Michelle Rhee

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Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee2.jpg
Founder, StudentsFirst
Prior offices
Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools
June 2007 – October 2010
CEO, StudentsFirst
December 2010 - August 2014
High schoolMaumee Valley Country Day School
Bachelor'sCornell University
Master'sHarvard University
Date of birthDecember 25, 1969
Place of birthAnn Arbor, Michigan
ProfessionFounder/CEO, StudentsFirst
Michelle Rhee is a Democratic education policy activist. She founded and served as the CEO of StudentsFirst, a non-profit focused on education reform.[1][2] On August 13, 2014, Rhee announced her intention to step down as CEO of StudentsFirst.[3] She also announced her new position as board chair for St. Hope Public Schools, which is a Sacramento-based charter school system that enrolls approximately 1,800 K-12 students.[4] Since August 2014, Rhee has also served as a board member with the Scotts Miracle-Gro corporation.[5]

After training with Teach For America, Rhee worked as a teacher in Baltimore, Maryland for three years. In 1997, she founded and began serving as CEO of The New Teacher Project, a non-profit focused on training and supplying teachers for urban school districts. Rhee was named as Chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools on June 12, 2007 by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and served in the position until October 2010.[6] She is also a frequent counterpoint to Independent education reform activist and historian, Diane Ravitch.


Rhee is married to Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player and current mayor of Sacramento, California.[1] Rhee has two children with her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman. Huffman has served as the Tennessee Commissioner of Education since April 2011.[7]


  • Maumee Valley Country Day School, 1988
  • B.A., Government, Cornell University, 1992
  • Master's Degree in Public Policy, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government


  • Advisory board, National Council on Teacher Quality
  • Advisory board, National Center for Alternative Certification
  • Guest speaker, 2008 State of the Union address


Public school teacher

After finishing her time with Teach For America, Rhee spent three years working as a teacher at Harlem Park Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland. Her students were, at the time, the lowest performing in terms of behavior and achievement. Rhee said her first year teaching was "rough going," and that she had difficulty controlling her classroom. Student test scores dropped in her first year teaching, and Rhee spent the summer after working on ways to improve lesson plans and involving her students in the achievement process. She also dedicated time to preaching to both parents and community leaders that time spent doing homework is better than "hanging out, playing video games, or watching television." It was successful, and her test scores improved significantly the following second and third years.[8]

Chancellor of D.C. public schools

In 2007, Rhee was offered the position of D.C. chancellor by newly elected mayor Adrian Fenty. Despite inheriting a failing system, Rhee began to make a series of radical changes. These included emphasizing top-down accountability and a heavily stressing the importance of performing well on standardized testing. In her first year as chancellor, Rhee closed 23 schools, fired 36 principals and cut staff by 15 percent. Rhee backed up her actions, stating it was necessary because only 12 percent of the District's eighth graders were proficient in reading, and only 8 percent in math.[9]


The New Teacher Project

The New Teacher Project logo.png

Rhee founded and began serving as the CEO of a non-profit called The New Teacher Project in 1997. The organization's goal is to aid urban school districts and states to recruit and train new teachers, provide capable staff to struggling schools and retain teachers who have improved student achievement.[10]


StudentsFirst logo.jpg

On December 6, 2010, Rhee announced on The Oprah Winfrey Show that she was setting up StudentsFirst, an organization focused on reforming school districts one community at a time. With the hope of getting one million members and raising $1 billion for public schools, Rhee stated, "I'm going to do something different. I am going to start a revolution. I'm going to start a movement in this country on behalf of the nation's children."[11]

The main objectives of the group have been abolishing teacher tenure and supporting school choice. StudentsFirst backed 105 candidates in the 2012 elections, 90 of whom were Republicans. Of the 105 candidates supported, 86 won.[12] On August 13, 2014, Rhee announced her intention to step down as CEO of StudentsFirst.[3]

Educational philosophy

Rhee's approach to education reform focuses on both teacher and parent empowerment, abandoning party-infused agendas and spending education dollars wisely.[13] Her methodology remains highly criticized, with naysayers citing her aggressive style of reform and focus on standardized testing.

Common Core

Common Core logo.jpg

Rhee is an advocate of Common Core. According to her organization, StudentsFirst, Common Core "ensure[s] schoolchildren are ready to compete with their peers in other states and around the world" and "establishes high learning expectations for students that are consistent regardless of district or state."[14] Rhee has been heavily criticized by those opposed to Common Core, the main argument being that the static excessive testing examines every child, including the mentally disabled, sick and homeless whose scores are then "lumped together."[15]

Charter schools

Rhee supports the expansion of charter schools and open enrollment for students across districts. She has also stated that she is an advocate for "parent-trigger proposals" which allow parents to vote and convert struggling schools into charter schools.[16]

School vouchers

Although she was initially opposed to school vouchers in alignment with general Democratic Party positions on education, Rhee changed her view after her time as Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. She continually faced parents wanting to pull their children out of failing schools and enroll in one which, in their view, would provide a more promising future. Rhee maintains that vouchers allow both parents and their students to seek the best education possible. In her book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, Rhee states:

After my listening tour of families, and hearing so many parents plead for an immediate solution to their desire for a quality education, I came out in favor of the voucher program. People went nuts. Democrats chastised me for going against the party, but the most vocal detractors were my biggest supporters.

