Michelle Rhee Breaks It Down at Mom Congress

Michelle Rhee tends to polarize people. So, I’ll share what she said to us at Mom Congress. Then, you can decide for yourself what you think about her positions. I typed this up as fast as I could (thanks to working my way through college as a temp) and hope that I typed it as I heard it, but I apologize in advance for any errors in reporting.

“One of the things we are to do if we are to fix public education in this country is to have more moms running the show,” opened Michelle Rhee, former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor.

“People would say to me slow down, you’re like a bulldozer, change takes time. I always looked at those people and think none of you send your kids to the D.C. public schools. I put my two kids into the DC public schools and therefore I ran them every day knowing that the decisions that I made were going to impact my two daughters. . .

We had a lot of turnover in the district when I was there. 2/3 of the principals gone and ineffective teachers about half of the central office employees, gone. I became known as the terminator, the dragon lady.

Professional Development

Somebody said to me, you’re so focused on moving people out of the system instead of investing in them – instead of professionally developing them. Don’t you believe you can professionally develop them? Maybe. But, let’s not let children languish in the meantime.

So, I register my daughter and they say, here’s Olivias’s teacher and guess what, she’s not so good but we’re going to professionally develop her this year. There is no way I could have accepted that for my kids. There is no one in this room who would have accepted that!

The research is clear if children have three highly effective teacher is a row vs. three highly ineffective teachers, it literally changes their life trajectory. What if Olivia and her classmates would have been unlucky enough to have ineffective teachers two years in a row?”

I’m a big believer in investing in your workforce but we have to know what’s at stake. It’s not just about let’s invest in people if we’re sacrificing the outcomes of kids.

Teacher Evaluation

We were putting in place a new teacher evaluation system which was a tough process. We had to do it in D.C. because when I inherited the school about 8% of the 8th graders were proficient in math. But, on performance evaluations, 95% of the 8th grade math teachers were rated as doing an excellent job.

We have to align the way that we evaluate ourselves on how good an education we give our kids. 50% evaluation should be on moving student achievement levels. With value added growth model, we’d measure a teachers kids based on the beginning of the year and then at the end of the year.

Charter Schools

We had one D.C. public school co-located in building with a charter school and the enrollment going up on KIPP charter school while the other, public school side’s enrollment was going down. To me, I don’t care what the delivery mechanism as long as kids are being served, I am going to be happy. In this particular case, if handing the building over to KIPP, then more children are going to be served, it should be enough for us to hand over the keys – it doesn’t matter if our enrollment is going down. That’s the only focus that we should have. That’s the mindset that we have to shift in this country. If we see the community as a whole, then we will start to make the right decisions.


Over the last 3 decades, the education agenda has been driven by special interests groups like text book companies and teachers unions. The teacher unions use millions of dollars to get people elected. I’m an advocate for collective bargaining – on wages and that sort of thing but I’m also a huge fan of effective teachers. The problem is when you have an organization like this with so much influence, there is no balance to that because no group like that that advocates for the kids. It’s a lopsided policy landscape.

If you question the teacher and unions, you get labeled anti-union. We have to engage in the discussion for kids.You as the moms whose children are in school every day – these policies affect your children.

Student’s First

That’s part of the reason why I started Students First. We have over 200,000 members in all 50 states. My goal through Students First is to radicalize the moms of America.

We have very clear marching orders for all of our websites like Save Great Teachers which seeks to end the “last in, first out” policies. The research shows that when you do layoffs by seniority, you layoff the best teachers. Also, if you layoff the new teachers, it costs more money (paraphrase – older teacher make more money.) It also disproportionately negatively impacts low income school because they have more younger teachers.

Check your state –see if you have legislation pending. In Florida, it’s now signed into law.

Don’t believe that we can’t change this dynamic for kids because we can.”

Questions and Answers:

Q: ?

A: 100% agree that we need more parental engagement – the first step ahs to be as a school district – what steps are we taking to be a welcoming environment

Q: I’m tired of everyone blaming the teachers. It’s demoralizing.

A: I don’t think at all that I am blaming teachers. There is no group that has less tolerance for ineffective teachers than effective teachers. It drives them nuts. Effective teachers that I know don’t have any problem with accountability because they know that if you are an ineffective teacher it doesn’t necessarily mean you are a bad person. Teaching is the hardest job there is, bar none. We have to acknowledge that not everybody is going to be great at it.

To me is not demoralizing, it’s saying that what you’re doing is so hard that not everyone can do it.

Q: How can you be a whistle blower in the system and low man on the totem pole?

A: Be careful of sweeping generalizations – not every low income school is a poor performing school. Go and find the high performing teachers Part of what we’re trying to do is encourage teachers who are reform minded. The problem is that you don’t hear their voice very often, they don’t want to be ostracized. Ban together. There are other people who believe the same things you do and we need to hear your voice in this.

Q: What about parents who disagree with you? How do you bring them along?

A: I think we did a lot of great things and also that we made a lot of mistakes. One of the things we didn’t do particularly well was we didn’t connect the dots for people as we were removing ineffective teachers from the system. We didn’t communicate why.

You don’t have to agree with me on everything but we have to engage in the conversation, even if we end up on different sides, that’s okay. We have to give people information and let people information decide what’s right for their kids.”


