Michelle Rhee, Diane Ravitch Square Off Over Racial Achievement Gap

Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor of Washington, D.C., and Diane Ravitch, the education historian, are two of the most high-profile voices in the often heated debate over the future of the nation's schools.

Rhee is a proponent of teacher accountability; as head of D.C.'s schools, she pushed for high-stakes testing and fired teachers who were deemed to be underperforming. Ravitch, herself once a proponent of charter schools and testing, has become an outspoken critic of both and has argued that improving schools means alleviating poverty.

But the two had never met in person until Thursday, when they participated in a forum on education organized by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The panel at Martha's Vineyard intended to discuss the achievement gap, the stubborn disparity in performance between black and white students.

"What would you do, if you saw data that said a teacher, year in and year out for the last five years, not only didn't improve the kids in her classroom, but that the children have gone backwards, lost ground?" Rhee was quoted by the Washington Post as saying. "Do you keep that teacher in the classroom? ... Would I allow my children to go into that classroom with that person? Absolutely not. And no one in this room would allow their children or grandchildren in that classroom."

But Ravitch disagreed with Rhee's premise, saying that pressure on teachers to improve standardized test scores has fueled systemic cheating, as it has been exposed in places like Atlanta and suspected in Washington, D.C.

"We are now, as a nation, investing billions in testing," Ravitch argued to the panel. "If we took all the billions and put it into early childhood education, we would make a difference."

Rhee's tenure as the head of D.C. schools -- regularly ranked among the nation's worst performing -- was short, intensely scrutinized and full of controversy. When she took over in 2007, she fired teachers and principals who were deemed unsatisfactory, which rankled members of the teacher's unions as well as many of D.C.'s black middle class, many of whom were employed in the city's schools. But her actions won plaudits among educational reformers who believe that eliminating bad teachers is crucial to shrinking the achievement gap. The city's mayoral election last year saw Adrian Fenty, the city's young, reform-minded mayor, lose his seat to Vince Gray. It was Fenty who brought Rhee in to head the schools, and the vote was seen by a many referendum on her stewardship.