Waiting for Superwoman

She barely sleeps, has preternaturally thick skin, wears patent leather boots that put Wonder Woman’s to shame, and is so tough that she’s been known to eat bees (and the occasional elementary school principal). In a few short months, the most controversial public school reformer in the country will move to Sacramento where, in an order known only to her, she plans to launch a national education initiative, raise one billion dollars, forever change the face of schools in America and marry our mayor. Who is Michelle Rhee and why can’t anyone agree if she’s a superhero to our kids or just one very smiley villainess?

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Rhee spent much of her youth in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, the second of three children born to Shang and Inza Rhee, who emigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1965. Shang was a physician specializing in pain management; Inza ran a clothing store. Shang is genteel and cerebral; Inza “is definitely a tiger mom,” Rhee says. “Very strict, very no-nonsense.”

The depth of Inza’s strictness comes across in The Bee Eater. (The title refers to the time when, while a second-grade teacher in Baltimore in the early ’90s, Rhee killed and swallowed a bee that floated into her classroom. Her students, unruly up to that point in the school year, took notice and began showing her more respect.) When Michelle was in high school, Inza, judging her daughter’s prom dress too low-cut, sewed up the front of it—while she was wearing it. On another occasion, when Michelle’s younger brother hit a rough patch in school, Inza grounded her, reasoning that Michelle should have done more to help him. Mother also sent daughter to spend the year after sixth grade with relatives in Korea. The young Michelle, though she could read and write Korean, didn’t excel at speaking the language, and she struggled to assimilate in her new environs. The experience forced her to work harder than she had in American schools and she returned to the U.S. with deeper dedication to her studies.

Rhee proclaims herself “not as much of a tiger mom” to her two daughters. She nonetheless frets that parents “are so busy making kids feel good about themselves that they’ve lost that competitive spirit, that edge to be the best. And I think that’s to the detriment to our country overall if we have a generation of kids that we’re raising who feel really good about themselves when they’ve just accomplished mediocrity. You need to build their self-esteem, but they also need to know what greatness looks like.”

With New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg looking on, then-D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee testifies before the House Education and Labor Committee hearing on the subject of mayor and superintendent partnerships in 2008. (Photo by Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

An aversion to mediocrity explains why Rhee brings an exacting, Inza-like approach to reform. She relates a story from her first year as chancellor, when she shuttered 23 schools, mostly due to low enrollment. Watching TV coverage of the closings while visiting D.C., Inza saw footage of angry parents berating Michelle. When her daughter returned home from work that night, Inza asked how she was doing. “Oh, I’m fine,” Michelle replied. She meant it.

“You know,” Inza said, “when you were younger, I thought you were going to grow up to be antisocial. Now I see that it’s serving you well.”

Reactions to Rhee’s sweeping changes generally broke along a national-local fault line. Most major news organizations outside the city hailed her decisions to close underused schools and fire hundreds of underperforming teachers and dozens of principals—including the principal of her daughters’ school. She earned plaudits for creating a new teacher evaluation system that placed greater weight on student achievement, and for her proposal to modify the district’s standard tenure policy with a merit-based pay formula. The plan would offer teachers a choice: they could surrender tenure in exchange for the chance to earn $122,000—about twice the top salary under the existing contract—if they earned excellent evaluations, or they could stick to the old tenure track and expect only modest salary gains. (Union leaders blocked their membership from voting on the initiative.)

“She became a symbol of education reform,” says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington, D.C. The proof was in math and reading proficiency rates that jumped 17 percent and 14 percent, respectively, during her time as chancellor, sizable gains in an urban district. “What she did showed that we can’t have complacency anymore about some of these terrible big-city school systems—we can’t just accept that nothing can be done about them. She proved that they can get better.”

Rhee courtside with fiancé Kevin Johnson at a girls’ basketball game at Arco Arena last year (Photo by Newscom/Zuma Press)Her “Rheevolution” drew the backing of major philanthropic donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. The latter contributed $10 million to the district to help cover the increased salaries that would result from a merit-based pay system. Says Gregory McGinity, the foundation’s managing director of policy, “She was very much willing to confront the status quo and to say not only is this not good enough, but here’s a way we can actually improve.”

Talking with reporters from national magazines and appearing on major TV news programs became part of Rhee’s weekly routine as her reputation spread. Yet she resolutely remained “the same old Michelle,” in the words of Kaya Henderson, who served as Rhee’s director of human capital and succeeded her as chancellor last fall. The two have known each other since the late ’90s, when they worked together at The New Teacher Project in New York, and Henderson praises Rhee for cultivating an upbeat sense of mission in the district’s central office during her tenure. “She’s completely open and accessible,” Henderson says. “People can tell her when she’s wrong. She’ll admit when she’s made a mistake. It wasn’t comfortable and cushy—people had been comfortable and cushy here for a long time—but if you were doing a good job, you had nothing to fear.”

