Kiss Michelle Rhee Goodbye

With the publication of Radical and a few years after founding StudentsFirst, a policy advocacy organization, former Washington, D.C. Chancellor of schools continues to push her reform agenda nationally, one that was severely burned when she exited the district after only three years in office. Well versed in being a celebrity, Rhee made the rounds of high profile media (e.g., Jon Stewart show) pushing her new book and the organization that she leads. So why should anyone kiss Rhee–“America’s most famous school reformer“– goodbye?


Because she is a divisive figure and damaged goods as an educator.  Both mean that her celebrity-hood as a school reformer–on the cover of Time magazine, chatting with Oprah and Jon–will give her visibility in 24/7 news cycle but not lead to any substantial elected or appointed political or educational office.


No President will appoint her Secretary of Education; no governor will appoint her state superintendent of education and no school board will appoint her as their school chief. She is a polarizing, radioactive figure who will set off Geiger counters and create instant political turmoil and  organizational instability–outcomes that may be good for media attention and garnering large speaker fees but disastrous for those responsible for making schools better and improving student performance.


In the absence of actual work with states, districts, schools, and classrooms, her reputation as a divisive figure forever trailed by a dark hovering cloud of cheating on test scores will tarnish  her efforts to have any direct impact on students,  pushing her  further and further down the food-chain of celebrity status.  She will slip into the land where once highly touted educational celebrities such as Joe Clark   (here also) and Chris Whittle  (here also) became answers to the game: Whatever happened to _______ ?

Won’t her advocacy organization StudentsFirst lobbying state legislators for more charters, vouchers, performance evaluations for teachers, and the end of seniority for rehiring laid-off teachers make a difference? I doubt it for the following reasons.

Compared with the efforts of the deep-pocketed Koch brothers in influencing state legislatures through the American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC), or the well-funded Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), Rhee’s organization is minor league in political acumen,  expertise, and experience in political advocacy. Nor does StudentsFirst have any bench strength; it is all Michelle.If  she leaves the organization out of fatigue or pique, no more StudentsFirst. Moreover, such political work to be effective is back-channel and under the media radar. Such work is not Michelle Rhee, considering her few years in Washington, D.C. and since.

But there is something that Rhee can do to reduce the radioactivity, remove suspicions about her motives, and regain a pinch of credibility that she carried as a school reformer when the mayor of Washington, D.C. appointed her in 2007.

That something is for her to return to the classroom and teach for three to five years. Teaching will redeem her soiled reputation as a fame-seeking missile interested only in snatching the headline, the interview, the donor’s dollar. She will regain her credibility as someone who cares about school reform by teaching and working to have her students do well in school and in life. She might even move on, were she so inclined, to take state and federal leadership posts.

Although I hope she will make such a counter-intuitive move, for I do admire her energy, intensity, and commitment to students, I doubt that will occur. Celebrity-hood, once tasted,  becomes addictive and, so often, spirals downward as the addict seeks the next moment-of-glory fix. With regret, I blow a kiss goodbye to Michelle Rhee even now as she rides the cresting wave of “America’s most famous school reformer.”


Filed under Reforming schools

85 responses to “Kiss Michelle Rhee Goodbye

  1. About a month ago I attended a symposium in San Jose on, among other things, test-based teacher evaluations. One of the panelists was Tim Melton, VP of StudentsFirst. He’s a Michigan lawmaker (or was, I’m not sure if he’s still in office). He was outnumbered 5 to 1 by, among others, Linda Darling-Hammond. Yet he held his own and expressed ideas forcefully. I could see him as the new face of StudentsFirst. He seemed politically adept.

  2. Jennifer

    Although I agree with you that she has a ton of energy and commitment, I do think her policies on high-stakes testing have hurt schooling even more. She is divisive and the issues surrounding school reform are more complex than she acknowledges or deals with. I think children we’d be better served if she did say good-bye. (which is not to say others shouldn’t step up to continue to try to make reform, but her lack of credibility, her oversimplification of the issues and her divisiveness, make her the wrong person for the job)

  3. Why the regret?

    And I would not want my children in her classroom, should she ever deign to teach in one. She wouldn’t be hireable right now as a substitute teacher where I work for her lack of educational qualifications. If she actually went back to college and got an actual education degree, and were hired by a public school system and evaluated the same way as the rest of us, it might carry slightly more credibility.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting on this post.

