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Republicans gathered for their national convention this week in Tampa, Fla., are talking tough about the influence of teachers unions on school systems across the country. Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C.’s public school system, attracted nationwide attention for challenging teachers on sensitive issues like tenure and accountability. We talk with Rhee, who was in Tampa this week, about what she wants to hear from Republicans and Democrats when it comes to education policy.
- Michelle Rhee Founder and CEO, StudentsFirst; Former Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 and from the studios of WMNF in Tampa, Fla., welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. For the past five years, the District of Columbia has been a central background in America's nationwide debate over education reform. It's a city where Democrats control every lever of political power, but it's also a city where political leaders and school administrators have pushed the envelope on education issues that have long been sacred cows for Democrats and the unions who overwhelmingly support them.
MR. KOJO NNAMDITeacher tenure, merit pay, test scores, accountability, many of those ideas set into motion by Democrats in the District now draw the loudest applause from Republicans. Look no farther than the keynote address delivered here at the party's national convention by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who said the Democrats believe in teachers' unions, while the GOP believes in teachers themselves.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, we'll speak to a GOP official on D.C.'s Board of Education, but first, we're joined by the central figure in the District's recent battles over its schools, a person who traveled to Tampa this week and will be traveling to Charlotte next week to discuss her vision with both Republicans and Democrats. We're talking about Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, an education advocacy organization. She's, of course, the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. She joins us by phone. Michelle Rhee, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MS. MICHELLE RHEEThanks for having me again, Kojo.
NNAMDIGood to talk to you. You identify as a Democrat. Your husband, Kevin Johnson, is the mayor of Sacramento, Calif. and a Democrat with a nationwide profile, but here you were in Tampa, engaging with politicians who were very sympathetic with your ideas. What were you aiming to do here at the Republican convention this week?
RHEEYou're absolutely right. My husband and I are both very strong lifelong Democrats, but what we know is that education and education reform have to be a bipartisan issue. And we actually both think that this is a good issue around which potentially as a politician in Washington, D.C. and nationwide can coalesce around. So what we were doing was there is a new movie coming out, a new major motion picture that will be coming out at the end of September. It's called "Won't Back Down," and it's a story of a low-income mom whose kid is trapped in a failing school.
RHEEAnd she's looking for better options for her kids -- her child, and it's about her fight to make that happen and how she works with teachers in the school that her daughter attends to make that transformation happen. And we think it's an incredibly powerful and potentially potent movie, and so we want to show it both at the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte next week so that we could have politicians from both sides of the equation really focus on and talking about this issue of education reform.
NNAMDIRandi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that this film, in her view, demonizes teachers, that it's part of an onslaught from politicians and activists that has, quoting her, "shamed and marginalized the work they do." How do you see it, and what concerns do you have about whether teachers are being made into boogiemen?
RHEEWell, I don't know if she saw the same movie I saw or not, but the movie that I saw -- and I think that everyone who sees this movie will agree -- is that this is about parents and teachers coming together. It's about teachers who know that the system is broken who want to do something about it. In fact, one of the two heroines in the movie is a teacher who is fighting for a, you know, a better sort of outcome for her student and for her own son.
RHEESo I don't -- I have no idea how anybody could take this movie and see it at all as villainizing teachers because I actually think it so celebrates teachers. I think it also shows a lot of complexities about, you know, why teachers are a little bit, you know, struggling with the different reforms that are happening because they have, you know, fears about, you know, what happens when the school is turned around. Are we still going to have our jobs?
RHEEIt actually shows all those things, but it shows teachers working through all those anxieties and at the end of day really supporting reforms. And I think that's a powerful message for teachers across the country.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. She is the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, which is an education advocacy organization. She was in Tampa this week, at the Republican National Convention. She'll be going on next week at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIYou can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Michelle Rhee, you have engaged with the GOP before, one of year first gigs after leaving the District was serving on Florida Gov. Rick Scott's transition team as an education adviser, was it not?
