WASHINGTON - The most unlikely figure in the struggle to reform America's education system right now is Michelle Rhee.
She's a Korean-American chancellor of schools in a city that is mostly African-American. She's an insurgent from the school-reform movement who spent her career on the outside of the system, her nose pressed against the glass - and now she's in charge of some of America's most blighted schools. Less than two years into the job, she has transformed Washington into ground zero of America's education reform movement.
Rhee, 39, who became Washington's sixth school superintendent in 10 years, has ousted one-third of the district's principals, shaken up the system, created untold enemies, improved test scores and, more than almost anyone else, dared to talk openly about the need to replace ineffective teachers.
"It's sort of a taboo topic that nobody wants to talk about," she acknowledged in an interview in her office, not far from the Capitol. "I used to say, 'Fire people.' And they said, 'You can't say that. Say, "separate them from the district" or something like that.'"
But pussyfooting around difficult issues hasn't helped America's schoolchildren, and Rhee is equally candid about the challenges she faces in a district where only 8 percent of eighth-graders meet expectations in mathematics.
"D.C. is known as the most dysfunctional and worst-performing school district in the country," she said, noting that the failures are particularly acute for poor students and members of minority groups. A black child from a low-income family in Washington enters kindergarten at the same level as a comparable child in New York City but is two years behind by the fourth grade, she said.
"Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in this country," Rhee said, adding, "That's not the reality we have in D.C."
Instead, she said, children who grow up in Georgetown and those who grow up in the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Anacostia "get two wildly different educational experiences. There's a lot of data showing that we're utterly failing our children in this district."
This is Rhee's second school year, and there is upheaval and recrimination - but also progress. Test results showed more educational gains last year than in the previous four years put together.
Her aim is for Washington to become, in just six years, one of the best-performing urban school districts in the country, while drastically reducing the black-white achievement gap. "A byproduct of that," she added, "will be that we will take away from all the other school districts and schools across the country the excuse that because the kids are poor, minority, whatever it might be, that they can't achieve at the same high levels."
Rhee's weakness is her bedside manner. Her transition from rebel to chancellor has been a little rough, and she often is perceived as trying to mount a cultural revolution in a way that antagonizes teachers and itself can undermine education. Surveys show that when teachers leave their jobs, it's not just because of low pay but also because of unhappiness with their bosses or work environment. Perhaps recognizing the problem, Rhee lately has reached out to teachers to try to explain her ideas.
The reform camp is driven partly by research suggesting that great teachers are far more important to student learning than class size, school resources or anything else. One study suggests that if black kids could get teachers from the profession's most effective quartile for four years in a row, the achievement gap would disappear.
As a result, Rhee has proposed that teachers surrender some job protections in exchange for the chance to earn more money - as much as $131,000 annually, more than double the average salary for an American public school teacher. But teachers worry, not unreasonably, that their performance is difficult to measure, that they will be judged by incompetent principals and that promised bonuses may later dry up. For now, the two sides seem stalemated.
"If we come to an impasse, we're going to move forward with our reforms anyway," Rhee said. "Then it potentially gets uglier."
She's right on both counts - it could get very ugly, and Washington's children shouldn't suffer indefinitely in broken schools just because of a collective-bargaining stalemate. It would help if President Barack Obama firmly backed Rhee.
Education reform could be the most potent anti-poverty program in the country, and Rhee represents the vanguard in this struggle to try new tools to revive American schools. Unless we succeed in that effort and get more students through high school and into college, no bank bailout or stimulus package will be enough to preserve America's global leadership in the long run.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, 10018.
© 2009 New York Times News Service