Book Review: The One-Sided Radicalism of Michelle Rhee

By Catherine A. Cardno — May 30, 2013 4 min read
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Written by guest blogger and newly minted Teach For America recruit, Lyndsey Wallen.

Michelle Rhee: She’s a figure you either love or love to hate. Like it or not, it’s hard to deny that Rhee has become the face of the education reform movement since her stint as chancellor of the D.C. public school system.

Rhee burst onto the D.C. scene in 2007 with the lofty goal of overhauling the struggling school system. She ruffled many a feather in her whirlwind of school closings, battles with the teachers’ union, and creating a teacher evaluation system based partly on student test scores. Once her time as chancellor ended, she took her reforms to the national stage by founding Sacramento, Calif.-based StudentsFirst, a grassroots organization lobbying for education policy changes.

In her memoir, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First (Harper Collins, 2013), Rhee takes a step back and discusses her upbringing, her years as a George H.W. Bush-hater at Cornell University, and her career in public education, followed by her arguments for education reform. Rhee makes one thing clear in her memoir: It’s her way or the highway, and she doesn’t care what you think.

Rhee says the United States has “gone soft as a nation” when it comes to public education. “We are not doing our kids any favors by teaching them to celebrate mediocrity, to revel in the average, and to delight in merely participating,” Rhee writes. In fact, Rhee even cringes when she considers the number of soccer trophies and medals her two daughters have collected. “They suck at soccer,” she says.

She also argues that education reform in the United States is too much about the adults involved and not enough about the kids. She argues that politicians are too afraid to get involved in education issues for fear of losing their seats (which, incidentally, is what happened to her boss, former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, during her time as chancellor). Rhee also calls for parents to become engaged in the political process of education reform, which is one of the trademark initiatives of her StudentsFirst organization.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Radical is that it gives the reader some insight into what has shaped Rhee as a no-excuses, take-no-prisoner education reformer. While reading about her strict, Korean family and her struggles as a new teacher with Teach For America, I had a few light bulb or “aha” moments where I thought to myself, “Gee, that explains a lot.”

Rhee grew up in a household where education was the main priority. As a child, she was shipped off to Korea where she attended school for a year. She describes the cut-throat world of schooling she experienced there, saying “in Korean schools, competition ruled.” She explains how the class was ranked by grades, which drove competition for the students and their families. Mediocrity was not good enough, she writes.

As an upcoming Teach For America corps member, I was also very interested to read Rhee’s account of her time with TFA. Rhee acknowledges that the program was in its early years when she joined, but she is realistic about her years as an elementary school teacher in inner-city Baltimore. She doesn’t paint a pretty picture of changing the lives of her students. Instead, she talks about how she struggled to control her classroom for the first year: "[T]he hardest thing was coming to the realization that, in fact, I was the problem,” she writes.

It’s clear that her experience as a mediocre teacher influenced her future stances on education policy, including her dogged insistence that any child can excel in education with at least one great teacher. She shows no sympathy for teachers who don’t perform, and some of her trademark fights have been trying to abolish teacher tenure and tying teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores.

Overall, I felt that I was left with more questions than answers at the end of the book. Rhee sticks to her guns and drills her select reform initiatives—such as performance pay for teachers, ending teacher tenure, and the expansion of charter schools as options—into the reader’s head throughout the book, but there is no discussion of other important aspects of education policy such as school curricula and standards. Rhee also glosses over suspicions that, during her tenure as schools chancellor, D.C. teachers erased incorrect answers on standardized tests, and readers are also left questioning whether all of her school closures actually saved the D.C. school system any money, after audits showed otherwise.

Radical gives the reader a glimpse into the life, career choices, and reform initiatives of Michelle Rhee, many of which make a lot of sense. But it presents a one-sided argument with a few gaping holes, and it doesn’t even begin to help readers understand the complex lightning-rod figure of education reform that Michelle Rhee has become.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.