RHEEYou know, again...
RHEE...I probably never imagined, you know, in my earlier life that I would ever be working as closely with GOP politicians, to tell you the truth, because, you know, my politics, again, are very left-leaning personally. However, what I have found -- and I think this started through my experiences in D.C. -- is that we cannot turn education into a partisan issue, where it's Republicans against Democrats.
RHEEWe as both parties need to come together based on what is on the best interest of kids. And we have to be willing to put our partisan politics aside for what's right for kids. And so we have been absolutely willing to work with folks on both sides of the aisle to make that happen.
NNAMDIThere are a lot of people talking about education here in Tampa this week, but the one who, I guess, matters most for the moment is the person on the top of the presidential ticket, Mitt Romney. From what you have seen of him, from what you have seen of the Republican National Committee platform, the Republican Party platform, what have you liked, and what sense do you get that his approach would be substantively different, if at all, from the current president, Obama's?
RHEEWell, I'm pretty certain that neither party would want me to say this, but I'm going to say it, anyways, which is there is more...
NNAMDIYou're not been known for saying things that the parties want you to say.
RHEERight. But the bottom line is that the two parties have more similarities on the issue of education reform than they have differences. And that is why I actually think that that this is an opportunity for the parties to come together and say, OK, we may not agree on things like taxes and Medicare, but let's come together on the issue of education. Both parties, both the administration and Gov. Romney have been very strong on things like school choice and the need for more high-performing charter schools, on teacher quality.
RHEESo there are a lot of similarities on those things. I'd say that, you know, from the Romney camp the one thing that I would say I'm concerned about is, are they going to really remain strong on accountability, because certainly there is a faction within the Republican Party, you know, with the Tea Partiers who don't want any federal involvement in the schools. And I actually think that what No Child Left Behind did on the accountability front is very important, and certainly, there are things about No Child Left Behind that need to be changed.
RHEEBut on the accountability front, holding all schools, regardless of what community they are in, to standards of excellence and ensuring that all kids are progressing academically is incredibly important. And I would want to make sure and see that the Romney folks are not kowtowing to the special interest within their party to lower or lessen at all what they are doing on the accountability front.
NNAMDIWell, you seemed to think that we're really not hearing enough from either candidate on education. You said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that you were frustrated by how little you were hearing from either presidential candidate on this issue. But StudentsFirst ran commercials during the Olympics, apparently trying to get the conversation started. The basic thrust of those commercials was that if education was an Olympic sport, we would have gotten our rear ends kicked at the 2012 Summer Games. Care to talk about that?
RHEEAbsolutely. You know, the Olympics are such incredibly proud times for the U.S. Our young people are out there. They're competing with the best in the entire world, and they're winning. They're showing over and over again that the U.S. is dominant. And it's such a time of patriotism, and everyone feels good during that time when they're glues to their TV sets. And I think that it's incredibly unfortunate that we as a country are falling boldly short on the academic side.
RHEEWe, you know, rank 14th and 17th and 25th out of 30 developed nations in science and reading and math, and yet there is no outcry about this. I mean, can you imagine if, in the medal count, we were below countries like Hungary and Belgium? I mean, you know, the American people would be going absolutely nuts, and yet that is where we are right now on the academic front in terms of the quality of education that our kids are getting.
RHEEAnd so our point during the Olympics with those ads is we're not competing globally in terms of what matters the most, which is how we are preparing our kids to live in the global marketplace. And we have to turn our attention to that as an entire nation.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking with former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. She is now the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, which is an education advocacy organization. Getting back to the theme of the film that you were talking about, part of what you're up to this week and next week involving that film, the spotlight is an issue that people called the parent trigger. What is the parent trigger issue?
RHEESo parent trigger is a policy that a number of states have passed that basically allow a group of parents in a failing school if more than 50 percent of the parents whose children attend that school sign a petition, they can force a turnaround of that school. So they can require that the school district either turn it into a charter school or close the school or reconstitute a school, which means that you have to have all of the staff reapply or, you know, bring a new administration in.