Henderson characterizes Rhee as deeply loyal—in ways serious and less so—to those working for her. At The New Teacher Project, Henderson needed to take three months off to look after her mother, who was dying of cancer, and she planned to file leave-of-absence paperwork to suspend her pay. Rhee refused to accept the forms. “While you’re caring for your mother,” she told Henderson, “I don’t want you worried about how you’re going to pay your bills and whatnot.”

In affairs of the heart, meanwhile, Rhee fancies herself a matchmaker and relationship counselor. “She’s a little nosy about your love life,” Henderson says. “She wants everybody to be happy in their lives, so she wants to know who you’re dating and how’s it going and give you ways to think about how to Rhee at the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures gala in January for the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” with, from left, producer Lesley Chilcott, director Davis Guggenheim and singer John Legend (Photo by Newscom/Richie Buxo/Splash News)make it better. She has everyone’s best interests in mind.” No more so than students, Henderson adds. “She’s incredibly passionate about ensuring that kids have a good education and, quite frankly, wants to cut through the bullsh-t of the bureaucracy.”

Rhee rarely received that kind of acclaim in local news accounts as she attempted to turn around the D.C. school district. Led by The Washington Post, coverage within the city skewed toward unflattering, reflecting the strident opposition her proposals elicited from the local teachers’ union, a growing number of parents and some D.C. politicians. Portrayed as aloof and authoritarian, Rhee saw her removal of underperforming teachers spun as a disdain for the entire profession, a perception that unions have fanned since she launched StudentsFirst last fall. John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union with 3.2 million members, credits her for trying to scrub “patronage and politics” out of the school system. “But she basically declared war on teachers,” he says. “She left them demoralized, and people are picking up the pieces now and moving on.”

Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and prominent Rhee critic, believes StudentsFirst will further poison public attitudes against teachers. “It’s hard for me to believe that we can improve education by attacking teachers,” says Ravitch, author of last year’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, an analysis of education reforms over the last quarter-century. “She would probably say she’s only attacking bad teachers. But teachers I talk to across the country feel demoralized.”

For all the criticism Rhee endured throughout her tenure, she seldom flinched. “She can take care of herself,” Kevin Johnson says. “She’s a big girl.” But the mayor admits that on occasion the attacks on her gnaw at him. A couple of years ago, attending a party in D.C. with her, he spotted a Post reporter who he felt distorted Rhee’s record as chancellor. “So I said hello in a very cordial way,” Johnson recalls, “and then said I didn’t think his portrayal of her has been accurate.”

The citywide debate over Rhee inevitably bled into the mayoral race as Fenty sought reelection last fall. Polls showed him lagging behind as the Democratic primary neared on Sept. 14, and his unwavering support of Rhee was widely considered the biggest factor. He wound up losing by seven percentage points; in an ironic coda, the D.C. premiere of Waiting For “Superman” took place the following night. Fenty holds no regrets about Rhee’s reforms, insisting that the two of them aided the city’s most important constituency: students. “If the work that Michelle and I did cost me the election, I will tell you it was well worth it,” he says. “The hiring of Michelle Rhee, without any question, will always be one of the best things I ever did. I’d do it again a hundred times out of a hundred.”

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The day after the primary election, Rhee woke up as perhaps the sole person in D.C. surprised by Fenty’s defeat. “I was really caught off guard,” she says. “I was focused on carrying forward as chancellor and wasn’t thinking about what I might do if he lost.”

Rhee and Johnson had planned a trip to Hawaii for that week and assumed it would double as a celebration of Fenty’s reelection. Instead, with his defeat, she started mulling her next career move, and while in Hawaii, a rotisserie of suitors—governors, mayors, university presidents, CEOs—called and e-mailed her about job possibilities. Speculation swirled that Rick Scott, the incoming Florida governor, had asked her to serve as his education commissioner; New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was rumored to want her for the same position in his state. “I’ve never seen anyone recruited that heavily in my life that wasn’t like a LeBron James or some athlete,” Johnson says. “People were desperate for her in a good way.”

Both Rhee and Johnson possess the kind of stamina that leads to conjecture that they might have clones. Each wakes at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and typically stays up until 1 a.m., keeping hours common to the obsessively driven and the undead. In Hawaii, however, Johnson, aware of Rhee’s eagerness to make a decision, urged her to decelerate. As Rhee recalls, “He said to me, ‘I know your personality. You want to pick the next thing and go. But you can’t do that this time; we have to really think about what is the next right step.’ ”

The two had long talked about the need for a national grassroots movement that could compete with teachers unions in forging education policy. Slowly, a concept for an advocacy group started to form in Rhee’s mind. But it wasn’t until after returning to Sacramento that the details came into sharper focus, when the couple went to dinner with Johnson’s mother at Mulvaney’s. Johnson could tell Rhee had homed in on an idea. He handed her a pen and business card. “OK, what is it?” he asked. She scribbled down her thoughts and, by the time she finished, the card was full and her new career path was clear: StudentsFirst.

