Former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has brought her “no excuses” brand of education reform to Northern California. Rhee founded the nonprofit organization StudentsFirst last year, and has based it in her new home in Sacramento. In this new role, Rhee continues to doggedly promote policies — like merit pay and accountability through test scores — that made her a controversial figure in her old job.

Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools and founder of The New Teacher Project

  • Cate

     I am a Nationally Board Certified teacher. National Boards is a nationally recognized, teacher led reform that has proven it works in developing, growing and retaining accomplished teachers. Furthermore it is fully supported as the clear response to merit pay based on test scores. How many National Boards teachers did she have the privilege of supporting and rewarding under her tenure as head of DC schools? Was she then and is she now a champion of National Board Certification? Is she working to ensure that teachers are fully aware of the process, fully supported as they attempt certification and, finally rewarded generously for their accomplishment?

  • Greckskin

    The direction we’re taking education is opposite what research is showing us: The importance of play, developing fine motor skills, and NOT cramming academics too early. The benefits of learning a second language and playing a musical instrument last throughout life and these skills are best learned early.
    If a child who can and wants to read in kindergarten, great. But Most kids are not developmentally ready until later. Let’s not penalize them for being normal.
    Also, merit pay for teachers is a terrible idea. The unintended negative consequences are not difficult to predict.

  • Kate


    Fortunately for me I live in both Washington, DC and Menlo Park, CA.  Michelle Rhee and the former Mayor, Adrian Fenty were both run out of here on a rail.  Rhee worked for the Federal City Council, a powerful elite group that has decided to finally “take back” the District and cleanse it.  Rhee and Fenty were the “cleansers” through closing schools, and moving Black elementary children out of the District to Prince George’s County.  Washington, DC has a deep socioeconomic split between not just Black and White, but upper class Blacks and working class Blacks.  Rhee was so disrespectful of Blacks in both communities that for the first time probably in DC history they actually came together across class lines– forget she’s married to one — (that’s rich)
    Don’t let the KQED listeners go for Okie doke.

    Bicoastal Kate

    • Andy

      And how was the DC district before Rhee showed up?  Was that her fault too?

      • Churchlady320

        Leaving things worse than you found them is not a good step forward.  

  • Sam Badger

    Rhee’s form of education reform punishes teachers who work on a broken system and does too much to stress privatization. Teachers are underpaid and tenure is the only means to reward them in a public system which undervalues their contribution to society. Instead of “merit pay” only for good teachers, we should be focusing on reducing class size.

    The privatization and increase of charter schools is just as bad of a solution, because it obliterates the unions and it gives private entities the power to pick and chose the students they want to improve their standing and make a profit. Even “Effective charter schools” only increase the differences between
    charter-school kids and public school kids, or are ineffective
    businesses exploiting a neighborhood with poor public schools. Like “merit pay” for teachers, charter schools are an out of place Wall-Street style solution to a problem with public service.

  • Mark Phillips

    I’d like to know what Ms. Rhee thinks about a teacher assessment and reward system that would include post-tenure review by a  review committee that was composed primarily of teachers recognized across the school as master teachers. All tenured teachers would receive good salaries but performance pay would only be for those judged by the committee as doing superior work.
    Teachers who were seen as lacking in some skills would go through mandatory faculty development focused on the teacher’s deficiencies.

    Any thoughts?

  • Mood_Indigo

    Great to have Michelle Rhee on KQED. She understand that none of the powerful constituents in the education system are looking out for the interest of students. All of the these interest groups are out to make money out of the Education Industrial Complex.

    I was getting tired of with hearing union-shill and FoK (Friend of Krasny) Diane Ravitch come on the show year-after-after to talk about how what’s good for the unions if good for the students.

    Forum’s sympathies are evident from naming the show “Rhee-style Education Reform”. Yeah, accountability is a new style, I guess.

    I hope Ms. Rhee’s effort succeeds in creating a powerful nation-wide group of parents and educationists who promote the interests of students, and that includes making teachers and parents more effective.

    • Churchlady320

      She decimated DC.  This is progress?

