DAVID SKORTON: Cornellians. Cornellians. Very good. Very good. Give yourselves a round of applause for being cooperative. That's great.
Well, good afternoon again, and welcome to the 2012 Olin Lecture. Each year, this event presents a widely acclaimed speaker addressing a topic relevant to higher education and the current world situation. This was established in 1986 by the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Foundation, and this has become a highlight of reunion weekend. And this year, we are very honored to have, as our Olin lecturer, a member of the 20th reunion class, Michelle Rhee.
Miss Rhee is the former chancellor of the Washington, DC, public school system and the founder and CEO of Students First, an advocacy group that, according to its mission statement, is working with parents, teachers, administrators, and citizens across the country to ensure great teachers access to great schools and effective use of public dollars.
Miss Rhee earned her Cornell degree in government in 1992 and began her teaching career with the nonprofit Teach for America. After three years working in an inner city school in Baltimore, she enrolled in the Kennedy School at Harvard and earned a Master of Public Policy degree in 1997. The same year, began her own nonprofit, the New Teacher Project, which actively recruited teachers for urban school districts across the country. In '07, she was tapped by Mayor Adrian Fenty to head the Washington, DC, public school system, which serves more than 47,000 students in 123 schools.
Her very, very strong radical changes there raised test scores, improved graduation rates, and brought increased enrollment to the district for the first time in 40 years. She appeared on the cover of Newsweek in '08 and earned praise on Oprah and Bill Maher's Real Time. But she left after three years to form the advocacy group Students First.
As she described it at that time, "Working in education over the past 20 years, time after time, I saw obstacles keeping kids from getting what they needed from their schools. I started. Students First to change that. Schools exist to give kids the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed, and every decision has to revolve around that."
Michelle Rhee now spends much of her time speaking to groups across the country on behalf of Students First. We are honored that she has made time in her schedule to serve as the 2012 Olin lecturer, and as I told you, heroically got to Ithaca. Please welcome the 2012 Olin lecturer, Michelle Rhee.
MICHELLE RHEE: Thank you. Thank you. You should wait and see if you actually like what I have to say first. So I am a traveler. I travel all the time. But I have to say that this trip will go down in the history books as one of my best. I left my home in California yesterday at 6:00 PM. Now, getting from Sacramento to Ithaca is not an easy feat. But I managed to, because of plane delays, miss both of my connections and then had to drive the last five-hour leg from the Newark Airport to here. So as long as I get to my six o'clock flight to head back to the West Coast, I'm good.
But this is all worthwhile, in my opinion, to be able to be here today. Thank you to President Skorton and to the board for inviting me here today to talk about what I believe is the most important issue that faces our country today, which is the issue of public education. So just to give you a little context around the comments that I'm going to give today, I want to give a little bit of my history.
So I graduated from Cornell in '92. I did not realize until just now, when the president said so, that it is my 20th reunion. Makes me feel a little old. So I graduated from Cornell. I joined a program called Teach for America. I went to teach in inner city Baltimore for three years, then went and got my degree in public policy from the Kennedy School. And then started an organization called the New Teacher Project, which recruited teachers into inner city and rural school districts across the country.
And about 10 years into doing that job, I got a call from the mayor, the new mayor, of Washington, DC. His name was Adrian Fenty. And he called me and said, we'd be interested in having you come and run the school district. I just took over control of the schools. We got rid of the school board. We now have mayoral control. We think that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why don't you come in and do it? So who could turn that down?
I decided to take him up on his offer and got to town. And you have to understand that I was a 37-year-old Korean girl from Toledo, Ohio, who had never run a school, much less a school district. And so everyone in the city was wondering, why did Adrian Fenty think that this woman could actually be the person who could change our school district? And just to give you a little context around that, the Washington, DC, public schools, at the time, was the lowest performing and most dysfunctional school district in the entire country.
And if you are wondering what exactly that looks like, I'll share with you a few statistics. We had a circumstance where if you were a ninth grader entering into high school in our city schools, the probability that you would graduate from college was 9%. We had an achievement gap in our city between where the white students were performing and where the African-American students were performing. There was a gap of 70 percentage points. 70 percentage points. Of all of the eighth graders in the city's schools, only 8% of them were operating on grade level in mathematics. 8%, which means that 92% of our young people did not have the skills and knowledge necessary to be productive members of society.
And potentially the most disheartening data of them all was about our little ones. Basically, what that data showed was that when we got kids into the system as kindergartners, they were about on par with other kindergartners who looked like them in cities across the country. So they were on par with kids who looked like them in places like Philadelphia or Los Angeles or Detroit, across the nation. The problem was that the longer they stayed in our school district, the further behind they fell. So much so that by the time they were in the third grade, they were far below their urban counterparts.