RHEEAnd I think it's a very powerful piece of legislation because you hear a lot these days in the education reform debates that, well, you know, parents aren't involved enough and if only we had better parents and we had better kids in their schools, et cetera. But this is a way to really engage parents and really empower them to get engaged with their children's schooling and to feel like they have the ability to ensure that their school is serving their children well.
RHEESo California passed this law a little over a year ago, and a number of other states have passed similar laws. There are about four states across the country now that have laws like these in place, and I think that with the movie coming up because that's the whole premise of the movie, "Won't Back Down," that you are going to see a lot more activity on this particular policy in states across the country.
NNAMDIHere is Celia. We're going to the phones. Celia in Takoma Park, Md., you're in the air. Celia, go ahead, please.
CELIAThank you, Kojo. Thank you for this show. I'd like to know how we can hold teachers accountable and make them teach to the tests when we don't hold parents accountable and make them support administrators and support teachers and do what they need to do in order to make sure that the children come to school prepared to learn. And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
NNAMDIIs there a distinction, Michelle Rhee, between parent triggers and parent accountability?
RHEESure. Well, the bottom line is that we know, based on the research and based on kind of anecdotal experience, that when parents are more involved in their children's schooling experience that we have better results for our kids. So we should absolutely be doing everything that we possibly can to encourage more parental involvement. But at the same time, we have to understand that we cannot hold children accountable and responsible for what their parents decide to do or not do.
RHEEWe are, across the country, in an unfortunate situation, where not all parents are as involved as they want to be. Does that mean, though, that we should hold those children to a lower set of expectations or lower set of standards in terms of what we believe they're able to accomplish? But we simply can't do that. They're children. They don't have any control over who their parents are.
RHEEAnd what we also know is that what happens in schools every day matters a tremendous amount. What happens in the home matters a lot, but what happens in school matters a lot too. And there is a lot of influence that teachers and schools can have on student academic outcome. Study after study has shown that if children have three to four high-performing teachers in a row versus three low-performing teachers in a row, it can literally change their life trajectory.
RHEEA recent study by Harvard that studied two million children over a 20-year time period showed that if kids just had only one highly-effective teacher in their career that it could increase their earning potential, increase their likelihood of graduating from high school going on to college, lower their likelihood of getting -- of having a teen pregnancy. So knowing that teachers can have such an amazing influence on kids is really our responsibility to make sure that every child in this country has a great teacher in front of them every single day. That's the power of teachers.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. A lot of people on the phone would like to talk with Michelle Rhee. If the phone lines are busy, you can still join the conversation by going to our website, kojoshow.org, or sending us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're coming to you from the studios of WMNF in Tampa, Fla. Our guest is Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, an education advocacy organization. She's, of course, the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Michelle Rhee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a man who's not known for pulling many rhetorical punches, we have a clip of what he had to say about his party and how it views teachers. This was when he gave the keynote address to the convention on Tuesday. Here's the clip.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIEWe believe that the majority of teachers in America know our system must be reformed to put students first so that America can compete. Teachers don't teach to become rich or famous. They teach because they love children. We believe that we should honor and reward the good ones while doing what's best for our nation's future -- demanding accountability, demanding higher standards and demanding the best teacher in every classroom in America.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIEGet ready. Get ready. Here is what they believe. They believe the educational establishment will always put themselves ahead of children, that self-interest will always trump common sense. They believe in pitting unions against teachers, educators against parents, lobbyists against children. They believe in teachers' unions. We believe in teachers.
NNAMDIMichelle Rhee, what do you think of his assessment? Do you think it's fair?
RHEEWell, as a Democrat, I can say that, no, I don't necessarily think that all of it is fair, in particular sort of saying, you know, we believe X and they believe Y. You know, the bottom line is that we are -- you know, our organization is showing this exact same movie at the Democratic National Convention next week.
