Michelle Rhee Would Do It Again

The former head of D.C. Public Schools wants to run a school system again one day -- and has no regrets.

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MR: People on the panel suggested that if someone is rated as ineffective, let's try to invest in that person. That's nice if you're looking at it from a systemic perspective. But I wanted to ask every one of those panelists: "Would you allow your child to be in that person's classroom while we try to professionally develop them?" There's not a person on that panel or anywhere in the audience that would allow that to happen. So whose children are we expecting to be in the classroom year in and year out?

TR: There was a lot of pushback from people in the panel about the idea of getting rid of bad teachers or of testing kids. Is it resistance to accountability or resistance to the idea?

MR: I think a lot of what happens on panels, there's a bogeyman [created] and the debate gets polarized. Diane Ravitch said, "I believe in accountability." Dr. Bobo said afterward, "I also believe in accountability." You get everybody on the panel saying accountability is important; testing is important.

If we all agree accountability and testing are important and we all agree we don't want either of those things to get out of hand, what does the right testing regimen look like? What does the right accountability system look like? That's where I feel we're going to get into some real solutions and real meat of the debate, as opposed to throwing out these big things which I don't see anyone out there saying.

Some of the things Dr. Ravitch talked about: the need for music and art and PE. Those were all things we did for the first time in Washington, D.C., when I was the chancellor. That's what makes it difficult because people often point to me and say, "Oh, she's the testing lady." But I actually did make sure every child had an art teacher, a music teacher, a PE teacher, a librarian, a nurse, a social worker or guidance counselor. And so I think the creating of these wild extremes that don't actually exist doesn't help us get at the core of the debate. 

TR: Is there something you should have done that would have changed the outcome in D.C.?

MR: I made mistakes every day. I think there's no doubt in my mind that what we were doing with school reform was part of the reason my boss lost the election. I don't think it's the whole reason, but I think it definitely played into it.

The question is, would it have been possible to have done something differently which would have changed the outcome of that? Who knows? What I can tell you is that during the 3 1/2 years we were there, we saw the kind of academic gains the city had never seen before and that no urban district anywhere in the country in that period matched.

For me it was absolutely a matter of doing whatever we could at the fastest rate possible to improve the learning outcome for kids. People often say to me, "If you had been a little nicer ... you could have been a little more cooperative." If you can show me someplace -- not just in education -- somewhere, anytime in history, where you saw a transformative change happen and everyone remained on board or happy, I would subscribe to that strategy faster than anybody. I've never seen really significant change happen without significant opposition.

TR: Would you take another school superintendent job?