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Michelle Rhee Explains How She Overhauled the 'Most Dysfunctional School District in America'

Education reformist Michelle Rhee delivered an impassioned talk on her approach to making vital changes in America’s educational system during the Featured Speaker Series at Kent State Stark Monday night

Regardless of where one falls on the educational reform issues, all sides are passionate and emotional about what needs to be done to give kids in America the best education in the world. It’s the "how" of education reform that gets people on all sides of the issues angry, confused, defensive and political. Meanwhile, the kids in this country pay the price for such uncertainty with low literacy rates and even lower graduation rates.

Today, most reformists are looking for ways to make American schools at the minimum, competitive with the rest of the world, and at the maximum, much like Rhee feels, on everyone’s mind, every day. In the midst of all of the decades-long controversy, Michelle Rhee stepped into a job to change the city schools in the most politically charged city in the U.S. — Washington D.C.

“Washington D.C. schools were largely known as the lowest-performing schools in the country,” Rhee said Monday night at .

“Then a 37-year old Korean girl from Toledo, Ohio, gets appointed as chancellor to fix the most dysfunctional district in America.”

Talking to a packed room of Stark County teachers, school administrators and education majors, Rhee walks her talk. She believes in holding teachers and school administrators accountable for their own effectiveness in the classroom and in the schools. She also stressed that teachers should be awarded for good performance and fired for bad results. And, she did just that in D.C.

“Person after person seemed not to want to take responsibility for their job so I started firing people. I was immediately told that D.C. schools never fire people unless they do something egregious, such as hitting a child or stealing from the district,” Rhee said.

Rhee relayed her strong believe that one of the biggest injustices in this country today is that “we still allow the color of a child’s skin or the zip code they live in to dictate that child’s educational opportunities.”

“Public education is the great equalized regardless of race or wealth. That is not true of education today. There really is no single answer to solving education’s problems today,” Rhee said.

What is the answer to education reform? Rhee believes three factors are the focus of reform. First, recognize that there are “unbelievably great teachers doing great things for their kids.” Second, America needs to regain its competitive spirit, especially in classrooms. Kids are being rewarded for just showing up. Third, Rhee said, “In order to transform education, we have to stop the political partisanship and look at what’s best for kids and families.”

Lastly, she urged everyone to get involved with education and play a role by volunteering or getting involved with policy. After leaving her post in D.C., Rhee started the StudentsFirst national movement to transform American public school system.

“I set a goal of getting 1 million members by the end of this year and we are now at 750,000 members,” she said.

Two former educators, Mary Kay and Victor Fenton, attended Rhee's speech because they have seen Rhee talk on television and wanted to hear her in person. Mary Kay taught in North Canton City Schools while her husband, Victor, taught at Jackson Local.

Mary Kay left teaching because, in those days, she was not allowed in the classroom after her fifth month of pregnancy. She later returned to work as a systems analyst in business. Victor left education because of the lack of medical benefits and went to work as a human resource and labor relations manager. They both returned later to teaching at .

“Rhee made many valid points but the most valid was the emphasis on having quality teachers in the classroom. I’ve taught with some really good teachers and some really bad teachers,” Mary Kay said.

“The teacher really does make a difference. Education has really lost a great deal by losing Ms. Rhee,” she said.

Victor felt three words summed it all up, “Students first and accountability.”

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Janet B. October 12, 2011 at 07:48 PM
Wow . I live in DC and I don;t recognize any of Rhee's claims as valid. Thats one reason why we let her and the mayor go. Please be careful, we had a full third of the teaching staff turn over during Rhee's short tenure and things really did not improve in our schools. Just lots of churn and her building her own brand at our expense.
Linda Johnson October 16, 2011 at 05:02 PM
Michelle Rhee did what a majority of teachers in the urban districts do: she quit after a few years. This of course is the problem we have in many of our schools; not too many people want the job. Where are all these "highly qualified" teachers going to come from? When the effects of this recession are over, who will want to teach in DC, where the teachers were publicly vilified by Ms. Rhee? Michelle Rhee and all other "reformers" have two traits in common: they are not teachers and they make a lot of money, often from the public trough. These people have another agenda (think Wall Street greed). Taxpayers need to think very carefully before following this woman and others like her. Do you want to know who cares most about the children? Look in your local classrooms to see who is willing to do the job of educating them for very modest salaries.

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