RHEEWe not only have my husband who's a Democratic mayor but people like Antonio Villaraigosa and Rahm Emanuel from Chicago and Frank Jackson, the Democratic mayor from Cleveland, who are taking these issues on. And one thing that Antonio Villaraigosa, who's, you know, the chairman of the convention, has said is, you know, he used to be a teachers union organizer himself, and what he's saying now is, you know, I'm pro-teacher.
RHEEI believe in teachers and the power of teachers, but there are some problems that exist with teachers' union contracts, collective bargaining agreements, that have to be addressed because they're not good for kids. And so he and my husband and others are out -- you know, Democrats are out there saying these exact same things. So I don't really think when it comes to the teacher question, it's really, you know, a Republican versus Democratic Party.
RHEEI think there are members of both parties who understand that the dynamics need to be changed. I can tell you from talking to teachers across the country that teachers care about these issues. They want to do what's right for kids. A lot of them know that the reforms are necessary, and they want to be a part of change. As long as the change is fair and transparent, you know, they are willing to accept.
RHEEAnd I think that one perfect example of it is what happened in Washington, D.C. You know, we came up with a contract that at the end of the day, you know, we don't have tenure, we don't have seniority, you know, ruling the decisions -- are made anymore and yet we are paying our most highly effective teachers twice as much money as they were in the old system.
RHEEThat contract passed 80 percent to 20 percent. Eighty percent of the teachers in Washington, D.C., said, yes, we're willing to have more accountability as long as there -- there's a real upside for effective teaching. And I think that shows in a much clearer way what the sentiment of teachers across this nation really is.
NNAMDII guess what's much more difficult for people to understand is that on the one hand, there's the perception that Republicans here in Tampa see teachers unions as implacable foes. The perception is the Democrats assembling in Charlotte see teachers unions as implacable foes. Their perception is that Democrats gathering in Charlotte will see teachers unions as implacable allies.
NNAMDIAnd there are Democrats, people like you, former Mayor Adrian Fenty, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who seem to be trying to craft, I guess, a path in between. Did you find at this convention that there are Republicans who are trying to do the same?
RHEEI absolutely think that there are Democrats, to your point, who are really, you know, trying to crack things open. And let's not forget the president himself, right? I mean...
RHEE...President Obama and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, has been very, very clear about what policy changes they want to see made in these states. They put together Race To The Top where they incentive states to make these policy changes. And it has sparked more legislative activities than I think any other time period in the entire country. That was driven by a Democratic administration.
RHEEDid it make the unions mad? Absolutely. Did they, you know, they were in opposition to Race To The Top. But the administration forged ahead with it anyways. And so are there Democrats out there who are -- who understand these dynamics and are trying to create a middle way? Without a doubt, that is absolutely happening.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones now. Here is Sarah in Arlington, Va., with a question that I think is on the minds of a lot of people. Sarah, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
SARAHThank you, Kojo. I really enjoy your shows. Ms. Rhee, I'm wondering in the interest of bipartisanship, would you consider or accept or have -- do you have your sights on the position of secretary of education in a Romney administration?
RHEEOh, no, I am a -- as I said, I'm a Democrat. And, you know, I really think that the work that we're doing right now at StudentsFirst is, you know, the most important and impactful work that I could be doing right now.
RHEEWe are working with states across the country with governors, with state legislature, with grassroots community groups, to ensure that the policies -- that some of the policies that we put in place in D.C., some of the policies that have been put in place in cities like Charlotte and New York City and Denver, across the country that has yielded really, really strong results are replicated. And so I'm very pleased with what I'm doing now. So that's a no.
NNAMDIWell, you know, there is widespread speculation on the staff of "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" that you would be on the shortlist for a senior position in the Department of Education in a Romney administration. If asked, would you consider such an offer?
