Saturday, February 2, 2013

Reform School

Michelle Rhee Gets an Education

In your new book, “Radical,” you recount that while growing up in a Korean-American household in Toledo, if your brother brought home a bad grade, your mother would ground you, not him. Can you explain her thinking?
My mother is a very traditional Korean mom. I grew up with clear roles as the girl of the family, and one of them was being responsible for my brothers and specifically to make sure my younger brother was doing well in school. Korean culture is very lenient on boys.
 Michelle Rhee    
Stephen Voss/Redux, for The New York Times               

How is it regarded in your house if your children come home with, say, a B or even a C?

My kids have it really easy. They told us about a show in which an Asian kid comes home with a B, and the parents say: “A B? You’re not a Bsian, you’re an Asian!” So that’s the running joke in our house. When my younger daughter got a C on a test, that was the answer she got: “You’re not Csian, you’re Asian.”


You write that you were offended by a sign in a Washington public school that read, “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do.” That didn’t make sense to you?
As educators, we have to approach our job believing that anything is possible. It is incredibly important that we constantly communicate to kids that they can accomplish anything when they put their minds to it.
In 2011, USA Today published an investigation of suspected standardized-test cheating in some schools that you had hailed as success stories when you were chancellor of D.C. schools. You now say you were “misguided” when you blasted the paper. Why?
My initial reaction was, Well, the investigation showed nothing. I was frustrated that people couldn’t accept that a district of largely low-income kids of color had the ability to grow a lot in a short period of time. In retrospect, what I know is that you have to ensure that you’re doing everything possible when there are allegations of wrongdoing.
You offered thousands of dollars to teachers and principals who brought up their schools’ test scores. Did you ever consider that it would encourage some to cheat?
Teachers have integrity. And if money was the motivating factor, they wouldn’t be in education.
As chancellor, you got a ton of press, including the cover of Time magazine. Did you see getting press as part of your job?
At one point somebody said to me, “You guys must have the most unbelievable P.R. machine.” I was thinking, Are you kidding me? It was because this young Asian woman was doing these tough things in a mostly African-American city.
I assumed you loved publicity.
I don’t love publicity. I’m not that kind of person.
Your reputation has been partly informed by the fact that you allowed a PBS news crew to film you firing a principal. Was that a terrible idea in retrospect?
When I became chancellor, for the first two years of the job I was incredibly naïve about the press. I thought that my job was to run the school district, and that was what I was focused on. Now in retrospect I know how naïve it was.
The correspondent said his team was “totally stunned.”
I am who I am, and I am not afraid of that. You could ask folks who have worked with me, and they’ll say we don’t really sit around having to guess how Michelle is feeling. I’m very straightforward.
Have you ever been fired?
Once. I worked at an ice-cream parlor in college, and they were famous for making sundaes sloppily and having the hot fudge rolling over the sides. I liked to make my sundaes neat so that all the ice cream stayed in the bowl and whatnot. They didn’t like that.
Making neat sundaes was a fireable offense?
It was. Also there was a problem with scheduling.
Will you ever run for office? Your husband, Kevin Johnson, is mayor of Sacramento.
Absolutely not. I leave being the politician up to my husband, who does it extraordinarily well. Have you read all this stuff about me? I am a very blunt, very frank person. That and politics do not really mix so well.
A version of this interview appeared in print on February 3, 2013, on page MM12 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Reform School.

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