The Future of Urban School Reform
An Address by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee
About This Event

After gaining control of the District of Columbia Public Schools last summer, Mayor Adrian Fenty’s first act was to appoint Michelle Rhee chancellor of the perennially troubled system. Chancellor Rhee--the dynamic, youthful founder and CEO of the nonprofit New Teacher Project--as regarded as a daring and unconventional choice. During her short tenure, she has gained a national profile for aggressive measures to instill personal accountability, attract top talent, reengineer the central administration, close nearly two dozen underenrolled schools, and mount a frontal assault on the District’s culture of mediocrity. Please join us as Chancellor Rhee reflects on her first eight months in office and the lessons that they hold for improving America’s urban schools.

3:30 p.m.
Christopher DeMuth, AEI
Michelle Rhee, District of Columbia Public Schools
Frederick Hess, AEI
Adjournment and Wine and Cheese Reception
Event Summary

Michelle Rhee on Urban School Reforms That Put Students First

WASHINGTON, February 15, 2008--For too long, urban school districts like the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) have put employee interests ahead of students, DCPS chancellor Michelle Rhee said at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday, February 13. She talked candidly about the problems facing the District's chronically underperforming K-12 system and outlined a bold vision for providing every student in the city access to a dramatically improved education.

"My goal is [to make] Washington D.C. the highest performing urban school district in the country," she said. "This school system has failed to serve children and their families for far too long."

Rhee, who was appointed chancellor of DCPS by Mayor Adrian Fenty eight months ago, is the cofounder and former president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that has, since 1997, recruited and prepared over 23,000 new teachers in hard-to-staff schools. As chancellor, she has quickly attained a national profile as one of the most tough-minded, outspoken, and respected advocates for change in public education.

Rhee highlighted three broad themes that she considers critical to advancing higher achievement in the District's elementary and secondary schools:

  • Administrators must do a better job of recruiting, preparing, and retaining effective teachers. According to Rhee, a central part of this effort will be to recognize the city's best educators by equating "dramatic gains with dramatic rewards." For example, she pointed to the District's new TEAM Awards contest that last year rewarded teachers with salary bonuses of $8,000 each in schools making over 20 percent gains in math and reading scores.
  • DCPS must be more aggressive in identifying and weeding out incompetent employees. The passage of the DCPS Reform Amendment Act of 2007, which shifted all non-union central office workers to "at will" status, was a recent victory on this front. Rhee asserted that gaining the discretion to hire and fire employees at will has markedly improved her ability to attract fresh talent, hold staff members accountable, and terminate workers who are not up to task.
  • The central office must get around to fixing the "nuts and bolts" problems of infrastructure and day-to-day operations. Here, Rhee cited a situation last summer in which nearly five million personnel documents were found abandoned in a file room during a routine audit. This came around the time of another high-profile case in which the DCPS textbook department had tens of thousands of books in storage before the first day of school with no plans to deliver them.

Rhee made clear that her reform agenda is guided largely by a desire to assist students who have been historically underserved by the District's schools. She argued that inequities in academic achievement--including achievement gaps between white and minority students that approach 70 percentage points in certain subject areas--constitute a crisis that should wear hard on the city's conscience. "Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our country," she said. "But that is not the reality in Washington, D.C., today. . . . We are still allowing the color of a child's skin and the zip code that they live in to dictate their educational [and] life outcomes."
Undoubtedly, DCPS faces many significant challenges. For example, twenty-seven schools are currently in "restructuring" status for failing to meet adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. In addition, dropout rates hover around 50 percent, with nearly 90 percent of fourth and eighth graders failing to achieve proficiency in math and reading.

Despite these difficulties, Rhee remains optimistic that real, sustained change is possible for the District's public schools. She hopes that Washington will someday be regarded as the model for how reform in large urban districts can and should be accomplished. "Not only will [reform] ensure that every single child in this city gets an excellent education," she said, "but it will send reverberations across this country and take the excuses away from other schools and other districts where this isn't happening."


For video, audio, and more information about this conference, visit

AEI's Education Policy Studies program is a national leader in research on school reform. Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies, is the author or editor of Educational Entrepreneurship (Harvard Education Press, 2006), Tough Love for Schools (AEI Press, 2006), Urban School Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2005), and Common Sense School Reform (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). On March 11, AEI will sponsor a conference on turnarounds among America's worst schools. To register, visit

For more information about education policy studies at AEI, contact Morgan Goatley [email protected] or 202.828.6031.

For media inquiries, contact Véronique Rodman at [email protected] or 202.862.4870.


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