Michelle Rhee, Founder & CEO of StudentsFirst, Talks Ed Leadership with EP Analyst Fellows

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The former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools discusses her approach to managing a school system with over 45,000 students.

Not long after Michelle Rhee settled into her post at the helm of D.C. Public Schools in 2007 she was forced to close down 23 schools. This decision put Rhee in the middle of one of the biggest education reform controversies of the decade and forced her to rethink everything she thought she knew about education leadership.

In a recent talk with Education Pioneers Analyst Fellows, Rhee shared her lessons learned and offered advice for the Fellows, who have recently begun work in public school districts, education nonprofits and charter school organizations across the nation. Rhee offered three key pieces of advice for the rising group of leaders.

1.    Lead From The Front

As Rhee was attending hundreds of school closure meetings over a short, 10-week period, she got a piece of advice from Joel Klein, then-Chancellor of NYC Public Schools.

"Lead from the front," he said.

It wasn't until a few months after her decision to close the 23 schools that Rhee finally understood what that meant. People weren't happy with the decision, and weren't afraid to express their opinions. But while Rhee was visiting one of the consolidated schools, a woman approached her and said, "...you were right."

"Sometimes when you're a leader, you have to see what other people can't see at the time," Rhee said. "If you're making the right decisions, people will begin to see, and they'll follow."

2.     Be Okay With Not Being Liked

In the midst of the school closings, Rhee's mom came to visit her in D.C. and said something that resonated with her.

"My mom said, when you were little, you never cared what others thought of you.  I always thought you were going to grow up to be anti-social; now I see that's serving you well."

Rhee had her fair share of negative press while serving as Chancellor. A Washington Post columnist once lamented that he wished "she'd be a little nicer." But Rhee ignored her critics and pressed on with doing what she saw as the right thing for a failing school system.

"When your goal is being liked, it stops you from being effective," Rhee said.

3.     Abandon Your Assumptions

Perhaps the biggest lesson Rhee learned during her time as Chancellor was to "abandon assumptions about what you think is right or wrong, and what you think the answers are."

When Rhee set out to begin examining all of the schools in the D.C. area she was opposed to the existing voucher program, which was up for renewal in the district. However, after doing her research and sitting down to speak with parents, especially single mothers, Rhee realized that her own personal belief about the voucher system wasn't what was best for D.C. schools. In a school district where a majority of schools were performing poorly and weren't able to offer students a high-quality education, parents were just trying to do everything in their power to get their kids placed in a decent school.

She rethought her position on the voucher program and decided to renew it. "My job was not to protect and preserve a system that isn't providing every kid with a good education," she said.

In the end, Rhee doesn't regret the hard decisions she made during her four-year tenure. The decisions she made led to unprecedented results in D.C. She acknowledged that she could have worked to communicate her intentions better with her colleagues and with the public, but also stressed that there is no real way to lead radical change without encountering heavy criticism and anger.

"If you can show me an example of place that needed radical change and implemented it and people were receptive, then I'll do it," she said.

Rhee left the Fellows with one last piece of advice.

"Just focus on making every public policy decision the way you would for your own kids."

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