Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schools and a leading figure in national education reform efforts, spared no punches in her address to hundreds gathered at the Tivoli Theater on Tuesday evening for the first installment of the George T. Hunter lecture series.
“I believe strongly that public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our country,” Rhee said. “It’s supposed to be the thing that ensures it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, rich or poor—but it’s not the reality we have in America today. It’s not the reality for the children who are in Washington, D.C., and I guarantee you it’s not the reality for children who are in Chattanooga.”
Rhee’s comments were met warmly by the audience, who affirmed her speech with applause on several occasions.
“She’s a fireball,” Jamael Lett, a seventh grade math teacher at Orchard Knob Elementary and a resident in the TEACH/Here program, said. “She puts students first, and that’s what got my attention.”
Describing herself as “the diametric opposite” of what people wanted to see in a head of public schools, Rhee spent roughly an hour detailing her philosophy behind difficult decisions and challenges she faced during her four-year tenure as top educator in a major public school system.
“If you look at things from the perspective of what’s good and right for children, rather than what is good for the system, then you end up with a very different set of policies,” Rhee said. “Part of what we need to do as decision makers, as elected officials, and as a community is to begin to think about things from the perspective of what we would do for our own children, and make sure that we are not making public policy decisions for other people’s kids that you would not subject your own children to.”
While Rhee continually drove home the idea of placing the interests of student’s first, she was quick to warn the audience against cultivating an environment of coddling children with false praise and sports trophies for unearned accomplishments.
“I believe that as a nation, we have gone soft,” she said. “We are too busy trying to make kids feel good about themselves. At the end of the day, we’re not going to regain our global position in the marketplace until we recapture the competitive spirit in America.”
To back up her point, Rhee suggested ideas such as increasing teacher salaries based upon consistent student achievement, ensuring accountability on all levels, and shifting focus from absolute testing measures in to steadily tracking growth in schools. But hardly any mention was made of her ungraceful exit from D.C. Schools, or ensuing allegations of high erasure rates on standardized test scores.
Prior to the speech, members of the Hamilton County Education Association distributed flyers containing questions and statistics directed towards Rhee’s anti-union reputation. Sandy Hughes, president of the association, said that Rhee’s philosophy didn’t necessarily line up with the current condition of Hamilton County Schools.
“Some of her methods are controversial and dramatic,” Hughes said. “Here in our community, we have built bridges for everybody in education to work together, trying to solve our challenges. That doesn’t seem to be her mode of operandi.”
On the whole, audience members seemed pleased with Rhee’s remarks. Following the speech, Superintendent Rick Smith said that he agreed with most of her positions, and added that many of the challenges Rhee faced during her time in Washington, D.C., were comparable to the state of affairs in Chattanooga’s public school system.
“Her perspective in Washington and our situation here are somewhat similar, in that we both have urban communities,” Smith said. “It’s a challenge to close the achievement gap between students who come from affluent or middle class homes, and those who come in poverty. It’s something we certainly continue to talk about in Hamilton County Schools.”
Smith, who spent an hour-and-a-half meeting with Rhee and local business, political and education leaders earlier in the day, added that recent changes to the education landscape on the state level had been significant, mentioning shifts in tenure and collective bargaining laws, as well as changes to evaluation systems.
During her speech, Rhee agreed, saying that Tennessee was “at a precipice” for leading education reform efforts nationwide.
“We have the opportunity to push education reform forward and make the right education decisions for kids,” Rhee said. “The governor and the legislature are taking very bold steps forward on this, but at the end of the day, it’s going to have to be the people in this room that make it happen.”