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Originally published Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 9:17 PM

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Reformer Michelle Rhee has advice for state’s schools

The former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, Michelle Rhee, told a Town Hall Seattle audience Tuesday night that adults devote too much time to making children feel good about themselves.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Michelle Rhee has some suggestions for the Washington state school system.

The controversial Students First founder and former chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., said this state should remove seniority as a factor in teacher layoffs and allow families to choose where to send their children to school.

Rhee said these two efforts could have a great impact on schools in low-income neighborhoods, which often hire the newest teachers, who are the first to be laid off. This causes too much turnover.

“Given where we are today, given how poorly things are going in large part, we can’t afford to wait until all the studies are done on a single issue,” said Rhee, who was in Seattle on Tuesday to promote her new book, “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First.” “So we’ve got to try something.”

Rhee spoke to a friendly, overflowing audience Tuesday night at Town Hall Seattle, promoting her book while protesters chanted outside. Earlier in the day, she spoke with The Seattle Times.

In D.C., Rhee closed schools and fired teachers she determined to be underperforming. She implemented a system that based teacher evaluations in part on their students’ test scores, and she increased resources for teachers.

Critics call her anti-teacher. They say that while she claims to be advocating for students, she doesn’t care about the people who educate those students. They also say there is no research to back up her policies, which resulted in at least 241 teachers being fired in D.C. during her tenure.

At the Town Hall event, Rhee said educators coddle their students too much. She used her parenting technique as an example of what should be done instead.

Her daughters play soccer, but not well, she said. They have medals and trophies attesting to their proficiency, so she felt it was her duty to sit them down and tell them they were just bad at playing soccer.

“We spend so much time making children feel good about themselves, we’ve lost the ability to make them feel good,” she said at the event.

Rhee, appointed D.C.’s first school chancellor in 2007, was ousted three years later when former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who had appointed her, lost his bid for re-election.

She continues to promote her policies through her California-based advocacy organization, Students First.

The mother of two is now married to Sacramento Mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson.

Despite her critics, Rhee stands by her decisions. The problem, she said, was she didn’t effectively communicate her goals and methods to the community and the media.

”I did not think that my job was to have a communications and PR shop,” Rhee said.

That said, if she could do it all over again, she would manage news sources better, she said, making sure she understood the media and they understood her.

Many of Rhee’s fiercest critics were teachers unions. Rhee said she was never against teachers or unions, but that she and they had conflicting goals.

Rhee wanted to improve the education system, she said, and unions wanted to protect teachers.

The solution, she said, is to balance the influence of teacher advocates with an organization that would advocate on behalf of students. That’s why she started Students First, she said.

“If you have a skewed environment, where one interest group has money and power and influence and then the kids aren't being recognized because nobody’s organized the parents out there,” Rhee said, “that’s where you run into problems.”

Sarah Freishtat: 206-464-2373 or sfreishtat@seattletimes.com

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