RHEELike I said, I -- you know, I'm a Democrat. I'm a diehard Democrat, and I am sure that the Romney administration has a very long list of Republicans who support, you know, their priorities that they would be going after.
RHEEYou know, certainly, though, because StudentsFirst is a bipartisan organization, we look forward to working in a bipartisan way whether President Obama is re-elected, whether Gov. Romney is elected. And even at the state level with all the different races that are going on, we want to make sure that we can work with Republicans and Democrats across the aisle to make sure that these reforms are being passed.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your response, noncommittal. Here's DeeDee, (sp?) DeeDee in Washington, D.C. DeeDee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEEDEEYes, I have a comment to make. I think we're using a lot of buzzwords. I think we use too many buzzwords for political reasons. We suffer from the super teacher syndrome, burning teachers out. We ignore the holistic approach as it being adhered to raising up a child for a healthy society. There's a large disconnection between education in the social system. Parents really are the key. We are only touching the tip of the iceberg of the parent factor.
DEEDEETeachers are expected to discipline children as well as teach. Since home life is a major foundation of a child's life, and slavery is the foundation of a dysfunctional home life. Because of this not -- this is -- there is not enough connection between the social services and the educational needs of children. We're suffering, and we're going to have to lighten the load off of teachers' backs. Yes, there are 10 percent who are not doing what they're supposed to do.
DEEDEEWe will continue to have a ranking of 27 out of 30 countries based on the U.S. -- based on the NAEP international score if we do not look at the holistic education of the child and see the family, the parents, as a foundation. We have to support that parent factor...
NNAMDIWell, allow me interrupt, DeeDee, because we only have so much time. But, Michelle Rhee, what I am inferring from DeeDee's statement is that your administration and others do not look at the need for social services as much as people, like DeeDee, would like you to.
RHEEThat's absolutely incorrect. I mean, what I said before was that, does the home life and the parental engagement matter? Absolutely. Should we do everything that we can to bolster that? Absolutely. But it's not an all or nothing. It's not that it's all about the parents and the home life and what happen to the school doesn't make a difference. That's simply not true. What we know is that what happens in school every day matters a lot.
RHEEAnd my only point was that, again, if a child is in an unfortunate situation, whether their parents are not parenting with the way that they ought to, my question is, do we write that kid off? And do we say, because your parents didn't do what you -- they were supposed to do, we can't have high expectations of you, we can't expect anybody at this school to help or teach you? No, we simply cannot do that to those children.
RHEEAnd if you look at our track record in Washington, D.C., we brought a lot of those social services into the schools. We had the full-service model in the -- you know, in every middle school in D.C., we put social workers and guidance counselors into every school in D.C. We, you know, put in place not only a free breakfast and lunch program but also -- well, I was leading a free supper program. So we wanted to run the District in a way that acknowledged those challenges and suddenly brought some resources to it.
RHEEBut that's not the only part of the equation. As educators, we also have to know that there are lots of other agencies out there whose job it is to help the moms and help the families with, you know, with social services. And the primary job of the school is to make sure that we are building in children the skill, the knowledge that they need to be able to break the cycle of poverty and have a different kind of life.
NNAMDIHere is Joseph in Olney, Md. Joseph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Yusef. (sp?)
YUSEFYeah. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. And...
YUSEF...I just wanted to say this issue, like Michelle Reed (sic) is saying, is not a Democrat or Republican issue. But I think this issue gets so politicized that every, you know, either party is trying to pander and then promise so many things. But as much as we're spending per child, not just in D.C. but all of over the U.S., this should -- this country should be number one. But I think we are making the teachers accountable, that's right.
YUSEFWe want the parents to be involved. That is right. But at the same time, I think we should hold the students especially the high school students accountable. There has to be a mechanism where failure or failing the students and to making them feel that there has to be some sort of accountability if you do not perform...
NNAMDIYou seem to...
YUSEF...with all your resources is being given.
NNAMDIYou should fail.