    • Susan Morris

      I would not want my own children – or ANY children I know – to be among her students. Remember the tape incident? And that would be just one example of her lack of understanding of children or teaching or…the list goes on. Please, let her and her ilk fade into oblivion fast!

  4. President Lincoln’s famous quote about fooling people seems apropos. Is Rhee the OJ of school reform?

  5. I think Rhee could have the superintendency of any large school district in the country that she wanted. Not enough money, though.

  6. Gary Ravani

    Yes, there is the mouth taping incident that in CA would have earned her a visit by Child Protective Services and a hearing before the Credentialing Commission. Then there is the allegation of cheating in her previous district and the recent John Merrow followup of the “smoking gun” memo re same that she has danced around. Then there is the issue of her “exaggerated” resume that was: 1) the foundation for her original appointment in DC; and, 2) the foundation of her assertion that any “good teacher” can dramatically increase the test scores of disadvantaged students. (Hint: She did NOT accomplish that task.) The story of Michelle Rhee is one of: 1) how difficult it is to change a media narrative (“The heroic reformer taking on the BAD TEACHERS and their self-interested unions); and, just how resilient is teflon?

  7. gregpulte

    Rhee is toxic.

  8. I just saw this piece by Pasi Sahlberg in the Washington Post with an introduction by Valerie Strauss. “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?” Sahlberg uses Michele Rhee as an example…

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Tina, for citing the Sahlberg piece. I believe that the “no excuses” folks say that the teacher is the most important “in-school” factor in advancing students’ achievement. That adjective is left out of the Sahlberg piece.

  9. Andy

    I enjoy your blog, but, sheesh, man! Disagree with her policies and/or her personality, but the overall hateful tone of this piece leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Do you really need to spend a whole article raging about how no one will hire her and how piddly her influence is compared to the Koch brothers(!)? Yes, Michele Rhee is polarizing and has created some toxicity, but she has also drawn attention and dialogue to issues that people from within the traditional system were having a hard time getting into the light. I’m not crazy about her oversimplification of the issues, either, but at least now there is more conversation taking place. We can disagree on whether she’s done more harm than good (perhaps you feel that she has done SO much harm that she needs a good solid public accounting of everything that’s wrong with her) but I would have appreciated a slightly less hostile (yet still effective) takedown of her ideas. As a counter example, I really appreciated Tina Cheuk’s Sahlberg article.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Andy. I, too, appreciated Tina’s sending along Pasi Sahlberg’s piece.

    • David-S

      The vitriol with which MR acted and her utterances requires a response in kind. The anecdote about her inviting a reporter to watch her fire one of the educators in her jurisdiction, if true, was inexcusable. She chose to live in that world. I hope she spends all the money the rich have bestowed upon her and ends up penniless!

    • CA Maestro

      “I’m not crazy about her oversimplification of the issues, either, but at least now there is more conversation taking place.”

      If i believed that she was well-meaning but misguided, I would agree with you. But the heated reaction she gets comes from those of us who see her public facade as a dangerous lure into supporting bad educational policy. That she has lied about some things just puts her on par with the politicians she rubs elbows with – it’s the fact that I truly believe she understands the real obstacles in education, but will not address them because doing so will cut her ties with the people who provide her means of self-promotion. In short, when you are pointing out a wolf in sheep’s clothing, you don’t whisper.

    • Puget Sound Parent

      I respectfully disagree with almost everything you’ve written here. My biggest problem with Larry’s piece is that he is far too generous and accommodating with the truly odious Michelle Rhee.

      She makes my blood boil. I see her as the biggest impediment to my young son’s education—but much more important, to the education of every non-wealthy child in the United States.

