tv Tavis Smiley PBS December 13, 2011 2:00pm-2:30pm PST
tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. tonight, a conversation about the state of education with michelle rhee. the woman became a lightning rod during her tenure in washington. she is now the founder of a new movement to improve public education called studentsfirst. we are glad you have joined us. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard, but a place where walmart stands together with your community to make every day better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and every answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side.
>> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] tavis: just a few notes about what is coming up, tomorrow night to conversation with harvey weinstein. he is front and center in the oscar discussion. for a number of acclaimed projects including "the artist's." gary oldman is here. he is also getting a lot of oscar buzz around his new film. on thursday night, tom brokaw
will join us along with oscar- winner ben kingsley. on friday night, a conversation with director roger corman. he helped foster the careers of people like jack nicholson and francis ford coppola, so many more. he is the subject of a new documentary. one week from tonight, a conversation with angelina jolie. she has written and directed a new project called "in the land of blood and heinie." tonight, i am pleased to kick off this week with michelle rhee. she is the former chancellor of the d.c. public school system. now the founder and ceo of students first, and non-profit designed to transform public
education. thank you for your patience. >> absolutely. tavis: we let to note -- let people know where we're headed. let me ask about your experience, the d.c. experience because it has been just over a year since he resigned. what are your -- now that you have a full year in the rearview mirror, and named assessments? >> i do not think there is anything new. i continue to be proud of what the children up d.c. accomplished during the time we were there, that teachers and administrators, the parents in that city rallied together for three and a half years and we set a precedent for what reform can look like. it was not something that was without controversy. there was opposition to some of the things we did.
overall as you look at the gains that were seen, they were tremendous. it is a testament to what can happen when an entire city focuses on fixing the schools. tavis: as simplistic as this might sound, there is a reason why i am asking. why education reform is so controversial. i want to back off the were controversial. it is more than that. this stuff gets ugly, nasty. it gets personal. there is an ms and vitriol. it is more than just controversial. what is it about education reform that causes the worst in us? >> is a good question. i am not sure i know the answer. it impacts the way that people from superintendents' to school board members and legislators,
how they act and what actions they are willing to tag -- take because it did so personal. during my time, people used to say to me you are brave for taking this on. don't let these people drive you out of town. it dawned on me during the course of the time i was there that because it becomes personal, because there are personal attacks when you take on these issues, it was causing a lot of leaders to say this is too much to take on. the result of that was that kids were getting a subpar education because no one said this is a broken system that needs radical change. even though we will ruffle feathers it is worth it. for me, i thought you can yell at me all you want your you can call me whatever names. it does not matter because i cannot continue to allow another
generation of kids in the city to be disserved by the school system. tavis: did you ever believe that you were in part, people can disagree with michelle rhee, did you ever feel you were being subjected to racial animus? you have a school district that is african-american. you are married to kevin johnson, mayor of sacramento. you are married to an african- american man. did you ever feel you were being victimized because of your ethnicity? >> not really. when i first got to d.c. it was the subject of controversy. this korean grow from ohio, what they're she know about our city. the racial issue after the initial price and that people had and the concerns, i think
that dissipated over time. people, as time went on, they disagreed with my policy choices sometimes. my detractors did not like actions i was taking. i did not feel they were racially motivated. tavis: your organization is called studentsfirst. when you look at the debates we had about education, the conversations are rarely about students. they are not about the kids. they are about everything but that. why is it so controversial, so wobbly, to put students first? >> when you talk about the concept you do not get any disagreement. they say of course. of course you want to put
students first. then when you get to the specifics, that is when you run into trouble. i think that there are personal feelings involved. when you talk about the changes that need to happen, people who are in the system who have been working in the system take it personally. they say if you are saying the system is broken or that changes need to be made, they feel like it is a personal attack. i think we have to decouple those things. the fact that the system and the bureaucracy is broken does not mean that the people in the system are not good people doing good work. that is one of the reasons why it gets hot sometimes because people take the things happening very personally. >> systems are made up of peace will. i hear your point about decoupling.