And this was an interesting statistic, that the poor black fourth graders in New York City were operating two full grade levels ahead of the poor black fourth graders in Washington, DC. So for all of the people in the city who wanted to blame the low academic achievement levels of our children on single parent households and violence in the community and a lack of health care and all those things, the last time I checked, the poverty in Harlem did not look all that different from the poverty in southeast Washington, DC. But the kids in Harlem were two grade levels ahead of ours.
So that is the system that I inherited. And as I told you, the overwhelming thought when I was announced as the mayor's pick to run the school district was, what on God's green earth is Adrian Fenty thinking? And that's pretty much what I was thinking, too, on my first few days of work, as I found myself sitting in my office thinking, where do you start to try to fix a system where literally everything is broken?
And so I was actually fortunate enough that lots of people in the community who had been watching the school system for a very, very long time and knew a lot about the ins and outs of it came to me and gave me suggestions. And the overwhelming comment that I got when I first got there was, you have to figure out where all of the money is going, Michelle. Because we were spending more money per child than almost any other jurisdiction in the entire nation, but our results were at the absolute bottom.
So we're spending about $17,000 per kid, but you go into our schools and you'd see these buildings falling apart and teachers that didn't have the supplies and books that they need. So it didn't feel like one of the richest systems in the entire nation. So that seems to make sense to me. So I brought my staff together. I said, go look at the spreadsheets. You know, find all the budget line items, and let's figure out where all the money is going.
So a few weeks into this journey, one of my special assistants came back to me, said, I did exactly what you asked me to do. I looked at the largest line items in the budget. And he said, I have something very interesting to share with you. So in education speak, interesting is a euphemism for whack.
So he says, I have some very interesting two points to share with you. I said, OK, what's the first one? He said, well, we spend about $90 million a year transporting a few thousand special education kids through the system. So I'm doing the quick back-of-the envelope math, and it turns out that it's about $18,000 per kid just for bus routes.
I said, you know what? This is actually very, very good news. Because I don't know anything about running bus routes, but I know I can do it for cheaper than $18,000 a year. Because for $18,000 a year, you could buy the kid a Saturn the first year and a personal chauffeur for the Saturn every year after that. Surely, we can make this more efficient. We can take the savings, push it back down to the classroom where it belongs. This is actually a good thing.
He said, ah, not so fast. So the problem is that the district had done such a poor job of transporting special needs kids to their school placements in the past that now we are under a court order, a consent decree. And there's this guy, he's called the court-appointed special master. And he is responsible for running the transportation system and getting the kids to school. And as long as he actually delivers the children to their school placements, he's allowed to spend as much money as he wants. And all we can do is pay the bill at the end. We have no ability to control costs.
I said, that is the craziest thing I have ever heard. He said, that's because you haven't heard my second tidbit yet. He said, I'm trying to figure out, where are all these kids going? The city is only a few square miles high and wide. And so even if all the buses did was, like, run rings around the city all day, it's still hard to understand how we could be spending $18,000 a year.
He said, what I found out was that we were just not not transporting the kids well, but we were also not providing them with the education that they needed, the supports and the resources that they needed to be able to be successful. So what would happen is the parents would sue the school district. They would win, because the school district was very inept and couldn't sort of argue back about what we were doing. And as a remedy, what the courts would most often do is say that the child had a right to go to a private school and that we had to pay the tuition.
So we were literally sending kids all across the region to schools in Virginia and Maryland, et cetera. So some of them were on the bus for 2 and 1/2 hours one way and then back, et cetera, so that's what it was taking. And you might have 10 kids living in one apartment complex, but they all 10 of them were being sent to different private schools. So you'd have 10 different buses with 10 different bus drivers and 10 different bus matrons, all which were carrying one child to go to their individual private school.
So I said, you are right. That is even crazier than the first thing. I said, how is it-- I mean, I knew a lot coming into this job about the dysfunction that we were going to be dealing with. But I had no idea that we were going to have to pay private school tuition for kids. How does that happen? He said, well, you know, that's what I looked into, is trying to find out how do we get to this place. And he said, let me just give you an example of what I found.
He said, I found one mid-level bureaucrat in the school district. And she, in one week, made two mistakes. With one kid, she didn't fill out a form she was supposed to fill out. And with another kid, she didn't have a meeting she was supposed to have. And in both of these circumstances, it resulted in these two children getting sent to a private facility that costs this district $224,000 a year in tuition.
So I said, well, I'm going to have to meet this lady. So my assistant calls the woman up and says, ma'am, we would like you to come to a meeting at the chancellor's office tomorrow at 5 o'clock. And she said, well, I'm going to have to check with my supervisor on that. And my assistant said, ma'am, the chancellor is your supervisor. She's everyone's supervisor. She said, OK, well, fine, I'll come. But I'm going to bring my lawyer with me. He said, bring whoever you have to bring. Just show up for the meeting.