What Stood Out to Me

Wow! What do you think?

I’ve never imagined not doing professional development for teachers because I needed it; every teacher does. I think it’s essential! However, I see what she’s saying about the kids suffering while a teacher is “being professionally developed.”

I’m not sure about the word intolerant that she used when referring to good teachers opinions of bad teachers. It’s not that exactly – but yes, I just never understood poor teachers who didn’t seem to care about honing their craft. It’s hard when they are your friends and co-workers but, you wouldn’t want your children or your friends’ children to have one as a teacher.

You probably know from previous posts that I was in two different teacher’s unions. That being said, I joined the one in Douglas County only after I knew for sure that they had a no strike clause. I wouldn’t put my students through that. My student teaching experience happened in Denver Public Schools during a period of striking and it was awful for everyone involved – kids, parents, teachers, and administrators. So, I guess what I’m saying is that unions aren’t all created equal. I believe you can’t categorize for or against because in my experience, it depends on how they behave and what they believe – which can be different. I’m for collective bargaining but totally disagree with the kind of menacing behavior that is reported to be happening in Wisconsin.

I’m not totally clear on exactly what teacher evaluation system she’s recommending but I agree that we need something better. As far as charter schools, they don’t bother me much. I think it’s good for parents to have choices and if the charters are doing a great job, more power to them. I know a lot of teachers feel differently. But, I just think we have to do what’s best for children – even if it’s not our own school.

Go here for my thoughts on what makes a good teacher.

Now it’s your time to share your thoughts — remember to be courteous and kind to others with different opinions.  We all want the same thing — a great educational system for all children. Keep that in mind as you comment, please.


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  1. says

    I think parents really need to look hard at the time factor. I have been an advocate for high ability students in our schools for years and I am routinely faced with teachers who believe that eventually the curriculum will rise to meet the child – completely missing the point that years may be wasted just waiting for that to happen. Our children don’t have the time to suffer an ineffective teacher – too much is at stake!

  2. says

    Thanks for this Melissa! I didn’t have power when she was speaking and my notes are not nearly this complete. I’ll be relying on this post when I write about her session on MomCongress.com.

  3. says

    Thanks for posting your notes! I am a staff developer and graduate course instructor and believe strongly in staff development for teachers – both new and experienced. But I completely agree with Michelle Rhee that children and their families cannot be expected to wait while their teachers figure things out–not when there are so many opportunities for teachers to learn to teach more effectively, and learn quickly. In many schools where I work it’s unfair that the children in one classroom are getting a fantastic experience, with a teacher who is a life long learner seeking out new ideas, while right down the hall another classroom isn’t doing what they are supposed to be doing. To me, it’s about fairness and equity.

    • says

      I always love to hear from teachers who like Rhee as much as me! And, you are so right, it is about fairness and equity. It’s not about whose parents can get their kid with the good teachers or good schools. Thanks for sharing.

  4. says

    Even though I wouldn’t have been eligible to join you ladies at the Mom Congress, I very much appreciate you sharing Ms. Rhee’s comments. I’ve been particularly interested in her views on the elimination of LIFO, teacher evaluations, school vouchers, etc. (and have even started my own blog to encourage debate on these and many other issues). Great job, and thanks again for sharing (and for being a concerned parent!!).

  5. Cynthia says

    There’s nothing like clarity! Thanks, Melissa, for sharing! I agree with what Michelle Rhee is saying here. As a professional developer in education, I have seen amazing transformation across a broad spectrum of teachers. In addition, some of my time over the years has been spent with ‘struggling teachers.’ I enjoyed being able to work with many these individuals because I could often make a significant difference in their practices in a relatively short amount of time –and thereby in the lives of their students. Many times change can be facilitated when we understand the deeper aspects of what is at play in a teacher’s effectiveness.
    However, some of my time has also been spent with teachers who were either just not in their right livelihood and did not choose to move forward or were simply not interested in or capable in making change in their practices. What anguish — knowing that the wellbeing of children was at stake and knowing that the system would allow ineffective teachers to be retained.

    First, I support a just and healthy salary system for teachers who have one of the most challenging and important positions in our society. Second, I support integrity in teaching — this means not allowing ineffective teachers to remain to the detriment of children.

  6. says

    absolutely, students first. Having administrators with kids in the district is brilliant. it should be a job requirement. You don’t get a highly paid position in admin unless you have kids or grandkids in the district. The decision makers should be personally invested in the resulting education.

    i hear the same thing in my school food reform advocacy. “slow down, you’re like a bulldozer, changes take time.” well i have news for all those folks that want me to slow down. the kids’ health CAN NOT wait. the risk is too high. too many young student have health issues because of the chemicalized nutrient enhanced food-like substances they are feed by the national school lunch program, by classroom teachers and well meaning parents who want to celebrate birthdays with giant cupcakes containing enough artificial food dyes to make even the most well behaved focused child go nuts when neurotransmitters are bombarded with excitotoxins. too many teachers are overwhelmed with students who can’t focus and pay attention either because they haven’t fed their brains with enough nutrients or they’ve fed their brains too many chemicals in the form of food additives from factory made food. which child can wait? which teacher can wait for us to clean up the food supply.


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