Up Close, Rhee’s Image Less Clear
Schools Chief’s Media Stardom Hasn’t Dispelled the Misgivings in D.C.

Bill Turque:

The Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have chronicled her battles with the Washington Teachers’ Union. The PBS “NewsHour” and “60 Minutes” have trailed her up and down school corridors. She can be seen at A-list gatherings, from Herbert Allen’s annual Sun Valley, Idaho, retreat for corporate moguls to education summits hosted by Bill Gates and the Aspen Institute.
Last week, on the cover of Time, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee cemented her status as the national standard-bearer of tough-minded, no-excuses urban school reform. She is photographed at the front of a classroom, stern-faced and clutching a broom, symbolizing her promise of sweeping change.
For journalists and pundits who follow education, Rhee’s narrative has elements that are irresistible. A slight, young Korean American woman with no big-city school leadership experience is plucked from the nonprofit world by a reform-minded mayor in June 2007 to fire bad teachers, face down their union and take on hidebound bureaucrats, all in the name of turning around a system with a legacy of failure. The stories are not uniformly glowing, but they generally depict Rhee as a gutsy, gritty agent of change driven to turn around the District’s schools.
“Michelle Rhee charged in as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools wielding BlackBerrys and data — and a giant axe,” said the Atlantic’s November issue.
Closer to home, Rhee’s media stardom has inspired a mix of praise, puzzlement and resentment. Boosters say her high profile can only help the District overhaul its schools. Others see her pursuing a national platform for a message that is hostile to older, experienced teachers and partial to younger instructors from nontraditional training programs such as Teach for America, where she started her career.