  • Clark Williams

    Teacher unions and their members don’t advocate for our kids? Is she kidding? As a parent with a child in a public school, I see quite the opposite – just visit the websites of our teacher unions and you will find page after page of critical research, information, advocacy and policy proposals with the sole purpose of improving public education for all children.

    I find that the most credible advocates for children are those who have committed their professional and personal lives to improving educational opportunities for all children. Rhee’s ivisive political statements simply divide communities and is part of a strategy designed to benefit the corporate charter school contributors to StudentsFirst.

    • Andy

      My experience is that the vast majority of teachers (as individuals) are committed, hard working educators that make kids their number one priority.  I haven’t seen this priority shared by the teachers unions — which by design advocate for their members.

      I have one question — why do the teachers’ unions protect bad teachers?  If their number one priority was the education of kids they would facilitate removing bad teachers from the classroom. Instead they protect bad teachers. 

      • cramer

        At risk of sounding like a broken record, Andy, you have two major incorrect generalizations.  One: teachers’ unions are not an entity of their own, they ARE the teachers, just like the AMA is doctors, the bar association is lawyers, etc., etc.  Teachers unions are nothing more and nothing less than professional organizations for professionals, and the vast majority of what those unions do is to further education for all students.  Two: like any such organization, they have agreed upon procedures for internal affairs and dealing with under-par professionals within their ranks.  This is not protecting bad teachers, it is ensuring due process, just like our country’s constitution calls for.  You find the same types of procedures in place for disbarring lawyers and removing doctor’s licenses.  THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE, so if you want to fault teachers for the ills of society, you better also be faulting the doctors, lawyers, and every other professional that exists. 

      • Orphal

        “Bad teachers” deserve a fair hearing and a defense before they are terminated.  If the teacher really is “bad” then the union will lose and the district will fire the teacher.  In charters where due process rights are nonexistent, teachers are still fired for:
        Refusing to remove a bumper sticker.http://www.care2.com/causes/arizona-teacher-fired-over-bumper-sticker.htmlVenting their frustration on Facebook.http://www.thebostonchannel.com/news/24670937/detail.htmlHaving a picture of them enjoying a glass of wine published on Facebookhttp://guyism.com/humor/teacher-fired-for-having-facebook-photo-with-glass-of-alcohol.html
        Perhaps there is some sensible reform we can talk about here.  Perhaps it shouldn’t take 2 years to go through due process to fire a teacher – perhaps teachers shouldn’t “win” just because the principal missed a deadline – but we need to talk about sensible reform rather than bash teachers and teacher unions with bumper-sticker slogans like “Unions protect Bad teachers” 

  • itamblyn

    Ms. Rhee,

    For the past two years, I’ve volunteered at College Track, an after-school program in Oakland. Originally started in Palo Alto, this program targets students in under resourced communities and provides them with access to tutors, assistance with college applications, and other aspects of student life.

    Based on my experience, this approach, i.e. supplementing instruction which goes on in schools, seems like the most effective way for NGO’s to contribute. How do you feel about such programs? Given the obstacles associated with overhauling the entire public system, perhaps this is the best way forward.

    Thank you for your efforts.

    – Isaac Tamblyn

  • Why shouldn’t
    each state just adopt Finland’s
    school system wholesale? 

    Of the world’s school systems, Finland’s has been in
    the top three for decades by international test measures, doing substantially
    better than other Scandinavian countries with similar demographics, doing as
    well in its inner city schools with many non-Finnish speaking immigrants as in
    its suburban schools, spending far less per pupil than American schools do, yet
    paying teachers more—and requiring them to be much more highly trained—with smaller
    class sizes, less than 1/7 the ratio of non-teaching bureaucracy, no charter or
    private schools to speak of to skew the test results, and no national testing used to
    evaluate schools, teachers, or students.


    The Finnish
    school system has a million students and 600 administrators. LA Unified has
    half as many with 3,600 administrators. 

