Though she's in favor of dumping long-standing public education traditions such as teacher tenure, across-the-board pay and collective bargaining, Michelle Rhee insists she's not anti-teacher.
Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, is one of the most outspoken proponents of more teacher accountability, which she says will improve student results and elevate the teaching profession.
"We're saying the role of teachers is so important that this accountability is necessary. To say that that's somehow an attack on teachers is wrong," Rhee said in a telephone interview. "What we're saying is we need to make sure we have nothing but the best for our kids."
Rhee will be the inaugural speaker for this year's George T. Hunter Lecture Series on Tuesday at the Tivoli Theatre. The series is sponsored by the Benwood Foundation and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
One of the nation's most vocal supporters of education reform, Rhee will give her take on the need to change public schools to put students' needs above those of adults.
In Baltimore, she was part of Teach for America, a program that places nonteaching professionals as teachers in inner-city schools. She worked as D.C.'s chancellor from 2007 to 2010, resigning after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his re-election bid.
Many blamed Fenty's loss on Rhee's aggressive reform initiatives. She shuttered more than 20 school buildings and fired more than 30 principals as well as placed a heavy emphasis on standardized test results.
After her resignation, Rhee announced she had declined several job offers and would instead start the reform advocacy group Students First.
Rhee was previously married to Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, also a former Teach for America instructor. Because the two have children, she now splits her time between Nashville and Sacramento, Calif., where her current husband, former NBA player Kevin Johnson, is mayor.
She also gained recognition for her appearance in "Waiting for Superman," a 2010 documentary film that profiles several students who depend on lottery drawings to get into charter schools.
Rhee says increased pay - she calls for six-figure teacher salaries - and professional respect could help recruit more talented teaching prospects to the field. But the problem still "is less about teacher pay and more about how we regard the profession overall," she said.
She cautions that teacher pay shouldn't be increased unless a teacher improves student achievement.
Going after some of education's sacred cows has earned Rhee a reputation as anti-union among some, but she insists her moves are all rooted in getting better student results. Union leaders are often less open to change than the rank-and-file teachers they represent, Rhee said.
"Most teachers know that the education system is very troubled right now," she said. "They want to make it better and fix it."
An easy area for change, she said, is teacher salary scales that generally pay more to those holding master's degrees. The extra costs add up to billions each year, but research shows no connection between a teacher's level of education and the students' performance, Rhee said.
"So why on God's green earth would we spend money on something that isn't positively impacting our kids?" she said.
Rhee's prescriptions for education have been met with mixed reactions - applause from reformers and scorn from some union officials.
But her visit to Chattanooga isn't meant to be controversial, said Corrine Allen, executive director of the Benwood Foundation. The foundation is a local philanthropic group focusing on education, arts and culture, environment and community development.
"What we're looking for is a productive conversation in the community," she said.
Allen said Rhee's lecture would give the public a better understanding of what Rhee stands for and what ideas made her so famous.
Talk about school reform is critically important, Allen said, given Tennessee's recent education reform movements and its capture of about $500 million in federal Race to the Top funds.
"You can't improve the issue of public education, as huge as it is, without an informed community to support it," Allen said. "We would hope that this would be the catalyst for a greater and more expansive conversation with regard to what opportunities are out there now and why we need to act upon them quickly."