“Michelle, what are you doing?” one education reformer asked. “You are the first opportunity this city has had to fix the system. We believe in you and what you’re trying to do. But you have to give yourself a fighting chance! You need time and money to make your plan work. If during that time children continue fleeing the system on these vouchers, you’ll have less money to implement your reforms. You can’t do this to yourself!”

“Here’s the problem with your thinking,” I’d answer. “My job is not to preserve and defend a system that has been doing wrong by children and families. My job is to make sure that every child in this city attends an excellent school. I don’t care if it’s a charter school, a private school, or a traditional district school. As long as it’s serving kids well, I’m happy. And you should be, too.”

Here’s the question we Democrats need to ask ourselves: Are we beholden to the public school system at any cost, or are we beholden to the public school child at any cost? My loyalty and my duty will always be to the children.[17]

Radical: Fighting to Put Students First by Michelle Rhee, (2014)[18]


Rhee's approach to reform has received heavy criticism from both educational conservatives and liberals due to her aggressive style of reform and alleged anti-union sentiments. Diane Ravitch, American education historian and frequent Rhee critic, has repeatedly denounced Rhee's support of standardized testing, arguing, "How can teachers be evaluated by student test scores, when the scores are so often manipulated and inaccurate?”[19] Ravitch has also disparaged the personnel decisions made by Rhee during her tenure as Chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system, stating, "It’s difficult to win a war when you’re firing on your own troops." Other critics of Rhee's polices have claimed that her brief time as a teacher provided her with insufficient knowledge and experience about instruction and curriculum.[20] Rhee's supporters consistently point to the improved test scores and graduation rates during her time as Chancellor in defense of her policies.

Reports to discredit Rhee

In 2011, two separate studies were conducted that sought to discredit Michelle Rhee's record as Chancellor of D.C. schools. Alan Ginsburg, a former director of Policy and Program Studies in the U.S. Department of Education, conducted the first study and argued that Rhee was less successful than her predecessors. The second study, administered by the National Research Council, stated that the gains Rhee saw while in office weren't necessarily a result of her leadership or policies. Neither report escaped criticism from Rhee's supporters, who have generally condemned the statistics as "misleading."[21]


Public Education - Are We Under, Over or Just Misspending?

Michelle Rhee "This Week" Interview: Author of "Radical: Fighting to Put Students First

Michelle Rhee Discusses "Waiting for Superman," Charter Schools and School Vouchers

Published works

Rhee published her first book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, in February 2013. The book uses personal narrative to document Rhee's quest to "[found] a national movement aimed at dismantling bureaucratic barriers that path the way to outstanding public schools."[22] She was also the subject of the 2011 biography, The Bee Eater by Richard Whitmire.[23] She is featured prominently as a counterpoint in Diane Ravitch's book, Reign of Error.[24]

Recent news

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See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Sacramento Bee, "Michelle Rhee just getting started on shaping California education policy," January 27, 2013
  2. StudentsFirst, "About StudentsFirst," accessed December 26, 2013
  3. 3.0 3.1 POLITICO, "Michelle Rhee drops out of school group," August 13, 2014
  4. The Sacramento Bee, "St. Hope taps Michelle Rhee as board chair, removes superintendent," August 1, 2014
  5. Columbus Business First, "Michelle Rhee gets full 3-year term on Scotts board," January 30, 2015
  6. CAA Speakers, "Michelle Rhee," accessed January 28, 2013
  7. Tennessee Department of Education, "Commissioner of Education," accessed November 23, 2012
  8. Washingtonian, "Can Michelle Rhee Save DC Schools?" September 1, 2007
  9. CNN, "'100 mph' school chief seeks 'radical changes'," September 9, 2008
  10. TNTP, "About TNTP," accessed January 3, 2014
  11. Oprah, "Michelle Rhee's Big Announcement," December 6, 2010
  12. Salon, "Michelle Rhee’s right turn," November 17, 2012
  13. StudentsFirst, "Policies," accessed December 26, 2013
  14. StudentsFirst, "Uncommon Equity and Rigor: StudentsFirst Supports the Common Core, February 21, 2013
  15. The Washington Post, "Eight problems with Common Core Standards, August 21, 2012
  16. Education Week, "Michelle Rhee Talks Vouchers, March 21, 2012
  17. Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  18. Women in the World, "Michelle Rhee: My Break With the Democrats, February 4, 2013
  19. Washington City Paper, "Diane Ravitch, the Anti-Rhee," June 24, 2011
  20. The Washington Post, "What Michelle Rhee did in D.C.: Point by point," November 2, 2010
  21. EdNext, "The Case Against Michelle Rhee," Summer 2011
  22. Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, "Home," accessed December 30, 2013
  23. The Bee Eater, "About," accessed January 14, 2014
  24. TPM CAFE: OPINION, "Book Club: Michelle Rhee Is The Face Of The Corporate Education Reform Movement," accessed January 14, 2014