  • Walzer

    until students first can match the teachers union bribes (political contributions) to politicians we won’t make progress.  the union gave $1.5 million to Torlaksons campaign so he is in their pocket.

    we need public financing of election campaigns so politicians can consider the public interest rather than just the special interests with the most money.


    Berkeley, CA

  • Marilynhar

    What is Michelle’s thinking about student support? There is data on the difference trained counselors can make at all levels k-12 in student achievement yet they are often treated as non essential. We are losing counselors in California and are 48th in the country in providing this support. I just read an article about an outrageous number of suspensions at elementary schools across the country. Much could have been avoided if counselors had been available for students and staff. Counselors trained in personal social, academic and career development. What is her experience and thinking on how student support could be integrated into the curriculum and site staff? Marilyn harry man

  • CarolineSF

    Rhee’s purported success in improving D.C. schools impressed some, until USA Today exposed an epidemic of cheating on standardized tests under her regime, in a scandal known as “Erase to the Top.” I hope she’s getting peppered with tough questions about that, as well as her blatant resume-faking before she got the D.C. job.

  • David

    What do we offer teachers, who are performing up to the standards,  in the form of coaching or help? The teaching experience is a partnership between the student, the family, the teacher and the institution. To address just one aspect of this partnership does not seem to be helpful, politically popular, but not helpful.  

  • David_e_wise

    I am a parent in San Francisco Public Schools.  The experience of Finland’s public schools are instructive and suggest that the privatization and testing movement championed by Ms. Rhee are misguided (and opportunistic.)  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/ravitch-why-finlands-schools-are-great-by-doing-what-we-dont/2011/10/12/gIQAmTyLgL_blog.html  

  • Iris1776

    From the beginning of the show:

    Rhee stated as a goal that there should be high quality “options” for all kids. What this implies is a tolerance for low and poor-quality options for kids whose parents don’t have what it takes to pursue the “high-quality” “options”.

     Additionally, using special needs kids as fodder for increasing the “n” on D.C. standardized testing is downright immoral in my mind. Even more so than most kids, special needs kids’ time in school is precious. The last thing they need is to have their teachers’ attention turned to wasting their time on learning standardized test content. Doing so is stressful and robs them of their opportunity for real help.
    The means to a good end that your guest advocates (with a focus on relative performance that objectifies teachers and takes individualized curriculum development out of their hands) sound naively Cartesian and cruel to me – cruel to talented teachers and cruel to low-performing students who don’t have parents who advocate for them.

  • Mood_Indigo

    A listener called in to say that there is no proof that teachers make a difference, and only economic status is correlated with school success.

    Here’s a report of an extensive study that talks about the effect of effective teachers:

  • Michael

    I’ve been teaching storytelling in schools for over 20 years, at as many as 10 schools each year.  I’ve seen the changes that have taken place.  Less arts, more testing, decrease in quality of teachers, decrease in the learning through engagement for the kids and most importantly a change in the quality of listening on part of the students.  In the upper income schools, clearly the changes have not been so drastic, but in many of the lower income schools it’s only become worse. In these schools I’m seeing kids that have traumatic home lives,  a new generation of teachers and prinipals that have been spoon fed a testing paradigm that just feeds into the corrupt pockets of test-making/curriculum companies that get schools to sign on for multiple years.  You talk about not giving tenure to teachers, how about not committing to contracts with curriculum companies when it’s not working.  

    The biggest curable problem I see in the lower income schools relates to poor listening skills which are the result of poor family modeling, teachers who don’t know how to create loving firm discipline from the beginning of the year, and traumatized children that need help and are disrupting entire classrooms.  Though I still work as a storyteller, I’ve begun teaching mindfulness at schools and have seen a tremendous change in the entire classroom environment.  It should become a part of all teacher training for the benefit of the teacher and the students.

    I’d like to mention that Jon Kabat-Zinn, the leader of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction will be speaking on Mindfulness in Education this Friday at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley at 7:30 which will benefit the non-profit Mindful Schools which trains teachers in these skills. Regarding school reform, I’d also like to suggest that trade schools should be created as an option for those students who I see quitting on school by 4th grade.  Not every student is going to excel at traditional schools, so let’s explore which “trades” those students are excited by and can benefit our nation and communities. 

