Fresh out of college, Michelle A. Rhee joined Teach for America, the fast-track teacher training program, landing at Harlem Park Community School in Baltimore. The public school ranked near the bottom in city reading and math scores, and as a new teacher, Ms. Rhee got a classroom of 35 children achieving the worst and behaving the worst.
“They ran right over me,” Ms. Rhee recalled. She ended that first year “convinced that I was not going to let 8-year-olds ruin my life.”
The next fall she combined classes with another teacher, and together they taught the same children for two years. By the end of the second year, she said, the class that had been testing in the 13th percentile was on grade level, with some children soaring to the 90th percentile.
Now, Ms. Rhee is betting she can replicate that success on a citywide scale as the newly named chancellor of schools in Washington, arguably the nation’s most dysfunctional school system. Though it is one of the country’s highest-spending districts, most of the money goes to central administration, not to classrooms, according to a recent series of articles in The Washington Post. Its 55,000 mostly poor students score far worse than comparable children anywhere else in reading and math, with nearly 74 percent of the district’s low-income eighth graders lacking basic math skills, compared with the national average of 49 percent.