to have difficult conversations. "In education, people are really conflict adverse...," she said. "I think that is problematic because we will never move the ball forward unless we duke it out.".
Although Rhee said she didn't know the next step for her career just yet, she did perk up upon being asked by Ed.L.D. student Joe Doctor about her hopes for the education conversation in 20 or 30 years. "I would hope we are not arguing about how long an ineffective teacher stays in the classroom," she said.
"I do not want to be sitting here 10 years from now at the age of 50 and the educational outcomes for poor minority kids in this country are no better off then when I started in this job at 21. We are on pace for that to happen," she said. "We came into this movement not to see a 1 percent growth a year, but because we wanted to see a transformation ... and if we don't accomplish that, it is going to be really sad."