  • Dennis

    Did you see the Dan Rather program about education in finland on HD Net and how they are at the top of the world in education?

  • Charter Mom

    Support choice in education by supporting charters

  • Mpaterson-cohen

    Everyone recognizes the need for reform in education, The controversy surrounding Rhee is that she and her neo-liberal sponsers are using the issue of reform to open up public education to the penetration of independent charter schools, which are essentially private operations.  That’s why testing is so important to them. Failing schools are game for privatization.

  • Over the many years I have had the time… I have listened to
    the program “Forum”   Today I
    cannot.  I sadly turned off the
    radio.    I entered teaching after a
    lengthy corporate career… to try and to be part of the “Solution instead of the
    Problem”.  To carry that dream several
    steps further I decided I would teacher where no one else wanted to, and at a
    subject no one else wanted to.  So I taught
    Math during my brief career at only Title 1 Middle Schools. 


    Each year I taught, the number of “special needs” children
    who populated my classes grew from a small percent… to this year… over
    50%.   I define “Special Needs” as any
    child who whether physiologically or psychologically requires an accommodation
    of any kind from small such as anger management 
    to the major who may require wheel chairs, adult aides etc. .  


    Now imagine if you will what bedlam it must be like for a
    teacher of mathematics… a subject under the national microscope… a teacher who
    is denied any certificated adult classroom aides to manage the “special needs”
    children who are over 50% his class population. 
    Imagine if you will the bedlam of trying to balance the needs of the
    “few” over the needs to the “many” over a mere 45 minutes a class period length
    from beginning to end.  And add to this
    that this teacher like most Title 1 math teachers is managing a class of 32 to
    36 children… every class all day long, every day for 185 days annually.   With all this in mind, how can any
    reasonable adult survive the task of providing for the needs and rights of the
    “many” who want to escape poverty and depravity, over the tyranny of the few
    who want to “battle” their extenuating issues common to the lives of socio-economically challenged children?  


    How can any sane adult balance the needs of the few over the
    needs of the many, amid the harassment and demoralization of guests like yours…
    who know of what I speak. 


    It is the “zillion pound elephant” in the room that she
    ignores.  Teachers can not teach, if a
    tyranny of minority of children in each class can not behave.  A tyranny of children best served in smaller
    classes, with special needs educators. 

    Special needs educators have been cut from budgets nation
    wide, and as such the “tyranny of the minority” now rules our classes in math
    and language arts in the Title 1 community of schools.   Your guest ignores or marginalizes this most
    egregious attack upon the quality of the classroom community… the cutting of
    resources to isolate the embattled child from the rest of the Title 1 students
    who have a “work ethic”


    Another question for you so-called academic advocate… Who is
    responsible for managing a child’s “work-ethic”?  The teacher or the parent.   It seems the unintended consequence of “No
    Child Left Behind” and so-called credentialed “Pundits” such as your guest who break
    the heart and souls of teachers like me…that the unintended consequences of
    the media bashing, the academic management (your guest) and legislatures… “No
    Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” have allowed parents to abdicate their
    responsibility to teach the meaning of “work ethic”   So I am left with having to teach math to
    children who are divided between the “special needs” who have little or no work
    ethic… and the few that do have a work ethic.


    I have time to write this lengthy comment this day, because
    I have resigned from teaching as of this week. 
    I no longer wish to be the “Agent” of a brutal and inhumane system,
    which is designed to crush the dreams and hopes of children and their families;
    who want to escape their poverty and depravity.  


    I am resigning because I have finally realized I can not be
    part of the solution… and that my “call to teach” is not the call to serve the
    “Solution”… when in fact your guest is a member of the true “Problem”.   If your guest truly wants to improve the
    quality of education, she should crawl back into the classroom… spend a few
    years in my shoes… and then lead by example… if she can.