So the next day at 5 o'clock, I walk into my conference room. The lady is sitting there. I sit down. I said, so I understand that you had a question about whether he should come to this meeting. She said, no, no, no. I'm sorry. I was a little freaked out, but I'm good now. I'm here. I said, great. I pulled out the files. I said, this kid, you didn't fill out the form. This kid, you didn't have the meeting you were supposed to have. I said, you've cost this district nearly half a million dollars with the mistakes that you've made. Help me understand how this happened.
She looked at me and she said, well, what you need to understand is that I am a very busy person. She said, I have a lot of stuff on my plate. I have meetings to go to. I have papers to fill out. Lots of kids, you know, under my jurisdiction. And so things are going to fall through the cracks. That's just the way it is.
And I looked at her and I said, no, you need to understand that if you believe this job is too big for you, then you need to go find another job. I said, but if you are going to take the paycheck home every other week, then you must take full responsibility for doing everything within your job purview and doing it well. She looked at me and she said, but that's not fair. I kid you not.
And it was after multiple conversations like that that I did what I think any CEO in a turnaround situation like this would do faced with similar obstacles-- I started to fire people. That did not go over particular--
You might like it. They didn't like it so much. So I started to fire people. A couple of days into doing this, my then general counsel runs into my office. I had an open-door policy. So he runs in. He shuts the door. I knew I was in trouble. He said, Chancellor Rhee, you have got to stop firing people.
I said, why? If people are not doing their jobs, then we need to move them out. And we need to move people in who can do those jobs. And he said, welcome to the DC public schools, where we never fire anyone. And I said, you know what? You're exaggerating. I know this because I've talked to lots of people in the city. They told me that there is a process that you can go through. I don't want to break any rules. Just tell me what the system looks like, what do I have to do, and I'll do it.
He said, well, there's only two ways that you can fire an employee from the public school system. I said, OK, give me the first way. He said, you have to have done something egregious. I said, well, that's perfect, because everybody that I'm talking about is egregiously incompetent.
And he said, no, no, no. Egregious, there's only two definitions, really. One, either you have to have hit a kid and we have to have a videotape to show it-- because the principal and five other teachers seeing it is not enough. Or you have to have stolen money from the district, and we've got to have that the bank receipt to show it. Short of that, nothing counts as egregious.
I said, OK, well, that's not good news. Give me the second way I can terminate somebody. He said, well, you have to show a recurring pattern of incompetence. And I said, well, these people did not magically become incompetent the moment that I walked in the door. Clearly, we ought to be able to show a pattern.
He said, that's what you would think. But what you don't know, Chancellor, is that for the last 10 years in the central office, no employee has received a performance evaluation. And in order to meet the legal letter of the law of showing this recurring pattern, you have to show the documentation, and we don't have any documentation to show that pattern. So you can't fire anybody that way, either.
I said, OK, that's really, really not good news. Well, what am I supposed to do with these people, then, who are not doing their jobs here in the central office? They're not serving the teachers out in the schools, or the kids, the families. What do we do with them?
He said, well, you can do what we normally do. We put them down in the schools. And I said, are you kidding me? I'm trying to get these people away from children, not put them closer to. So I sort of made an executive decision that I was going to send these people home for a little while. Because if you think about it, the employee that I talked about makes about $40,000 a year. If she comes in for one week and makes two mistakes that cost me half a million dollars, my best cost-cutting mechanism is to let her stay at home for a little while.
So I sent some of my home, and then I went talk to my boss, the new mayor, Adrian Fenty. And I said, sir, you brought me in to handle a really tough situation, but the tough situation turns into an impossible situation if I can't build the team that I know is going to be successful at turning this school district around. So if you don't like the rules of the game, then we have to change the rules. So he decided to introduce legislation to the city council that would allow us to make all central office employees at-will employees. That was firestorm number one in Washington, DC.
And probably my most memorable day in that job was the day of the city council hearing about that legislation. The hearing lasted for 14 hours. And all day long, there were bands of people coming in and out, banging on the table and yelling, Michelle Rhee is awful. We hate her. She is a dictator. You know, all those sorts of things.
And all throughout the day, I kept thinking to myself, I'm not hearing any talk about children, about schools, or about student achievement. All of the arguments were about adult issues and job security and due process. And I kept thinking to myself, are you kidding me? The children of this city don't have any due process. If you were a kid who just finished the third grade and you don't have the third grade skills, you can't go to some appeals board somewhere and say, excuse me, please refund my parents' taxpayer dollars back, because I didn't learn what I was supposed to as a third grader.
No. We would just pass you along to the next grade without knowing what you needed to know, create a generation of people who have one of the highest adult illiteracy rates in the entire country. But everybody got to keep their jobs and their contracts and be happy. We did not believe that that could continue any longer if we were going to be running a functional organization.
So that's a little bit about the situation that we faced and how incredibly difficult it was. And for 3 and 1/2 years, the mayor and I fought the good fight to try to improve the quality of education in DC. We succeeded on many levels, but unfortunately, our journey was cut short, because he was not re-elected for office. Much of the reason for that, honestly, was because of the tremendously difficult decisions that we were making on the education and school reform front.