YUSEFYou should fail your students because all over world -- I was born in Africa. I've been in Europe. I'm here for 24 years.
NNAMDIYou seem -- Yusef, we don't have a lot of time. Yusef, you seem to be suggesting that we still have a system that involves social promotions in our public schools. Is that what you're saying?
YUSEFAbsolutely. Especially those...
NNAMDILet me have Michelle Rhee respond. Michelle Rhee?
RHEESo, you know, two things. One, yeah, Yusef, you're absolutely right about the expenditures. We spend more money for people in this country than almost any other country in the entire world, and yet our results have remained stagnant for about three decades. And that is very problematic. You're absolutely right for the money that we are spending and for the kind of country that we are, we absolutely should be number one. And, you know, accountability, we've been talking a lot about teacher accountability today.
RHEEBut I absolutely agree with you that accountability has to sit at every level, you know, principals, school district administrators, chancellors, school board members, even legislators and then on down to parents and students. There has to be accountability at ever level. There is no one silver bullet solution. There's no one thing that you can do that is going to solve all of the problems in public education in our country today. It's going to take a very comprehensive approach.
RHEEWe have to make sure that there's more choice for families. We have to make sure that we have, you know, teacher quality. We have to make sure that there is expected expenditure of dollars. So there are lots of different things that we need to work on. It's not going to just be any one thing or geared towards any one group of people in the system.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly. But, Michelle Rhee, you must know that there are those who feel that the movement for choice and the movement towards charter schools is really ultimately a movement of which you stand in the center of delivering the public school system in the United States to the hands of for-profit organizations and corporations that that is the ultimate goal. With that in mind, we received two tweets from individuals named Sabrina. I don't know if they are the same.
NNAMDIBut the theme seems to be the same. The first says, "Please ask Michelle Rhee why she supports laws that only allow parents to push for privatization and not for laws to strengthen their public schools." The other says, "It's true that kids don't control who their parents are. That's why we cannot have school systems based only on choice. All schools must be strong." How do you feel about this notion?
RHEEI feel -- first of all, I feel like -- first, one of the problems that we have in education reform today is misinformation. So the first thing that she said was, why are we pushing for strategies that only allow parents to do the privatization up and down? It's absolutely not true. If you look at all the parent trigger legislation that has been accepted and that is on the table in states today, going to a charter school, turning a school into a charter school -- which, by the way, is a public school, not a private school -- is just one of many options that the parents can choose.
RHEEThat's number one. Two, this notion that what we're trying to do, what the school reform movement is trying to do is privatize public education is absolutely absurd and just take, you know, my own experience in D.C. as an example. When I was in D.C., we managed to turn around a 41-year decline in enrollment. For the -- my last year there was the first year in 41 years that we actually grew enrollment in the public school. We were taking more kids back into our school system.
RHEESo if what I was trying to do was privatize public education, then I failed miserably because we were actually bringing more children into traditional public education. I think those kinds of arguments are absolutely specious, and they don't help move the conversation forward at all. Let's stop the misinformation, let's stop these, you know, ridiculous ideas about, you know, this is a conspiracy to privatize public education, and let's focus on kids. Our focus is on how do we make sure that all children, regardless of where they live and who their parents are, can have access to a high-quality education?
RHEEBecause that is what this country is all about. That is the value that we hold as Americans, and that's not happening in America today. And we have to change it. And it's not about political parties. It's not about public versus private. It's about putting the interests of kids first.
NNAMDIMichelle Rhee is the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, an education advocacy organization. She's the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Michelle Rhee, thank you so much for joining us. I hope we'll be seeing you in Charlotte.
RHEEAbsolutely. Good to talk to you again, Kojo.
NNAMDIAll right. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will talk with the only elected Republican official in the District of Columbia on the D.C. Board of Education, Patrick Mara. The education conversation continues. If you've called, you may want to stay on the line or call us, 800-433-8850. We've got to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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