  • Finnabennacht

    At the end of her interview Rhee admitted that the best teachers work 24/7.  She left before she could be asked where we’re going to find all the replacements for the teachers she wants to fire.  The US employs 2.5 million K-12 teachers at a median salary of $40k a year.  Again, where are you going to find 2.5 million teachers willing to work 24/7 for $40k a year?

  • Fdenisco

    The fact is we teach to the lowest common denominator in today’s system. That is just a fact.  If you are teaching to a test that measures the lowest common denominator, then that is what you will churn out.

  • jim hoekstra

    I missed the show this morning and have been trying to play it online. So far no luck. It just doesn’t play (even though the segment following it does play)????

  • Why have very few of my collegues, responded to my comment.   These expose the “under belly” of what we are all fighting for.  Where is the “fire”  Where is a walk out like mine?  Are we part of the problem or solution.  This sytem must be brought to its knees.  Every single teacher needs to put their mortgage on the back burner, the kids college education on ice, the new car postponed… we need to stand in solidarity… and walk out… and leave a nation of parents and managers to finally see the reality of the mess they have created.   We create the Firemen, We Create the Policeman, We Create the brain(s) of the infra-sture of the nation.  We populate the hopistals with  persons who save lives, , and we created Obama.   Where is our respect, where is our salary increase and our benefits, when will the tyranny of the minority elimintated  be illeminaed

    • Sumpepandwong

       I’m not a colleague but a parent of a child with special needs and I’m happy to respond. Your prejudicial language around children with special needs is highly offensive. Just because you weren’t able to engage all students (typical and special) shouldn’t be called a lack of “work ethic” on behalf of the children. Granted you were untrained and working under very hard conditions but I think the problem here is just that…you were not qualified in the first place and not given the conditions to succeed as a teacher. But to say children with special needs don’t have a good work ethic is untrue. Simply put, a lie and a very big one at that. It’s as offensive to me as if you were to say all black people are dumb. Or all women are inferior to men. You are a bigot against people with disabilities and I am certainly happy that you are no longer in the classroom.

  • Lucille Cuttler

    You need to ask the right question to get the right answer.  And the right question is why aren’t teachers more effective. The answer is that they are being deprived of the tools they need to teach what is basic: literacy.  As the society becomes more complex, so does education.  As it is now, a 4th grade reading ability defines an illiterate.  When 20% of the population have a reading difference (NICH statistic), it’s imperative to improve education by reforming licensure of teachers of reading.  This would give teachers the methods proven by evidence based research.  Yes, private schools and educational specialists are there now to help those who can afford it.  We would reduce truancy and dropouts and stop being a pipeline to prisons by making that knowledge available to teachers in public schools.  America promises education for everyone.  Let’s do it, and start with how we teach the teachers.   Give teachers all the tools they need.  The rewards will follow.

  • Sumpepandwong

    To the poster named Archer – to say that children in special
    education do not have a great work ethic is is not only discriminatory but
    extremely offensive to me as a parent of a child with special needs. To show
    this kind of prejudice in a public forum is mind boggling to me. My daughter
    has special needs as well as many of her classmates and I’m inspired daily,
    year in and year out by their passion and desire to learn and progress. It took
    my daughter years to learn how to walk and if an able-bodied adult were in her
    shoes, surely they would have given up. Instead she woke up every day and met
    the challenge head on. I have yet to meet anyone as strong as her and to even
    think that a TEACHER would say otherwise makes me utterly infuriated.


    Work ethic has NOTHING to do with being special needs.


    So with that said, I do think Archer and other posters have
    a valid point about teachers being overworked and students not having the
    attention they need to support their learning. It’s discouraging to me that
    Rhee’s powerful national organization and our legislators choose to have such a
    narrow focus on what it means to improve schools. After spending time in the
    classroom as a volunteer and being exposed to the scripted curriculum I’ve come
    to the conclusion that 3 things would benefit my daughter and her classmates.