      Rhee’s intentions are NOT good; they never have been. She’s only concerned about her own wealth, power, and influence. She’s been given more than a taste of the very, very good life and she’s going to cling to it as long as she can.

      But, it’s amazing to me that Rhee is STILL being allowed to escape accountability for her criminal activity while she was DC school chief. She’s been excoriated by every reporter who has looked into this closely, including John Merrow who was arguably her biggest advocate only a few months ago.

      It’s quite obvious who this person is and what she is all about. How long will we allow the media and the politicians protecting her to keep us from knowing the truth?

      P.S. I’m not a teacher. Nor have I ever been a teacher, nor anyone in my immediate or extended family—at any time. I’m a PARENT, and what I see Rhee doing to our schools is vile. Will ANYONE have the courage and integrity to expose her for what she is?

  10. Fina

    I like that you take the time to comment on what others write. It’s unique.

  11. If she hadn’t been funded by America’s corporate right to dismantle public education across the land, she would be a ridiculous public figure on par with Newt Gingrich or Michelle Bachmann…

    What ISN’T usually discussed about Michelle Rhee is her role in covering up child sexual abuse allegations against her current husband, Kevin Johnson, now mayor of Sacramento, and founder of the St. Hope charter school franchise, where Rhee served as Human Resources rep and board member. Her role in engineering payoffs to victims is meticulously documented in now archived articles that ran in the Sacramento Bee authored by Terry Hardy and Dorothy Korber….

    As former Rhee apologist, and now Rhee exposer, John Merrow, has suggested, she is being protected by the Washington Post and Graham family, media scions who brought her into political being, along with the disaster that was Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose political career is over, and who himself could very well be prosecuted for the rampant malfeasance while Rhee headed DCPS…. another little tidbit of which, besides the erasure scandals, was the use of public school budgets to fund Rhee’s former husband’s TFA knockoff to the tune of millions in fees paid to recruit non union teachers to displace those Rhee fired so capriciously in the District…

    There’s much deception nearly everywhere this Rhee critter goes, and the only reason she and her husbands, present and former, remain unprosecuted is due to political protection, including by the Obama administration, that seeks the demise of public education to keep Americans of modest means subservient to the corporate gods, poor, pregnant, illinformed, and woefully powerless…

    I wish her justice — nothing more, but nothing less….

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    • Puget Sound Parent

      Thank you for posting this. If you have the links to any of these pieces you cite, please post them here, or send them to me at

      If the Corporate Media is too afraid to take on this person and her sexual predator husband—I understand his victims were all underage girls—then We The People (Bloggers) will just have to do it.

      And do it, we will.

  12. Far more toxic than her personality is Rhee’s total lack of knowledge or even intuitive sense of what teaching and learning really are. And yet, she has been thrust to the fore of the reform conversation by the Gates/Walton/Koch Bros /. . . . $$$ possibly to create the noise, diversion, theatre, chaos and as a foil to the smooth rhetoric of reform that has appealed to our anti-big government and pro free market sensibilities?

    It has backfired. She has poisoned the apple. Rhee would/could never teach. She survived her short lived classroom experience because her student and parent community were easily intimidated. She would not have lasted one year in my school district. But then 100% of the teachers in my district are state certified, highly qualified and allowed to be creative. No TFAs welcome here.

  13. CitizensArrest

    Rhee may still have a future outside of the group she started, and will likely have to leave it if it is to survive. I do agree with the assessment that she is bush league and has no skill in the back room format. The fact that she has established herself as a pathological liar is a rather large burden that can likely only be abated by a hiatus of several years so that the 20/20 hindsight of rose colored glasses may be overlaid onto her past deeds. Case in point, this refutation of a pathetically formulaic screed she wrote in the 3/6 edition of the Seattle Times. It was all hat and no cattle. The piece by Mr. Prosser dissects her propaganda and leaves it twitching in the hot sun.