So despite all of those challenges that we faced, I have tremendous faith and confidence in what is possible in American education reform today. And I'm going to talk a little bit about why I believe so. But I'm going to tell you one quick story. When I was in DC, I used to go out and talk to big crowds like this all the time and try to convince them that we could do so much better for our kids and our school district could become functional, et cetera.
And after the talks, people would inevitably come up to me and say, you know what, Michelle? We like you. You are enthusiastic. You seem really motivated. But you are not going to be successful. And I'd always say, gee, thanks for the vote of confidence. Why do you think so?
And they'd say, because schools are a reflection of the communities that they're in. And as long as you have the economic disparity in this country that you do, you're always going to have the educational inequity, as well. You're always going to have some neighborhoods that have lots of resources and wealth and engagement of the parents. And in those communities, you're going to have great schools. And then you're going to have other schools on the other side of town where there's poverty and there are violence and all these issues. And in those communities, you are going to have less good schools. That's the way the world works-- capitalism, democracy, et cetera. Get used to it, kid.
And I never, ever believed that that's the way that it had to be. I believed that something more was possible, but I could never sort of figure out the right anecdote or story about why people should feel more. And about a year into my tenure, I had the very good fortune of meeting Warren Buffett. So first of all, never in my life would I ever think that I would have the opportunity to meet somebody like Warren Buffett. But there I was one evening in Omaha, Nebraska, having a steak dinner with Warren.
And halfway through the dinner, this guy looks up at me, and he says, you know, Michelle, it is very easy to fix the problems in public education in America today. And I said, super, Mr. Buffett. Why don't you tell me what that is so I can run back to DC and implement it. He said, all you have to do is make private schools illegal and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.
So think about that for a minute. If we would have done that in Washington, DC, which means that every CEO's child, every ambassador's child, every congressman's child, and the president's two babies all got assigned to a random DC public school by lottery, which means that a huge proportion of them would have been going to Anacostia for school every day, I guarantee you that you would never see a faster movement of resources from one side of the city to the other as you would in that circumstance. And I also guarantee you that very quickly, we would have a system of excellent schools.
So the question in my mind is not is it possible to do this. The answer to that question is, absolutely, it is. The real question is, do we, as the adults in this society, have the wherewithal that it would take to make the incredibly difficult decisions necessary to make this a reality for all children? And the answer to that question so far has been, no.
But this is why-- now I'm going to get optimistic. But let me tell you a little bit about why I think that we are at a seminal moment in our country's trajectory and three things that I think that we can do that would absolutely change the course of our nation and of our nation's children.
The first thing that we have to do is we have to begin respecting teachers for the incredible professionals that they are. People every day, when I was in DC, I would walk up and down the streets, and they'd say, oh, you have the hardest job in the city. And I'd say, no, I don't. This job is a walk in the park compared to what it takes to go into a classroom every day knowing that 25 kids are dependent on you for their education. So this is easy compared to that.
Teaching has to become the kind of profession that is respected in this country the way that it is in the highest performing countries across the globe.
But at the same time, there's a very disturbing debate that's going on right now in this country, where you'll have some education advocates saying, you know, there's really nothing that teachers can do. You can't hold teachers accountable, because the kids are coming to school with so many deficiencies and problems. And what can teachers really do?
Now, let me say this. We cannot expect teachers to solve all of society's ills. That is not at all realistic. However, I very strongly believe that teachers and educators can make a huge, huge difference in the lives of children. I refuse to believe that what we do in schools doesn't matter. It does.
Let me tell you a quick anecdote on this. So I used to visit schools as often as I could when I was in DC. But after the first few trips that I made, when I'd show up at the school and I'd kind of tell them that I was coming, they'd bring out the pep band and the cheer squad and all this sort of stuff. I thought, that's not what I want to see. I actually want to see what's going on on a day-to-day basis in these schools. So I decided to start doing unannounced visits.
So on this one day in particular, early my first year, I visited a school in one of the most downtrodden parts of DC. The murder rate's extraordinarily high, violent crimes, et cetera. The school that I chose, across the street from it is a liquor store and a nightclub. And as I was walking up the front walk into the school, there were broken beer bottles and syringes and cigarette butts. I mean, it was sort of the picture of urban blight.
So I walk into the school, choose a hallway to go down, pick a random classroom, and walk in. What I saw was absolutely unbelievable. There was a teacher who was bounding around the room. She was full of energy. And there are 30 kids in the class all transfixed on this teacher. And she's asking questions, and they're answering, and they're all engaged. And I'm sort of picking up from context clues that they are doing a unit on Greek mythology and that they're reading a chapter book together.
And the book is about a group of kids their age who traveled back in time back to the time of Greek gods. And they were at the part of the story where they wanted to go home, because they'd had their adventure. So the teacher says to the kids, please look up at the posters around the wall. And she'd created these posters. Each one was of a different Greek god and what they were the god of. And she said, if you were one of these kids and you could only choose one god to call on to help you travel back in time, which God would it be?
