Former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee Reflects On Past Leadership (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee Reflects On Past Leadership

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Our next story is about a well-known D.C. figure who quickly earned a reputation for being, how shall we say, not very diplomatic as she ran D.C. Public Schools.

MS. MICHELLE RHEE

00:00:12
They are getting a crappy education. You can try and sugarcoat it all you want, you know, subpar or whatever but what it is in terms that everyone can understand they are getting a crappy education.

SHEIR

00:00:24
We're talking of course about Michelle Rhee, who made those comments in an interview with ABC News a few years back. Rhee left her job as schools' chancellor last year to head up Students First, an organization advocating for nationwide education reform. WAMU's Kavitha Cardoza recently caught up with Rhee, who gave her thoughts on DCPS now and what she would do differently if she were running the schools today.

MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA

00:00:48
Apart from vouchers there seems to be a rough consensus on President Obama's and former Governor Mitt Romney's positions on education. How do you see education reform, whether the piece or the issues as being different?

RHEE

00:01:02
In terms of President Obama, he has changed the game in a lot of ways in terms of his education reform stances I think that raised to the top was a absolutely move. It sparked more legislative changes than I think the country has ever seen before. I think that his support of the growth of charter schools and teacher quality efforts have really, really been very strong.

RHEE

00:01:24
From what I've seen of Governor Romney's stances on these issues, I think he too wants to see a lot of changes happening within teacher quality. So similar to President Obama, there are more choices. Obviously his platform includes vouchers whereas the president's does not.

RHEE

00:01:39
I think the biggest thing that I worry about with a potential Romney administration is around accountability because just as the Democrats have to worry about cow towing to the special interests within their party which is the teachers unions, the Republicans also have a special interest within their party, the Tea Party, which is very aggressive and I think the Tea Party wants to move to less federal involvement in education, which I actually do not think is the right stance to take.

CARDOZA

00:02:07
Have you seen from the time you started with education reform that unions, whether locally or nationally, are more willing to agree on certain issues?

RHEE

00:02:17
Well, I think that they've had to come along to a certain extent and if I use, you know, our experience here in D.C. as an example, though it was a very, very tough negotiation and it lasted a very long time, we ended up with a groundbreaking contract that to this day really sets a precedent nationwide. And so they did agree to that contract.

RHEE

00:02:42
I think sometimes on the disappointing side of things though they will try to keep the reforms that they support, keep them isolated. So, you know, it's not like after D.C. that then they went around the country and said, let's have more contracts like D.C.

CARDOZA

00:02:55
When we talk about teachers pay being linked to students tests scores, in D.C. you negotiated a contract that counted for 50 percent and recently the current chancellor announced that now it would be 35 percent and the union is pushing to go as low as 20 percent. Do you see that as rollback?

RHEE

00:03:14
No, because from what I understand that student achievement gains are still going to account for 50 percent, it's just that the D.C. cast specifically will only account for 35 percent, the other 15 percent will be based on other kinds of assessments and certainly, you know, as long as though tests are valid and reliable tests then overall you're still looking at the 50 percent.

CARDOZA

00:03:34
Is there anything you would've changed about when you were chancellor?

RHEE

00:03:38
You know, we made a lot of mistakes along the way but I also think that we've learned from our mistakes. And so now when I talk to school superintendents across the country one of the things that I say is that, you know, you have to be very cognizant about how you're communicating. One of the mistakes that we made was we were doing the work, it was sort of obvious to us why closing schools or doing layoffs by quality instead of seniority was important. And yet we didn't do a good job of connecting the dots for people.

CARDOZA

00:04:08
Do you think the pace of reform has continued?

RHEE

00:04:12
Well, I think that the reforms have definitely continued. Kaya Henderson worked with me for three and a half years and I have a tremendous amount of faith in her and her team. I do think there's a difference though. Mayor Fenty and I spoke every day. I think when you have that dynamic it creates a different sense of urgency in the city overall.

CARDOZA

00:04:32
You are introduced in every article I read as the hard-charging, controversial former chancellor of D.C. Do you ever get tired of being introduced that way?

RHEE

00:04:42
I don't get tired of it, but I will say that I remain a little baffled by it because the reforms that we put in place here in D.C. and the reforms that we are advocating now through Students First across the country are common sense reforms. So how they have been sort of framed in the public as controversial and hard-charging, it still bewilders me a bit but if it helps people to have conversations that are much needed and that maybe in some cities have been avoided for a long time, then I'm okay with that.

CARDOZA

00:05:18
When Oprah introduced you as a warrior woman on her show last year, you said you wanted to raise a billion dollars for education. How much have you raised?

RHEE

00:05:27
So I said two things, I said we were going to have a million members by the end of the first year and raise a billion dollars over a five year time period. We actually met our first goal and we're at 1.83 million members, which is exciting. And we're making a lot of progress towards the billion dollars as well.

CARDOZA

00:05:43
What's the dollar amount?

RHEE

00:05:46
I'll just say we're making very good progress.

SHEIR

00:05:49
That was former DCPS chancellor Michelle Rhee speaking with WAMU's Kavitha Cardoza. And if you would like to chime in on the state of D.C. Public Schools, diplomatically or otherwise, you can reach us at metro@wamu.org or find us on Twitter. Our handle is @wamumetro.
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