Power Philanthropy: Michelle Rhee

by Editorial


Chancellor Michelle Rhee (Photo by Tony Powell)

Chancellor Michelle Rhee (Photo by Tony Powell)

This morning I awoke to headlines that hunger in the United States is at a 14- year high. In the D.C. Public Schools, 70 percent of children do not have the money to pay for a school lunch. I am grateful that the local community pulls together every year during the holidays to increase donations for children who come to school hungry and cold. Yet as we focus on giving this month, my challenge to the community is an even bigger one.

Every conversation I have with students tells me they are as bright as high-achieving children in the suburbs. I speak with many adults who doubt this, especially considering the sobering numbers we face. Only nine percent of our high school freshmen go on to graduate from college within five years. We have achievement gaps in math and reading that are over 50 percent between black and white students, and 79 percent of our students are black. When I accepted leadership of the school system in 2007, only 12 percent of our eighth graders were proficient in reading, and eight percent were proficient in math.

Recently a reporter implied that I was crazy to think we could create a successful school system from this starting point. Those who agree with him tell me that as long as we have capitalism, there will always be “haves” and “have-nots.” Once any ethnic group dominates either category, the cycle is bound to continue from one generation to the next, providing little hope that we can expect discouraging statistics to move in our lifetimes.

The problem with this line of thinking is that the data shows otherwise, and it doesn’t take a bleeding heart to believe what children are demonstrating through data. At one D.C. Public School, Noyes Elementary, under a new principal student reading proficiency went from 24 percent to 85 percent in just four years, and in math from 10 percent to 64 percent. In another school, only nine percent of the students were on grade level, when just down the street in a successful charter school, over 90 percent of students were.

The challenges poverty, violence in the surrounding neighborhood,—all of the reasons used to lower expectations— did not change from school to school. Schools have enormous power when they are backed by the collective will, work, and expectation to succeed. Even on the district level we are seeing results. In math, in 2009 our 8th grade growth was three times the national average, and our 4th graders were the only group in the country to see gains in every subgroup: African American, English language learners, students on free and reduced lunch … they are outpacing the nation and are absolutely capable of meeting the high expectations we have held for suburban children for decades.

It is no pipe dream to say that public education can break the cycle of poverty that falls along racial lines in this city, and we have become far too comfortable accepting this cycle as a given for thousands of children. If I could have three wishes on my holiday list this year, I would ask for even more than the important holiday donations of food and clothing that will get many students’ families through the holidays. I would ask for:

  • A shared outrage about any school or system that sends children into a competitive world without the skills to compete;
  • A shared belief in the capabilities of all of our children, even those living in the most difficult of circumstances to achieve at the highest levels;
  • A shared commitment to fueling our actions with both. This may be in the form of funds that are allowing us to radically reform teacher development, support and accountability; the time and expertise that businesses and individuals volunteer; or the political courage to make decisions that prioritize the politically voiceless children whose futures ride on our choices.

Even in an economy that pulls at both heartstrings and purse strings to make this commitment, I hope that readers will continue to give in these ways, pulling your friends and colleagues along with you throughout the year.

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