So I look at the posters. I've got my answer. Good. You know, first kid raises his hand. He said, I would choose Zeus, because Zeus is the god of gods. He's the boss of everybody else. If he tells you to do something, you have to do it. So I figure, just cut out the middleman. Go straight to the big guy. Like that's a pretty good answer.
Second kid raises her hand, and she said, I would choose this god. It was the god of women, children, and families. She said, these are kids that we're talking about. These are her peeps. She got to take care of them. So I would definitely choose her. I thought, that's another good answer.
Third kid raises his hand. He said, I would choose this god. It was the god of art, music, and literature. So I'm thinking to myself, OK, kid, that was a total misfire. Then the kid goes on to explain. He said, as you'll remember from earlier in the story, the way the kids got transported back in time was because they had dug up an old Greek lyre, and they strummed the strings of the lyre. And that's how they got back in time. So I figure if they've got to go back, it has something to do with the lyre. They should call on the god of music. I said, huh, pretty good.
These kids gave six unbelievably creative and innovative answers before somebody came up with my ever lame answer of the god of travel. And I thought, this is exactly what you want to see in a classroom. All of the kids, 100% engaged, using their critical thinking skills and their analytical skills. And this teacher, who's inspiring them to just use their brains and love it.
So I walk out of that classroom. I am happy. I walk into the classroom directly across the hall to the exact opposite situation. I nearly bump into the teacher in this classroom, because she is standing firmly in the doorway, and she is yelling at the kids, I told you to be quiet! I don't know why you're not listening to me! All day, every day, it's the same thing. I'm tired of this. I am going to count down from 10, and by the time I get to zero, I want everybody's mouths closed. 10, 9, 8.
And then she starts flicking the light on and off. Seven, flick, flick, flick. Six, flick, flick. Five, flick. She's like, I'm waiting. I'm waiting. You could tell the kids were saying, we're waiting, too, for something to happen. I sat in both of these classrooms for no more than 10 to 15 minutes apiece. And I can tell you that these two groups of children, both who came from the same troubled community, who came into the same dilapidated building every day, where ceiling tiles were falling on their head and rainwater was leaking through the roof, were getting two wildly different educations because of the adult who was in front of them every single day.
You cannot tell me that teachers don't matter. They absolutely do. And we have to begin respecting and honoring them for the work that they do every day. So that's my first point.
The second thing that we have to do-- and this is this goes over, like, eh, sometimes, not so much other times-- we have to regain the American competitive spirit. We have gone totally soft as a country.
We are so busy trying to make children feel good about themselves that we have lost sight of doing the things that are necessary to actually make them good at anything. So let me give you a quick example of this. I have two children, a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old. Two little girls.
Both of my daughters play soccer. Both of my daughters suck at soccer. They are awful. They take after their mother's athletic inabilities. They're terrible. It's almost painful to watch them on the field. But if you were to go into their rooms today, you would see trophies and medals and ribbons and plaques. If you came from another planet, you would come into my house and say, Michelle Rhee is raising the next Mia Hamm. Trust me, I am not.
So I try to talk to my kids about this. Honey, you are not so good at soccer. If you want to become good at soccer, you are going to have to put the work in. Every single day, 90 minutes, kicking the ball up against the wall and in the net and running sprints. And even if you do all that, I can't guarantee you you're going to be any good, because you've inherited my DNA. But that is the least of what it's going to take if you ever want to become great at soccer.
And my kids look at me like I'm crazy. Like lady, do you need me to bring the medal down so you can see it? It has literally gotten to the point-- I was down in Texas not too long ago. I was talking to a very well-known philanthropist. And he said, Michelle, what-- so for those of you from Texas, you don't have any problem cursing. But I don't curse, so I'm going to censor this a little bit.
He said, what the bleep is going on in America today? He said, last summer, I had to attend my great-grandchild's summer camp awards ceremony. He said, this thing lasted for 3 and 1/2 hours. Said it got so bad that by the end of the ceremony, it sounded a little like this. The next award goes to the best 10-year-old blond haired, blue eyed boy named Bobby who has red shorts on today. And then Bobby would run up on the stage with his arms over his head, and Bobby's parents would be taking pictures. And it would be so happy.
The philanthropist said, I could tell, just by looking out in the crowd, that the kids, they were just average kids. Why did we have to spend 3 and 1/2 hours trying to tell all of them that they were extraordinary when they're not? Because I can tell you that this is not what is happening in other countries.
In my home country of South Korea-- I actually spent a year there when I was in elementary school. It was the biggest shock of my life. Because I showed up on day one, and they rank the kids in the class, fourth grade, from 1 to 70. 70 kids in a classroom, and they give you a ranking. You know exactly where you stand. I was number 70, because I was a Korean as a second language kid. And they were unapologetic about it. Yes, you are at the bottom of the class.
