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The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District

ISBN: 978-0-470-90529-6
296 pages
February 2011, Jossey-Bass
The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation


The inside story of a maverick reformer with a take-no-prisoners management style

Hailed by Oprah as a "warrior woman for our times," reviled by teachers unions as the enemy, Michelle Rhee, outgoing chancellor of Washington DC public schools, has become the controversial face of school reform. She has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, and is currently featured as a hero in the documentary "Waiting for Superman." This is the story of her journey from good-girl daughter of Korean immigrants to tough-minded political game-changer. When Rhee first arrived in Washington, she found a school district that had been so broken for so long, that everyone had long since given up.  The book provides an inside view of the union battles, the school closings, and contentious community politics that have been the subject of intense public interest and debate ? along with a rare look at Rhee's upbringing and life before DC.

  • Rhee has been featured in the documentary "Waiting for Superman"
  • Rhee's story points to a fresh way of addressing school improvement 
  • Addresses fundamental problems in our current education system, and the politics of leadership

The book includes an insert with photos from Rhee's personal and professional life, and an "exit" interview that sheds light on what she's learned and where the future might take her.

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Table of Contents

Preface v

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction 1

1 An (Asian) American Life 7

2 The Transformation Begins 25

3 Going National 45

4 Welcome to the Nation's Education Superfund Site 65

5 Closing Schools 93

6 Randi and Michelle 107

7 New Hires, New Fires 131

8 Up from the Foundations: The Chalenge of High School Reform 157

9 Rhee's Critics Find a Winning Storyline 171

10 The Mayor's Race 191

11 Lessons Learned 201

12 What's Next? 227

Notes 245

About the Author 263

Index 265

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Author Information

Richard Whitmire is a veteran education reporter. He is a former editorial writer for USA Today, immediate past-president of the National Education Writers Association, and author of the book Why Boys Fail. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
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Press Release

August 08, 2011
The Bee Eater


A Story From the Front Lines

Veteran education writer Richard Whitmire brings the story of Michelle Rhee’s tenure as the Washington, D.C. schools chancellor to vivid light and places it in the larger context of the national effort to improve a decaying K-12 education system. Along the way, he reveals the personal side behind the stern-looking figure appearing on Oprah and magazine covers, documenting everything from Rhee’s fondness for junk food to her ‘inner waitress’ persona.

Most national education experts consider Rhee’s D.C. reforms to have been the most important recent education experiment in the country. After years of debate, school reformers finally settled on teacher quality as the key ingredient to improving student performance, and nobody pushed the teacher quality reforms harder, faster and more effectively than Michelle Rhee. When Rhee took over the D.C. schools in 2007, the district was tied with Los Angeles as the worst in the country, and yet not a single teacher in the previous year had lost his or her job because of ineffective teaching.

THE BEE EATER: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District is a select biography that focuses on what made Michelle Rhee into the person who stepped forward to take on the near-impossible task of transforming D.C. schools – and on whether she was on the path to success.

Everyone knew the Washington, D.C. school system was among the worst in the nation, if not the very worst. But far less was known about why the system was so bad. That became apparent in Rhee’s first days on the job, when she began to tour D.C. schools. In essence, the D.C. public school system was designed more for adult employment than for teaching and learning. Most of the teachers and administrators appear to have held the belief that students in Washington, D.C. had terrible outcomes because in their minds, family formation, race and poverty added up to destiny.

As Whitmire’s extensive research and interviews demonstrate, other urban school districts with nearly identical demographics believed differently. They held their schools to higher standards, and produced far better results. In 2007, newly elected Mayor Adrian Fenty knew that to push Washington, D.C. toward becoming a world-class city he needed a change agent to run the school system, someone willing to step on toes daily, maybe even hourly, and turn a deaf ear to protests. In Whitmire’s words, “he needed a bee eater.”

Michelle Rhee started developing a take-no-prisoners approach from her first job out of college at Harlem Park Elementary in the worst section of Baltimore. Rhee, fresh from a sheltered academic life at Cornell University, was beginning a two-year commitment with Teach for America. As a young (21-year-old) teacher, she battled daily for control over her class of 36 unruly second graders. One hot day, nobody was listening or sitting still, and she opened a window for air. A bumblebee flew in and started buzzing around which only added to the mass chaos. In desperation, Rhee smacked the bee with a lesson plan and then flipped it into her hand – and ate it. “It wasn’t that bad. I didn’t chew. I just swallowed.” The class drew silent and realized that their teacher might just be crazy, someone deserving of respect.

Starting from Michelle Rhee’s formative years growing up in a middle-class immigrant Korean family in Toledo, Ohio, Whitmire traces her development as a teacher and innovator in education and also tells the stories of the remarkable team – many of them fellow Teach for America alumni -- who became her partners. Along the way, he covers:

  • The IMPACT method Rhee’s team developed to evaluate teachers.
  • Rhee’s groundbreaking new contract with teachers that rewarded effective teachers with higher salaries (geared to student performance).
  • Rhee’s battle with the teachers unions.
  • A commentary on the often unbalanced news coverage of Rhee’s work.
  • The role race politics played in last year’s D.C. mayoral primary that became a referendum on Fenty’s choice of Rhee.
  • An evaluation of Rhee’s successes and failures.

THE BEE EATER: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District is not just a compelling biography of Rhee’s life; it is a must-read for educators, parents, and all those concerned with finding concrete solutions to one of our nation’s most intractable problems – improving the quality of our schools.


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