at a certain level you cannot do that if schools are underperforming. it is not because some mechanical model is not working. people are the system. how do you decouple the people in the system from the system? >> that is tough. it is one of the things i faced in d.c. when i came into the system. i said the central office, there was a staff of 1000 people. it was not serving kids well. we were spending more money per child than any other city in the nation. the results were at the bottom. something was not working. i cut the central office in half. we used to have 1000, now less than 500. it is operating more efficiently than it ever was before.
sometimes there are connections. that bureaucracy was made up of individual people but it is important to understand the rules and regulations, the culture that was set did not also set people up for success. tavis: i want to ask you about this now, this is not day michelle rhee, but it is something for every human beings who cares about an issue. i think it is the case we do not often accepted that the reality that our creator, i happen to be a believer. our creator gives us a challenge. we're supposed to use that. so often we can only advance so far and down the field. we can only advance the bar -- paul so far down the field. how'd you decide, the courage
and the conviction to commit to doing something that is going to be controversial? you can get it all done. he was one of your deputies. you cut the bureaucracy in half. you end up resigning and all of this controversy arose. she has inherited a bureaucracy that is half of what it was. talk to me about where you developed the constitution to take on a project when you have to know you're not going to get all of the way there. >> absolutely. my first year in d.c., when we decided to close 15% of the schools, it caused a tremendous push back in opposition. the city was talking about a. my parents had come to visit. they turned on the news, there are pictures of people protesting in front of my office.
there is a spread of all of the schools that i am closing treated as they watched the hearings on tv. i get home at 11:00 at night and my mother says, are you ok? i said i am fine. when you're young, you never used to care what people thought about you. i used to think you were going to grow up to be antisocial. i see that it is serving you well. [laughter] if you spend too much of your time worrying about your favorability or how much people will like you, how popular, you will make different choices. the mayor who was my boss decided when we took this on that despite whatever political push back we were getting, and the opposition we fought, we were always going to do what we thought was in the best interest of kids which is counter to
house some cities are run. -- how some cities are run. that way we could sleep at night. we know the decisions will have a better impact on kids. that made it easy for us. it allowed us to have a clear number start. it did not heard that we saw the results. we saw more academic gains in the city had seen in more than 10 years. tavis: the flip side is that it does require a certain amount of favorability. there has to be a certain level of like ability to get something done. you cannot just not care what people think. if you do not have any sort of rapport, and you get nothing done. >> that is right. that was why it was important to
be in the community. i would do listening sessions, sessions with teachers a couple of times a week. often people would come up to me and say i was not sure about you but you are not so bad. not today agreed with everything i said that they understood where i was coming from. the willingness to talk to people and to have people disagree with what i was doing and saying. i think it is important to have that feedback, have the opportunity to say, i disagree and this is why. and for me to say okay, i hear you. and here is why we are making the decisions we are making. sometimes it open people's minds a little. tavis: it has been just over a year. when i last spoke to you, the
goal then was to get 1 million members to raise a billion dollars. how're you doing? >> we are doing pretty well. we are pleased with our membership. we have close to 900,000 members. we are on track to meet our goal by the end of the year, hitting 1 million members. our members are active. they are a diverse group boatpeople from all over the country. we have parents, students, and grandparents, business owners, a lot of people who are lost -- frustrated. but they are not stewing in their own juices. they want to do something about it. we have been working in seven states across the country. we have managed to change 50 laws in those states to become laws that are more focused on kids and making sure that we are putting kids first. we are thrilled with how we're doing.
>> there are people who believe that the problem of vegetation is not a money problem. you cannot solve the problem by installing more money out the problem. we should try to see how would works. what is your sense of -- i ask because when someone here is you're trying to get a million members. $1 billion, what do you do with a billion dollars? for those who think the problem is not a money problem. >> to a certain extent i agree. if you look at how much money has been spent on public education over the last decade, the amount of money we spend per child has more than doubled. the results have gotten worse. the problem is not just that we need more money, we need to spend the money wisely.