And if you were number 18, your mother was after you. You better be a 13 by the end of this trimester. And then, you know, the kids who are eight are trying to get to five. You would think that the only happy kid in the class would be number one, but he was actually the most terrified. Because he was looking behind him, oh my gosh, there comes number two. What am I going to do? Everyone knew where they stood. It's an embedded part of the culture of competition and always trying to get better.
Meanwhile, here, when I tell that soccer story, I was telling my daughters the other day, my little one. I said, yeah, you know, I told the story about your soccer skills, and somebody on a blog wrote, Michelle Rhee's awful. She's a tiger mom. She is crushing her children's spirits. I'm telling my little 9-year-old this. She said, nah, you're not a tiger mom. You're kind of like a gerbil mom.
But the point of it is that I think that we've lost our way in this country. We have to begin to rebuild our culture and to begin to shift it away from celebrating mediocrity and into really teaching kids what excellence looks like. And you don't have to be--
Let me be clear. You don't have to be a tiger mom and make your kids practice piano for 3 and 1/2 hours in the rain to do that. People sort of polarize things to extremes. And what I'm saying is that there is a balance in the middle, where we, at the same time, encourage our children and talk about the potential that we see in them. But we also set a very high bar for excellence and let them know that the only way that they're going to get there is through hard work and perseverance. Doing anything less for our kids is not setting them up for success in the long term.
So regaining our competitive spirit, that's the second thing. The last thing that I think we have to do as a country is to stop thinking about everything along party and partisan lines.
And to start thinking about things in terms of what is in the best interests of kids. So let me give you my quick example on this one. I'm a Democrat, dyed in the wool. I mean, from the time I was born until now, I always have been, always will be a Democrat. Proud of it. So because I am a Democrat, when I got to DC, I had very specific feelings about what education reform should look like and what it shouldn't look like. And I drew a hard line between those two things.
And one of the things that I was against was vouchers, vouchers for kids to go take public dollars to go to private schools. Because the party line on vouchers is, well, you're taking money out of the systems that need that money the most. Or you're just throwing a life preserver out to a few kids, and what about the rest of the kids and all that? Those arguments made sense to me, so I was not for vouchers.
I got to DC, and there was actually a publicly funded voucher program in place. And it was up for re-authorization early on in my tenure, and people wanted me to weigh in on it. They said, you know, you're one of the most high profile people, education people, in the city. What do you think about the voucher program? And I knew which way I was leaning, but I didn't want to jump to any rash conclusions. So I decided to look into it.
And over the next few weeks, I had a fascinating experience where I talked to parent after parent after parent after parent in the city. The vast majority of them were young women, and they had done everything that we would have wanted them to do as moms. So the first thing that they did was they looked at and researched their neighborhood school. And they would often find that that neighborhood school only had about 10% of the kids who were on grade level.
So they'd look at the school and say, my kid has a 90% chance of failure if she goes there? Absolutely not. Not going to send her there. So then, she would do the next best thing that we would tell her to do, which is she would apply through the out-of-boundary lottery process to try to get a spot at one of the high-performing schools on the other side of town. And inevitably, she would not get a spot, because there were thousands of families applying and only a handful of spaces available.
So then these mothers would come to me, and they'd say, OK, now what do I do? And when faced with a woman, who had kids just like I did, and looking at the situation that she faced, which was that her neighborhood school, in all likelihood her child was going to fail, I thought, I can't deny this lady a $7,500 voucher-- which is, by the way, a whole lot less than what we're spending per kid in the district-- so that she could maybe take the kid and go to one of the Catholic schools in the area and get a great education.
I just I couldn't sit in front of these moms and say, you know what? I need you to take one for the team. I need you to suck it up for a little while, while I fix the system. Your kid may not learn how to read, but that's what I need. It's not about me or the system or the district. It's supposed to be about kids. And if I'm that mom, I'm looking for any way out of that failing school. She wanted the same things that I wanted for my kids. And if I couldn't give her a space at a DC public school that I would feel comfortable sending my own kids to, then I'm not going to subject her and her kids to a lower quality education.
So I came out in favor of the voucher program. People went nuts. The party like, what are you doing? You're going against the party. And the loudest voice was actually from my supporters. People who said, Michelle, don't do this. You are our one hope in this city. We actually feel like you can do this job, but you have to give yourself some time. And you have to have the resources. If you're allowing this program to take kids out of the system, then you're losing enrollment, and you're losing money. And that's just not going to be good for you. It's not setting yourself up for success.
I said, here's the thing you don't understand. My job is not to protect and preserve this system that has been doing a disservice to children. My job is to make sure that every kid in the city is getting a great education. I am agnostic as to the delivery mechanism. If they're getting a great education in a charter school, so be it. In a private school through a voucher, great. In one of my traditional public schools, super. What we should be focused on is not what kind of school it is, but what kind of results they're providing for kids.