    • larrycuban

      I had not known of the op-ed that Michelle Rhee had written in response to the Garfield high school teacher boycott of the MAP test. Thanks for sending along John Prosser’s response to that op-ed.

    • CA Maestro

      “Rhee may still have a future outside of the group she started, and will likely have to leave it if it is to survive.”
      Interesting you should say that. I’ve noticed that the StudentsFirst website has toned down her presence on it. That must have been painful for her.

  14. The Rheeject is a North Korean spy planted to destroy American Public education so that NK can rightfully take its place as a top dog nation of the world-Ha Ha!
    By the way, Larry, if you are the person who wrote with Tyack (sp) a book that was used in one of my first ed adm courses, Thanks!

  15. carolinesf

    Someone would have to fund Rhee bounteously to teach in a classroom, given that it’s abundantly clear that she’s in it for the money. And she has made it evident that she’s dishonest, as well as cruel, insensitive and harsh — all of which should rule her out from having any job that puts her in contact with kids. She would be teaching entirely to restore her own image (in a staged, play-acting manner), which is not a circumstance in which she should be around children and youth either. Her characteristics might mean she has a future in prison-system management when her house of cards collapses.

  16. Linda Johnson

    Although we all make mistakes, some mistakes are so serious that they make a person unsuited for teaching children. A teacher MUST have good character. When Michelle Rhee fired the principal while being filmed for TV, she showed that she is not qualified to be a teacher. A celebrity maybe; a teacher, no.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Linda, for commenting on the post.

      • You can’t stop narcissism no matter how hard you try. It will continue to rear it’s ugly head in one form or another. She will just grow a new venture torturing a whole new group of hapless victims. And the downward spiral of intellect shall continue.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  17. So true, in the classroom facing real students is the best form of accoutability. What was she even certifies to teach?

  18. CA Maestro

    “No President will appoint her Secretary of Education; no governor will appoint her state superintendent of education and no school board will appoint her as their school chief.”

    My take on it is that Rhee is exactly where she wants to be. As a teacher, she was vulnerable. As Chancellor of DCPS, her livelihood was still linked to the political career of Mayor Fenty – when he went, so did she. Now, as a high-profile “activist” with her own PAC, she can’t be fired, can’t be voted out of office… she’s in so tight with her current benefactors (who keep feeding her money despite the negative press she’s been getting) that a real goodbye is unlikely in the near future. She’s gunning to be the feace of education without actually being in education.

    Yes, she has a way of generating particularly toxic backlash, but she’s also ambitious, tenacious and she craves the spotlight – exactly the kind of person that the reform movement needs at it’s spearhead. She’s not dealing with students and parents anymore – she’s all about politicians. And while it’s her connection with them that makes her useful, her lifeline is really tied to people like Gates, the Koch brothers and the Waltons.

  19. Michael Lambert

    I await some final word on the D.C. cheating scandal. Rhee fired hundreds of teachers for low test scores under the profoundly absurd assumption that poverty, and literally every other factor in a child’s life including parents and, indeed, student volition, are irrelevant in the classroom. Under those circumstances, teachers and administrators, in a classic damned if they do, damned if they don’t, could only resort to widespread cheating to save their livelihoods. I have no regrets at her too slow fall into oblivion. Good teachers’ careers and lives were ruined by her dogmatic ideology.

    Michelle Rhee: living proof of the validity of Campbell’s Law and the Peter Principle.

  20. I hope your predictions are correct about Rhee someday fading into oblivion. In my home state of Tennessee, Students First has showered the state legislature with money and the results are devastating. It’s all about assessments and data in schools now, and that’s why I would rather not see Rhee back in the classroom because that’s what she believes education is all about–test scores. Rhee’s ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, the Tennessee State Commissioner of Education, drank the same kool-aid. Huffman’s qualifications to be state education head are a whopping 3 years of experience as a classroom teacher and being an attorney for Teacher for America. He’s all about charter schools, vouchers, and anything else that will dismantle the public education system, just like Rhee.

