One of the most interesting (and there was stiff competition) speakers at the Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism conference was the new chancellor of the DC Public Schools and the New Teacher Project founder Michelle Rhee.
I have to admit, my first impression of her was not positive. She seemed unimpressive, petite, plainly dressed.
But once she started talking, wow! She spoke about the challenges faced by the DC schools, how she intends to implement radical reforms to address those challenges, and how various obstacles (including unions and elected ward officials) attempt to block her and maintain the status quo. She spoke of her admiration for DC's mayor, who told everyone that works for him that "no one tells Michelle Rhee 'no' except me", and that he hasn't yet told her no.
She's an excellent speaker with great ideas, very entertaining, tough, well-spoken. Actually, she's a riot! Very bright, sharp--in other words, she and I agree on a lot. One of my favorite of her anecdotes was trying to get rid of an incompetent teacher. A union zealot asked, don't you think this teacher could and should be improved through professional development and not just fired? Her answer was, why should more children have to suffer an incompetent teacher before that teacher gets developed?
One of her main points was that so much of what goes on in the education bureaucracy happens for the benefit of adults, not for children.
She stated that she believes public education should be the great equalizer, but the reality is that it isn't so. There are so many obstacles, but she's having an impact in removing some of them.
One discouraging point she made was that she couldn't make the progress she has without a strong mayor to back her up. In other words, it takes her and a mayor to make progress, sometimes against other elected officials (like the ward bosses). I guess it's good that what she's doing is right and good (because I believe in it), but someone doing exactly the opposite could also be in charge and I'd be complaining about walking over the democratically-elected local officials. I don't yet know how to resolve that inconsistency.
I had a very pointed question to ask her, but when it came time, I just chucked my question and asked her if she'd consider working in the suburban Sacramento area, as my district is looking for a new superintendent. She remarked that such a job is very difficult because there isn't one strong elected official (like her mayor), usually only a squishy schoolboard intent on not rocking the boat and trying to get reelected, to help make things happen. She pretty much shot down my job offer.
But she knows Kevin Johnson, and hopes he wins this November's election for mayor of Sacramento.