Q-and-A with Michelle Rhee, Part II

Part II

How do you envision performance-based compensation working out in the long run? What are the main issues that still need to be resolved?


In the long term, we want performance-based compensation to reward the very hard work that happens in the school system, and to attract even more high performers to our schools. Performance pay seems to happen everywhere but in schools, but teachers deserve that kind of bonus as well. What still needs to be resolved is that the teachers would have to vote yes on the contract, which is up for a vote in the next few weeks! If that doesn’t happen, we can still use the performance-based TEAM awards, which rewards all the school staff at a school that does very well. However, those don’t allow a teacher who is in a school that is not doing well to get a bonus for doing a phenomenal job. I don’t think that’s fair to teachers, and we are hoping the contract goes through.

Of the $65 million raised for D.C. schools from foundations, $45 million is tied to you keeping your job. How did this situation evolve, and where do you think it will end up?


The funders actually have fewer conditions than most do when they give to school systems and other organizations. They believe in what we are doing, and want to make sure that their money isn’t wasted if leadership changes and someone comes in who didn’t believe in the same things we do. They just want to make sure that they are on the same page with what the system’s goals and intentions are, before they fork over millions of dollars. If it were my money I would want to do the same, so I think this is fairly standard and reasonable.

How will D.C. schools prepare students to be participants and leaders in the global issues facing our country?

Great question! The demands on our graduates are changing quickly as different industries innovate. Industries are coming up with jobs that have never even existed before, and we want our students to be able to compete for those jobs. When the economy struggles, people also have to be able to market themselves as individuals much more competitively than they have had to before. Working for the same company for 40 years just doesn’t happen for most people anymore.

We have a number of ways we’re reforming the system so that schools teach children the different skills they need now. Right now much of that work is coming from our Office of School Innovation, where we are introducing Catalyst Schools that specialize in different themes. Our Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) schools are especially valuable, as they are based on a unique model that keeps teachers’ professional development up to date with changing information in these ever-changing fields, while also teaching students team-building and leadership skills in a very focused way. Feel free to check out dcps.dc.gov if you’d like more information on STEM and the Catalyst Project.

What advice did Mayor Fenty give you when you first accepted the chancellor’s position?

His mantra has always been to move “100 miles per hour” to make necessary improvements. But even more than advice, Mayor Fenty has given me tremendous support in implementing the changes the school system needs in order to become competitive. I would say his most significant impact on the school system has come from his absolute commitment to children, and to the belief that education is the most important part of the solution to a whole host of other challenges the city faces (reducing crime, eliminating generational poverty, etc.). This is so hard to do as a politician, when you feel pressure to go against your principles or avoid taking a strong stand on something because people may not like it at first, or it may affect your popularity polls. He has not buckled under this pressure one bit, and I actually think that his commitment to kids he doesn’t even know is more important to him than keeping his job! To me, that takes a lot of guts that I wish more politicians had.


Stay tuned for Part III.

Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.