  21. Rhee still gets prominent speaking slots, gets on national TV without much resistance or alert questioning, and just got another $2M grant from the Walton Foundation. I would not write her off.

  22. Bonnie Bracey-Sutton

    Thank you for this piece. You may remember me. I am Bonnie Bracey ,now Sutton, and I think you and I and a few others understood DC and the Rhee problem early on. It was difficult to watch the process unfold and we are still in trouble. They eliminated elementary librarians, but put in a recess goes on and on. Reading scores are terrible.

    Thank you for following through and having the courage to share and make comments, when so many others turned a blind eye to the problem.
    There are a lot of “educators” who do not know the learning landscape. They have networks and get funded anyway, Education is now a business and we all are being made customers.

  23. No love for teacher unions

    Seriously, Larry.

    We are in an age of shouting down dissenting voice. You see it on college campuses and now here. Is this about targeting dissenters like me personally, or discussing the issues? Is my opinion less valuable be because I don’t fancy stalkers?

    If the purpose of this thread is to discuss an issue on the merits, unhide my comments.

    • larrycuban

      I do not accept anonymous comments. Nor do I accept remarks that personally attack a commenter. I deleted yours for the anonymity and the one comment that attacked what you said.

    • Dear No Love for Teacher Unions,

      I apologize for suggesting you needed “your head examined”.

      Mr. Cuban is owed an apology as well.

      I rarely depart from sticking to issues and not personally attacking people, but I confess Michelles Rhee’s policies bring out the sub-human in me.

      I do believe you have a right to dissent, but really, do not be afraid to relinquish anonymity. No one is coming after you for being pro-Rhee.

      What is the most frustrating aspect about this reform movement is that the vast majority of people making policies have never set foot in a low income immigrant or low income high needs classroom and taught or taught with any real duration.

      This leads me to believe that so many reformers who are genuine but misguided in their vision are joined and supported by oligarchs who are disingenuous and very intentional about removing education as a public trust. And the hook they are using is “privatization is pivotal to fulfilling the civil rights to poor children” when in fact, it is their perverse economic privileges and tax policies that render our society more unequal and acutely stratified. Just look at our tax code. Just look at offshore tax havens. This is just the beginning of the list.

      It’s worth having your dissenting voice on this blog, but you must agree to saying who you are. I am personally repulsed by your politics in this instance, but your voice adds to the collective debate, no?

      If you go to my site, you can read a piece I produced called “Getting Slammed”, which narrates the injustices that are imposed on so many excellent and dedicated teachers, injustices that stem from Michelle Rhee and similar policies. . . .


  24. Chris Moth

    I heard Ms. Rhee speak, and take candid Q.&A., at a small local bookstore. I came away optimistic that the unsubstantiated rhetoric of “failure” may be softening across the reform movement. We all want our kids to succeed, to have a life of promise and opportunity. For that goal to be realized, all sides of the discussion must look carefully and thoughtfully at data, be open to incremental systemic change, and above all, listen respectfully, and critically, to the voices of others who live outside our comfort zones. Then, as long as our forward steps are about kids (as opposed to the Walton foundation and the teacher’s unions), our public education system will be the envy of the world.

  25. Jo Blacketor

    Who cares if you “kiss Rhee goodbye?” She will continue to move ahead as it relates to education reform and represents MANY like minded folks from around the country.

    • larrycuban

      I agree,Jo, that the post will hardly stop or even slow down the cascading reforms with which she is associated. But I surely like the title of the post.

  26. The real shame of the Rhee holler is that it is a distraction in addressing the real problems in education. First and foremost is poverty. That is where the data goes. It is so very clear that one must beg the question: Why do the very wealthiest of people fund education reform that won’t work? Because there is money in it for them, directly or indirectly. As Bonney Bracey-Sutton has said, We are changing education for learning and promotion of our culture into an economic engine that feeds the very wealthiest and does very little to improve the status of the poor. It gives new meaning to wealth transference; wealth from the dwindling middle class in taxes to paying the wealthy to do a marginally worse job than we are doing now because we will not face the data.

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