So I try to talk to people a lot about this, particularly people in my party. Sometimes I get people a little bit when I tell them that story, but oftentimes not. One of my best friends is a teacher, so I was having this argument with her. She's like, yeah, I'm not buying it. I said, OK, so did you watch the movie Waiting for Superman? Did anyone in the audience watch Waiting for Superman?
So for those of you who did not see the movie, it's a documentary that you should absolutely watch. And it sort of documents five families from across the country who are trying desperately to get their kids into good public schools and sort of some of the trials and tribulations on the way. Anyways, one of the stories is about this little girl, Bianca. And there's this heart-wrenching scene in the movie where Bianca is not allowed to go to school because her mother has fallen behind on the tuition payments.
So I said to my friend, the teacher, I said, Waiting for Superman, Bianca. She was not allowed to go to her kindergarten graduation because her mom didn't have the money. How did that make you feel? And my friend said, it was heartbreaking. It was an injustice. I wanted to write the check myself. I said, right, honey, that would be a voucher. Just a different kind.
We don't have arguments about using Medicare and Medicaid in private hospitals versus public, Pell grants in private universities versus public. We have to be able to get past our partisan differences and begin to develop policies that are not Republican policies and not Democratic policies but are students first policies. And I am very convinced that if we were to do that as a country, we would end up with a policy agenda that would jettison our nation forward. So let me just--
Let me end quickly on this note. I believe that public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our country. It is supposed to be the thing that ensures that it doesn't matter if you are black or white, rich or poor. We have public schools so that every single child can have an equal shot in life. That is not the reality for the children in America today.
In Washington, DC, if you grow up in Anacostia versus if you grow up in Georgetown, you get two wildly different educational experiences. That, essentially, means that we are allowing the zip code that a kid lives in and the color of their skin to dictate their educational attainment levels and, therefore, their life chances and their life outcomes. We, as a country, are now at the bottom end of the entire globe on social mobility, which means that if you are a child born into poverty in this country, the chances that you will ever escape poverty are slim to none.
That is the most un-American thing I have ever heard. It goes against every single ideal and value that we hold as a nation.
If we are going to live up to our promise to the children of our country, that we are the land of opportunity, then we must ensure that every single child, regardless of where they live and what they look like, can have access to a great education through excellent public schools. Thank you.
Because of my tardiness, I think we only have time for a few questions, but I'm willing to take a couple before we adjourn. I think there are mics on either side.
AUDIENCE: I have no mic, but I have a question. Is there a school in Washington, DC, private or parochial, where you can get through the school on $7,500 a year? Or is that family still left having to come up with a couple of thousand bucks themselves to pull it off?
MICHELLE RHEE: So in terms of the voucher program, the voucher program does not provide a voucher for the same amount that we spend in the public schools. It was for a lesser amount. Can a kid go to a private school for $7,500 in Washington, DC? Yes. They can't necessarily go to Sidwell Friends, but there are many Catholic schools, et cetera, that they can attend on $7,500. And a lot of the private schools actually worked with the families of DC, and they would provide scholarships for the Georgetown Days of the World to provide the rest of the money.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
MICHELLE RHEE: Absolutely.
AUDIENCE: I'll shout. Oh, there we go. You talked about competition. And my view of competition would be more along the lines of the benchmark being yourself and making yourself better versus winners and losers. So you establish a benchmark, and you compete against yourself. Any thoughts on that?
MICHELLE RHEE: Yeah. I mean, I think that you definitely want to make sure that you're keeping the big picture in mind. Let me give you a quick example. One of the things that is happening right now across the country is that we are thinking about how to evaluate teachers in a different way. And one of the measures by which teachers are being evaluated now is how much their students learn or progress academically.
And so while that is, on one hand, a good thing, it has to be done in the right way. And let me tell you why. If you just set an arbitrary absolute measure and say, in order to be a highly effective teacher, 90% of your children must be on grade level by the end of the year-- but in some classrooms in the city, you walk in on day one and 95% of the kids are already on grade level. And in a different part of town, you walk in on day one and 10% of the kids are on grade level. You can't have the same expectation, just after nine months of school, that those people are going to have the same outcomes for their kids.
So what we advocate is what we call a value-added growth model, which takes into account where did the exact kids who are in your classroom-- where did they start the year, and where did they end the year? And how much growth was there? So that, I think, is the right way to do it, number one. But in the longer term, we have to have high expectations of all kids. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Hi. So I worked in the central office of an urban Connecticut school district for four years.
MICHELLE RHEE: I'm sorry to hear that.
AUDIENCE: Ironically, the motto was kids first. And on one of my first days on the job, someone who had been around for 20, 30 years took me aside and said, you know, you look really eager and ambitious. And I just want to tell you don't work too hard. Maybe 20%, 30% of maximum effort, or you're going to get us all in trouble. And that was a true story, and it was really scary.