what you see in cities like washington, d.c., new jersey, where they spent $22,000 per child and the gradual attrition rates at the -- graduation rates are at the bottom. money alone will not get to the results we need. you have to focus on investing in the right places. you cannot spend money on programs, on initiatives that have been proven not to have an impact on kids. my example earlier about the central bureaucracy, that was one example. the money belongs in the classrooms with the students and teachers. that is where it is going to have the most impact, not in a bloated central office that is not listening to parents, to even teachers. tavis: your thoughts on, these
are my words, the attack that teachers have been under. as examples, wisconsin. they were successful in ohio on collective bargaining. there is a sense that i feel, a palpable sense, that teachers are being scaled coated and teachers are being attacked. if you cannot teach, you should be out of the classroom. but this notion of teachers in our political discourse being attacked. teachers get a tax like we attack china. you have to beat up on somebody. what is your sense of the assault that teachers feel they are rendered? >> it is definitely real. i go around the country and talk to people all the time. a number of them come to me and say we feel like we are being blind.
there are not necessarily people who are saying teachers are the entire problem. the problem is that we have a dynamic in this country where, if you begin to question some of the rules that exist, you get labeled as anti teacher and it becomes your teacher bashing.yoe ineffective teachers, they should leave. i do not think there is anybody who would disagree with that. if they're people who are not effective, they should not be in the classroom. what happens when you say those things, you say there has been ineffective teachers and they should find other jobs. there are people who say you are blaming teachers for things that they do not have control over. that is where the problem is.
this polarized debate and stet of people saying, you know what, there are some of effective teachers and they should be recognized and rewarded. there are people who are not doing their jobs. for them, we need to make them better or they need to leave the classroom. if we could all agree, how do we conan on the strategies that will get us there? -- hone in on the strategies that will get this barrett? tavis: to your point, i wonder if there is, to your mind, issues that to those who think that teachers' unions need to be pushed, if they need to be held more accountable, are there issues you think that we can work to find some common ground on between teachers unions and
those who want to blame teachers? are there issues we should be trying to get to the middle on? >> there are a lot of issues we can find common ground on. one issue that is linked to what we were talking about is a teacher evaluations. how do we evaluate how good a teacher is? the unions and the reformers agree that the current evaluation systems are not cut. that is something that people can discuss. another one is what we're talking matter earlier, the expenditures of dollars. or should all of the dollars that he said taxpayers are spending, where should they be targeted? teachers' unions would agree that they are best spent in the classroom with kids. i think there are several places
where we can come together. >> this is a more philosophical question, somebody said to me earlier in one of our conversations that if benjamin franklin were to come back now, the only thing he would recognize would be our education system. it is the only thing that has not changed in terms of how we educate. it has not changed a whole lot. your thoughts, your sense of whether or not the way we go about teaching kids, the methodology, is there something wrong? >> we have to rethink the way we are educating kids. this is not an issue just with teachers. it also has to do with us as a community. i have sent to children. -- two children.
what to our want to see in a classroom? i want a grandmotherly teacher. that is the vision i have for kindergarten. nowadays, not necessarily. technology. there had been some early studies at classrooms across the nation that are using technology in a hybrid approach. they have more kids in the classroom. it is completely decked out with new technology that helps to individualize instruction. some parents think about, my kid is going to be in a larger classicize. maybe they will have headphones and be looking at a screen. is that which you want? if you look at the data, it shows that classrooms like this see huge results. part of it is a cultural mind-
set that this will our kids go to was not necessarily going to look like the schools we went to. tavis: one minute to go, the obama administration has given school districts a way to opt out to the no child left behind. what does the future of the child left behind? >> everybody is an agreement that it needs to be changed and modified. or the disconnect is is that there are a lot of people who believe that the positive part was that a shine a spotlight on how individual groups of kids were doing. you could not have your african- american kids or your low socioeconomic kids doing worse and still considered to be a good school. you had to serve all of your kids well. how are we going to change the things about it and that need to be modified but, at the same
time, have a strong level of accountability? tavis: michelle rhee has done just that. she is now the matter and ceo of an organization called studentsfirst, celebrating the one-year anniversary. good to see you. that is our show for tonight. see you next time. until then, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with move lamar -- movie mogul harvey weinstein. that is next time, we will see you then. >> every community has a martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard, but a place where walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
>> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and every answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. thank you.