The Answer To Failed Urban Schools?

michelle rhee

As she reads to a class of kindergarten students, it's hard to see the hard-edged Michelle Rhee -- the 38-year-old school chancellor who is turning the D.C. Public Schools upside down.

"Let me see who's working nicely," Rhee says

Rhee is not doing it nicely, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews.

Just one year into office, Rhee has closed 23 schools, fired 34 principals, offered buyouts to 700 teachers, while pressuring hundreds more to leave-and fired 98 employees at the central school office.

"Drastic change is needed because the situation is incredibly dire," Rhee says.

School reform on this scale was the brainchild of D.C.'s Mayor Adrian Fenty.

"We saw a system where mismanagement reigned," Fenty says.

Fenty's 2006 election mandate to improve the schools was so strong, he got rid of the elected school board and then found Rhee, who for a decade had been running a nonprofit group successfully recruiting thousands of new teachers for urban schools nationwide.

He hired Rhee with orders to take no prisoners.

"Chancellor Rhee and I are saying the days of talk are over … We've gotta move fast," Fenty says.

Chancellor Rhee is convinced that every child-even the most disadvantaged-can learn and achieve if taught by a motivated teacher in a school led by a driven principal.

For example, when Andrews visited DC's Coolidge High School, he found a geometry class on task and well behaved but also a current events class where students were literally screaming out of control.

Rhee argues the difference is the teacher.

"So it's not about this group of kids just happens to want to learn and this group of kids doesn't," she says. "It's about what are we inspiring? What are we doing in the classroom?"

Rhee's angriest critics say all she's produced so far is chaos, and worse, that she fired all those principals without notice or probation.

"When you fire the principals and you don't give reasons why, that's not right," parent Cherita Whiting says.

Lots of other parents though support Rhee's policy of no excuses.

"Whatever is necessary," says Jackie Clopton. "If you're not doing what's best for the kids, then you need to be removed."

"Nobody hired me into this position and said, 'Make the adults feel good, Michelle,' Rhee says. "When the mayor hired me into this job, he said, 'Improve the schools.'"

So she now faces the test of a lifetime. A woman who has never run a school system is testing her theory that better teaching is the answer to failed urban schools.