I'm curious about the policy initiatives that you're in favor of. I know that you went to the wall for the issue of at-will employees and having more control over the school system. And it's something that I think someone had to be first in taking a crack at it, and I give you a lot of credit for that. What are some the other policy issues? Is that one that you think is going to get through at some point in urban districts? Or are there others that you think are going to be-- they're going to open the door to trying to turn the door around on urban education?
MICHELLE RHEE: So I just started a new organization about a year ago called Students First. And if you go on our website, you can see 37 different policies that we advocate for. I'll just give you-- talk a little bit about teacher evaluation as one of them. You know, people are very sort of nervous and angsty about this whole thing. And one of the policies that we have been pushing for very, very hard is to end the policy of last in, first out.
So this policy says that in the time of a budget crunch or crisis, if you have to lay teachers off, you must fire the last person hired, regardless of performance. If you are the newest teacher, you've got to go. Well, we happen to know that this makes absolutely no sense for kids. It means you end up firing some of your best teachers. You have to end up hiring more teachers, et cetera.
So when I was in DC-- this is the interesting thing-- I implemented this policy. We had to do a layoff of about 250 teachers. I said, this is an unfortunate situation. But if we're going to do it, then we should let go of the people who are adding the least value to the school system. And this is what was amazing to me. When I let the teachers go, there was this huge, huge hullabaloo in the city. And the political officials went nuts, right?
And I remember talking to one public official in particular, it was an elected official, who said, I am demanding that you reinstate every single one of these 266 teachers. And I looked at him, I said, I'll tell you what. I'm going to make you a deal. You have four kids who don't attend the DC public schools. If you bring one of them into the district and allow me to assign, at random, one of these 266 teachers to be their teacher, I will bring that teacher back.
And if you bring all four of your kids back, I'll bring four teachers back. And if you get your neighbors and your nephews and nieces-- for every single one of your family members that you allow to be taught by one of these teachers, then I will bring one of those teachers back. He didn't take me up on that. People are all too willing to make policies for other people's children that they would never accept for their own. And that's where I feel like a huge issue exists.
OK, we have time for one more. Yes, ma'am?
AUDIENCE: Would it be possible to get a question from the balcony?
MICHELLE RHEE: Oh. I don't know.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. I am a product of inner city public schools. And I went to elementary, junior high, and high school in the inner city before coming to Cornell. So I'm certainly very grateful for all the work that you have done and continue to do, Michelle. My question is that given that you've placed such a huge emphasis on having our schools assume more responsibility and our teachers assume more responsibility for what they're supposed to do for our kids, at what point do we also placed more emphasis in having our parents do more?
Because what I found in inner city schools is that it's not just that the schools are bad and the teachers oftentimes can be bad, too. But there are oftentimes also very bad parents and very bad students. And in your experience, obviously, we all know that it takes a really long time and a lot of effort to change our public school system. So, I guess, what I'm curious about is at what point do we ask the people who ought to be most responsible for our kids to assume more responsibility, as well?
MICHELLE RHEE: Yeah. So I think this is a great point. And I feel that you actually have to strike a balance when it comes to parental involvement. On the one hand, we know, based on the research, that schools that have greater levels of parental engagement have better academic outcomes. So we know that if we can manage to get parents more involved, their kids are going to do better in school. So we should be doing everything we possibly can to engage more parents. There is no doubt about that, on the one hand.
On the other hand, I just talked to a friend of mine who had a very interesting experience. He's an educator, 30 year educator. And he got called by his family in North Carolina, who said, we need your help. Your great-grandniece has gotten kicked out of school, and the school won't tell us why. And so you're an educator. Can you help?
So the guy calls the school, and the people say, yeah, we've been having troubles with your grandniece. And quite frankly, sir, unless her mother comes into school with her, she is not allowed to come back. And my friend said, let me just tell you something. You don't want my niece to come into the school. Because if she comes in, she will start a fight, and you'll have to call the cops. She's very troubled, and she's not going to be able to be an effective advocate for her daughter. You don't want her there, trust me.
He said, but are you going to abdicate your responsibility for educating this kid because of her mother's actions? He said, because if that's the case, you might as well tell this eight-year-old little girl to drop out of school now, because her mom's never going to do the right thing. So the question that we have to ask ourselves is, are we willing to subjugate children to a lower quality education and lower expectations overall over something that they have absolutely no control over? Which is who their parents are and what they decide to do or not do.
And I feel like the answer to that question has to be we can't. We can't hold kids responsible for something that they don't have any say over. So it has to be two ways. We have to have an understanding that we have the responsibility to serve every single child, regardless of what their home circumstance is. And at the same time, encourage every single parent to be as involved as we possibly can. Thank you.
DAVID SKORTON: One more time, we want to thank Michelle Rhee, class of '92.
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Michelle Rhee '92, a nationally recognized entrepreneur and champion of education reform, delivers the 2012 Olin Lecture, June 8 as part of Reunion Weekend.
Each year, the Olin Lecture brings to campus an internationally prominent speaker to address a topic relevant to higher education and the current world situation.