MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to the "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. When Michelle Rhee came on board as chancellor of D.C. public schools there was the question of whether she would succeed. The future of D.C.P.S. I guess could you say was, yes, I'm going to say it one more time, up in the air. A new book profiles Rhee's time in the District.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
It's called "The Bee Eater" by former newspaper journalist, Richard Whitmire. As for how he came up with that title, as he explains to WAMU education reporter Kavitha Cardoza, it goes back to Rhee's experience as a first year teacher in Baltimore. She was dealing with a really unruly class when a bumblebee flew into the room that prompted even more chaos. So Rhee swapped the bee then she swallowed it.
MR. RICHARD WHITMIRE
This is a crazy thing to do, right? And you have to be a little crazy to take this job in D.C. never having been a superintendent of schools before, to think that you could turn around the worst school district in the country. And I knew as soon as I heard that I just knew that it was the title.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
So much has been written about her in the local and national media. What do you think your book brings to the table?
Well, I'm trying to get around the immediate controversies that dominated The Washington Post and I try to get around the ideological adulation, if you will, that you see in the national press. I try to devote all 270 pages to essentially answering a different question, was she on the right path? Was she succeeding and what does this mean nationally?
This is a tailored biography. If there are things that happened in her life that aren't relative to predicting whether she would succeed in D.C. then they weren't part of the book. So there are a lot of things that aren't in this book.
Actually, that was one of my questions. Several times you've referred to the low performing teachers or the fired teachers and yet we never hear from any of them. Is it possible to tell a story about teacher quality without speaking to any of them?
Well, I don't know what I would gain by profiling the teachers who fired. She fired roughly 400 teachers during the three and a half years and I'm sure I could find outraged stories and Washington Teacher's Union has produced couple of teachers, who by all appearances seem to have been very good teachers.
You've actually said towards the end that she didn't fire enough teachers.
I remain convinced that, yes, there was more winnowing to be done if you will. Not just winnowing but hiring really good teachers and more important, convincing them to stay. And that's why when I devote pages to profiling teachers I devote those pages to teachers at a particular middle school in Ana Costa that were turning that middle school around. Those were the profiles that were most relevant.
You've been funded by some of the same organizations that fund some of Rhee's D.C.P.S. initiatives. She wrote the forward to your first book and the book is largely uncritical of her and you use lines like, "Rhee's pushed to breathe the academic life into DCPS." And, "She looks good in an evening dress." Why should someone read your book if you are clear about which side you come down on? You know, you're a fan of what she's doing.
I thought she had a decent shot at making a difference and I thought that D.C. schools were every bit as bad as they'd been described. So I came in with that bias and I made it clear in the preface and of course in chapter 11 I lay out the things that she did wrong in D.C. So it's not completely uncritical but I would agree that most people who read this book will say, you're just a Rhee sympathizer. And I knew that was just part of the deal.
You mentioned some of Rhee's reforms, there's one section devoted to, you know, friends of Bedford, the outside organization taking over Dunbar High School. DCPS has taken back that school. Bonuses for teachers are an important part of her reform effort and recently 40 percent of the teachers rejected the money. With things changing so fast, what do you think her legacy will be?
Does teacher quality make a difference? The education reform movement has been wondering around through the desert for years trying to figure what the answer is to turning around our schools, especially our urban schools. And research and the general momentum of the reform in recent years has come down to one major thing and that's teacher quality. And nobody pushed that as hard or as fast as Michelle Rhee did.
Did she do everything right? No, and some things backfired. You mentioned Dunbar High School, where things improved dramatically in one year after bringing in a partner and then went south the next year. But I think the lesson to draw there is she tried to do something with these high schools. Previous superintendents had just pretended that they weren't failing schools and let them just dawdle along and Rhee said, no.
And of course, nationally, this is the biggest challenge of any reformer, how do you turn around a failing high school? And it's not clear that you can do, it's not clear how you do it. But she gave it a shot.
That was WAMU education reporter, Kavitha Cardoza, talking with Richard Whitmire, author of "The Bee Eater." For more on the book and to see a list of Whitmire's upcoming appearances and book signings, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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