Michelle Rhee on the covers of "Newsweek" and "Time" magazines

“It was exciting to watch her bring this amazing idea to life,” says Georgia West, the mayor’s mother and known to most as Mother Rose. “I was like, ‘Woo! This is gonna be big!’ ” She has grown close to her future daughter-in-law through the oldest of female bonding experiences—“I love going shopping with her; she always finds incredible deals”—and explains the attraction between her son and his bride-to-be. “It’s their intelligence,” West says. “They just connect on the same wavelength.”

With the $1 billion Rhee hopes to raise in the group’s first year, she wants to exert influence nationwide, funding campaigns of politicians running for local, state and federal offices who will push the StudentsFirst agenda. The group intends to pump money into school districts pursuing reforms—school choice, merit-based teacher pay, abolishing tenure—in step with StudentsFirst policies, and provide resources and guidance to parents’ groups clamoring for reform. In California, StudentsFirst could fortify efforts to promote the parent-trigger law and fund ballot measures that ease restrictions on districts to create charter schools.

“There’s a lot within education reform that needs to happen in California, and I think we have the potential to do something about that,” Rhee says. In Sacramento, where Margaret Fortune—the former superintendent of St. HOPE Public Schools under Johnson—won county approval in February to open five charter schools over the next five years, she senses an opportunity for StudentsFirst to rally reformers. Referring to union leaders and school district officials who disparaged Fortune’s proposal as a threat to “traditional” public schools, Rhee says, “That’s so yesterday: ‘We have to preserve the district.’ No—the focus has to be on kids.”

One critical change Rhee has made from her chancellor days involves massaging her message to defuse accusations that she’s anti-teacher. Then, her pillorying of bad teachers dominated headlines. Now, she says, “We’re trying to make sure that our message is very comprehensive and consistent so that it doesn’t get framed up in sound bites. We want to make sure people hear all the positive things we’re saying about teachers.”

The reform movement has bogged down time and again during the last 20 years in part because of a lack of cohesion. StudentsFirst may solve that problem. “A lot of these reform ideas have been talked about for awhile,” says Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that works with low-income students. “But with Michelle, you have someone who’s interesting, who’s forceful, who’s saying things other people aren’t saying. How fast reform happens is still an open question, although if Michelle has anything to do with it, it’s going to be faster rather than slower because that’s her DNA.”

Slowly, a concept for an advocacy group started to form in Rhee’s mind. But it wasn’t until after returning to Sacramento that the details came into sharper focus, when the couple went to dinner with Johnson’s mother at Mulvaney’s. Johnson could tell Rhee had homed in on an idea. He handed her a pen and business card. “OK, what is it?” he asked.

One measure of Rhee’s impact on reform are the polar reactions—silence and pointed criticism—that she induces in those who appear less than enthused by her imminent arrival in California. First, the silence. Among the state and local officials who declined to talk about her with Sactown were California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond and Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon. Gustavo Arroyo, head of Sacramento’s school board, after initially agreeing to talk, subsequently failed to respond to interview requests. Nor did Governor Jerry Brown’s office reply to requests for comment.

Union chiefs, by contrast, obliged with the pointed criticism. “I always feel so much better when someone who professes to be an expert has many years of experience under their belt and a breadth of experiences to draw upon,” says Linda Tuttle, head of the Sacramento City Teachers Association. “I think her experiences are pretty limited, and her past experience raises questions of how successful she was.” David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, sounds a similar theme: “Unfortunately, her type of reform isn’t reform that is proven or is research-based, from what we can gather.”

Their comments align with those of union leaders across the country in reaction to StudentsFirst. To Klein, the former New York schools chancellor, the anti-Rhee sentiment betrays misplaced emphasis. “The unions are fundamentally trying to make this about her because it detracts from what we need to focus on: Why in America today do so many children—particularly children who grow up in poverty—not get the education they’re going to need to compete in the 21st century?”

Unions have also questioned Rhee’s role as an informal adviser to Republican governors in Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New Jersey. But the support of Democratic mayors Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles and Cory Booker in Newark—not to mention Johnson—appears to undercut charges of partisanship. “Her party registration to us is incidental,” says Dale Erquiaga, senior policy adviser to Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, who invited Rhee to his State of the State address in January and singled her out for praise. “For us, it doesn’t matter what registration she happens to carry; she talks the same ideas that the governor does.”

Johnson feels likewise. To him, what matters is improving education across the board in Sacramento, where less than 40 percent of third-graders are proficient in reading. “That’s something that should get everybody’s attention, even if they don’t have kids,” he says. “That should be unacceptable to anyone who lives here, whatever party they belong to.”

Rhee, naturally, shares his perspective, and as she prepares to move to Sacramento, she intends for her group to live up to its name while remaining grounded in its mission. “Kids are not Democrats or Republicans. They’re kids. And what we are,” she says, “is very pro-kids.” S