Since her arrival, in the summer of 2007, Rhee, just 38 years old, has become the most controversial figure in American public education and the standard-bearer for a new type of schools leader nationwide. She and her cohort often seek to bypass the traditional forces of education schools and unions, instead embracing nontraditional reform mechanisms like charter schools, vouchers, and the No Child Left Behind Act. “They tend to be younger, and many didn’t come through the traditional route,” says Margaret Sullivan, a former education analyst at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. And that often means going head-to-head with the people who did.
Rhee, responsible not to a school board but only to the mayor, went on a spree almost as soon as she arrived. She gained the right to fire central-office employees and then axed 98 of them. She canned 24 principals, 22 assistant principals, and, at the beginning of this summer, 250 teachers and 500 teaching aides. She announced plans to close 23 underused schools and set about restructuring 26 other schools (together, about a third of the system). And she began negotiating a radical performance-based compensation contract with the teachers union that could revolutionize the way teachers get paid.
Her quick action has brought Rhee laudatory profiles everywhere from Newsweek to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, and appearances on Charlie Rose and at Allen & Company’s annual Sun Valley conference. Washington is now ground zero for education reformers. “People are coming from across the country to work for her,” says Andrew Rotherham, the co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. “It’s the thing to do.” Rhee had Stanford and Harvard business-school students on her intern staff this summer, and she has received blank checks from reform-minded philanthropists at the Gates and Broad foundations to fund experimental programs. Businesses have flooded her with offers to help–providing supplies, mentoring, or just giving cash.
Clusty search: Michelle Rhee.