Women’s History Month 2012: Michelle Rhee

I never thought I would work in education. Ever.

Throughout high school and college I had some of the most positive educators in my life but I didn’t give the idea much thought. I was way too enthralled by the realm of Public Health, more importantly, sexual health. In my eyes, there was no cause that was more pressing, none that deserved my time and energy, none that inspired me. That was until I found City Year.

Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee (Image via Wikipedia)

Over the course of the past three years I’ve found myself in the thick of heated debates about the educational landscape – charter vs. traditional, union vs. independent…the list goes on. Although I was incredibly passionate about the issues, I didn’t know of many reformers who were doing good work. Yet. Slowly but surely I started to hear and learn about the work of Geoffrey Canada from the Harlem Children Zone, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg from the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), and Michelle Rhee.

Rhee struck me because of the radical work she was doing as Chancellor in Washington, D.C., one of our country’s worst-performing states in terms of education. She came onto the scene as a freshly graduated Teach For America alumna with only one agenda item – fixing a broken system. Her tenure in the school system was divisive. She forced people to talk about many issues affecting education in ways many had historically strayed from. She closed under-performing schools, fired ineffective teachers, reformed Professional Development for teachers, incorporated parents in the fight for their children’s lives, need I go on?

Is Rhee perfect? Probably not. And that’s okay. The education reform movement doesn’t need ‘perfect,’ it needs people who are willing to say and do the difficult things, people who are willing to take risks, people who have student achievement at the forefront of their minds. Are her practices accepted by everyone? No. Again, that’s okay. At the very least she’s showing those watching that there isn’t only one way to affect education reform, that’s a great place to start.

Since leaving her role as Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, Rhee didn’t stop working to reform education in the U.S. She founded Students First. This “grassroots movement is designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators, and citizens throughout country, and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results on both the local and national level.” There’s something powerful in her commitment to students and the communities that support them.

Michelle Rhee has taught me to embrace my idealism, no matter how unpopular it might be. She has taught me to have courageous conversations and force innovative approaches. She has taught be that if I can imagine what a better future looks like and begin to charge forcefully toward my vision, isn’t that at least a positive step in the right direction? In the end, isn’t that the definition of idealism?

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