    1. Change
    in focus from what teachers are teaching and holding them accountable to
    how students learn best. There is an abundant scientific research about HOW
    we learn and using a multi-sensory approach helps us to learn better. And
    yet the curriculum that is scripted and provided to our teachers and
    students …is overly dependent on auditory processing. If we included
    touch, visual, and kinesthetic senses then imagine how rich our curriculum
    is and how engaged our students will be. Give teachers excellent
    curriculum that is based on how students learn best and I think this will
    be a positive step in the right direction in improving our schools.2. Reduce
    class size or add more adults to the classroom. Expecting 1 teacher to
    teach 25 to 30 kindergarteners is an unreasonable expectation. It sets
    both the students and teacher up for failure. If you can either reduce
    class size – especially K-3, to 17 or less then I think this will be
    another step in the right direction. If not, how about adding 2 shared
    aids (even regular ed) to the classroom to support student learning? It’s
    a less expensive option than hiring more teachers. 3. Invest
    more in early education. Head start has already proven its effectiveness
    so why not invest more in early learning?


    These are reforms I can get behind. Treating teachers the
    way that Rhee is advocating is a step in the wrong direction in my opinion. Or
    in the very least, change the national dialog about reform so that it’s
    balanced on solutions related to curriculum and how students learn best instead
    of the witch hunt Rhee and our legislators are advocating.

  • Kelcey Wilson

    It’s interesting to note that she rarely takes ownership of her beliefs. Instead of using the first person “I” she almost invariably uses the pronoun “we.” I wonder what that’s all about….

  • Villageattab

    I find it so malicious for Mrs. Rhee to insinuate that she and other stand for the kids while the Unions stand for the teachers.  The Union is there to give that needed support to the teachers, the majority of them, to be proud teachers, to do their job in the most comfortable condition thus to teach well their students.  It is utterly an attack on the Unions using Education as the trojan horse.  Her support of that anti-union movie Waiting for Superman(not the nietzschean one for sure) is enough to show where her eyes are.  The movie is an utter attack on Unions as did the movie “On the water front”.

    • L Cuttler

      The “interests of students” are served best when teachers are provided with a full tool box.  This means teachers of reading (primary grades) learn a method that is explicit, structured and kinesthetic.  Those with means avail themselves of private schools and private tutors for their children who struggle.  The knowledge is there and has been for over a hundred years.  What are we waiting for? 

      Ranting about unions and bad teachers distracts from seeing the real problem: the failure of colleges to prepare teachers with tools to reach all children.  Change this, and we will save money on prisons, juvenile delinquency, truancy and dropouts. 

      Lucille Cuttler

  • Churchlady320

    When Michelle Rhee was a guest at the Sacramento Press Club, she boasted how she fired a non-academic staffer for her “failures”. The woman had a huge caseload of special needs kids who had individual demands, and she faced parental non-compliance on meeting deadlines for signing paper to get what their kids needed.  Rhee bragged how she said to the staffer that if you’re going to make $40,000 a year and are costing me money, then you’re fired.  (Costing HER money?) What it revealed was Rhee’s absolute indifference to the woman’s structural inability to do a job well that was designed for failure.  Rhee has no clue what teaching and its related jobs are all about.  Anyone can play The Donald’s role in “The Apprentice” – but what about enlisting teachers and staff in creating real solutions rather than making them fungible commodities to be moved and dismissed at will?  Accountability?  Do not set people up with demands that are impossible to reach then fire them for not reaching them.  Rhee’s own track record is despicable.  That folks in Washington DC got wise and finally fired HER is the best thing they could have done for this scapegoating, pocket-lining, egocentric phony.  Beware Sacramento – she fully intends to bring her show here.  And we can ill afford the harm that she and hubby would do to our already ailing school system.  Never forget his disaster – St. Hope.  We deserve better than either of them.

  • Guest

    Just got around to listening to this. I can’t say I was a big fan of Rhee when she was at DC because I thought her approach showed a gross lack of emotional intelligence. EQ that was required for a very complicated situation that is not a business with straightforward quantifiable metrics that are valuable and drive understanding. In hindsight I think that in fact this was the ‘Tiger Mom’ approach to turning around a school system that didn’t grow up with a ‘Tiger Mom’. It was the wrong approach for a school system that had that history.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor