When Michelle Rhee was chosen earlier this summer to be the new schools chief in Washington, D.C., her nomination surprised even some who had grown used to unconventional school leadership. She'd never managed a school district of any size--never even been a principal. She had taught in a classroom for only three years, in the early 1990s. And yet Rhee was Mayor Adrian Fenty's pick for Washington's first-ever chancellor of schools--a position he created when he took over responsibility for the city's beleaguered school system shortly after taking office in January. Fenty reduced the power of the city's board of education and replaced the existing position of superintendent with a chancellor answerable directly to him.
What drew the mayor to Rhee was her 10-year stint as head of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that partners with school districts to help recruit, train and retain high-quality educators for at-risk schools. Rhee founded the organization in 1997, when she was 27 years old. Since then, the New Teacher Project has worked with more than 200 school systems, placing nearly 23,000 teachers in urban facilities that have traditionally been difficult to staff.
It's precisely her nontraditional background that made her an attractive candidate, says D.C. Deputy Mayor Victor Reinoso, who was instrumental in selecting Rhee and encouraging her to take the job. "We've had traditional career superintendents for decades, and we haven't been able to show the progress that we needed," he says. "We needed a different kind of mindset." Reinoso originally approached Rhee only to ask her to suggest nominees. After a decade of working with school districts across the country, she was familiar with leaders in dozens of cities. But soon, Reinoso says, he realized that Rhee herself was the ideal candidate.
The daughter of a physician and a clothing store owner, Rhee grew up in suburban Toledo. After she graduated from Cornell University, she joined Teach for America, which placed her in an elementary school in a violent, blighted neighborhood of Baltimore. She taught there for three years before leaving to pursue a master's dgree in public policy at Harvard.
Some D.C. council members grumbled about Rhee's nomination. Aside from her lack of traditional experience, there were complaints about her salary, which will be the highest for any education official in the Washington area. Rhee is also a nontraditional pick in another way: She's Korean-American. Ninety-five percent of Washington's public school students are black, and Rhee is the first non-black person to lead D.C.'s schools in over 40 years. Those concerns didn't prevail, though. The council confirmed her unanimously last month.
Her challenge is daunting. The District of Columbia has, by many estimations, the most dysfunctional school system in the nation. It's one of the country's highest-spending districts, but its students are some of the lowest performers anywhere. Staff retention is abysmal. But Fenty and Reinoso think she might have a chance to turn all that around. As Reinoso puts it, "She has the kind of impatience that we've been missing."