School & District Management

Post Magazine Writer Tries to Figure Out D.C. Chancellor

September 25, 2009 3 min read
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Sharp-tongued Michelle A. Rhee doesn’t just direct harsh words at teachers she finds less than adequate.

The District of Columbia schools chancellor is just as apt to issue brusque directives to her long-serving, loyal colleagues, like the one who told The Washington Post‘s Marc Fisher about the time Rhee told her to dump her boyfriend. Or the wealthy benefactor who complained that she treated him with no respect whatsoever, but ponied up money to help support her reform initiatives anyway.

In a 4,800-word profile of the chancellor that is the cover story in this Sunday’s Post magazine, Fisher shares those telling anecdotes to, as he puts it in an interview, “look at what really drives her and how much of this public image is really who she is.”

Fisher talked with District Dossier this week about his access to Rhee (who, until recently, refused to speak with the Post’s Bill Turque, the beat writer who has aggressively covered the chancellor and her initiatives); the challenge of writing about someone who has had thousands of inches of copy written about her; and what he figured out about the 39-year-old leader who has both dazzled and chagrined folks inside and outside the education community.

Fisher spent part of five months reporting on Rhee. He was privy to her senior staff meetings, her meetings with parents, and question-and-answer sessions with teachers at schools. She agreed to let him talk to her parents, as well as friends and colleagues who’ve known her for years. Off limits were her two children and her love life. (Sorry folks, Rhee won’t spill on her relationship with former NBA star Kevin Johnson, a charter school founder and mayor of Sacramento.)

“In the end, I concluded that what you see is what you get,” Fisher told DD. “When I talked to her friends and people who’ve known her for decades, it all sounded quite consistent.”

Fisher said he steered clear of her superstardom in the education reform world (that story has been done over and over), and focused on figuring out why Rhee has behaved as she has since Mayor Adrian M. Fenty appointed her as chancellor in 2007. Fisher spent a lot of time exploring her complicated relationship with teachers and why she’s taken such a combative stance toward many of them. On that, Fisher said the chancellor “rocks back and forth.”

“I heard her say that she wishes she had reached out to teachers and connected with them and massaged them a little earlier,” Fisher said. “But then I heard her bluntly say that she has no patience for people counting the days until retirement and who don’t give beyond what the contract may call for. You see real and deep anger from her when she’s talking about teachers who are not putting in the extra days, going to kids’ houses, and reaching out to parents.”

Fisher also gets to the bottom of how Rhee came to agree to pose holding a broom on the cover of Time Magazine last December and said he concluded that she’s impulsive and somewhat naive, but also “so driven by what she thinks is right and moral, that she really doesn’t get sometimes the way she is being perceived.” (Don’t miss the outtakes of that same shoot, particularly image #4)

So whether you are rooting for Rhee or not, the piece is a must-read. Fisher offered this insight too: “I think she’s realized that her personality is what’s really turned her into a rock star in the education reform world, but it’s also damaged her effort to push through what she wants. It’s been a real learning experience for her. This is a person who does not like to admit making mistakes.”

Before DD let Fisher off the phone, we asked him to give us the over/under on how long Rhee will last, especially now that the City Council is challenging her and Fenty on several fronts. “It doesn’t look like Fenty’s going to have to break a sweat to win the election, and as long as he’s around, Rhee will be too.”

UPDATE: Here’s a washingtonpost.com Q and A with Rhee talking about teachers’ unions that I meant to include earlier. And over at Teacher Magazine, my colleague Elizabeth Rich has this wrap-up on Rhee’s latest controversy.

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

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