“Power is the ability to move the seemingly immovable.” That’s what Washington, D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee said when I stopped by her office yesterday as I headed home from the Fortune 500 Forum. Ever since we launched the Fortune Most Powerful Women list a decade ago, I’ve asked scores – perhaps hundreds – of leaders, male and female, how they define power. It’s fascinating to hear the responses. Rhee’s definition reflects her incredibly difficult task: overhauling what many consider to be the worst major public-school district in America.
Rhee happens to be on the cover of this week’s Time: There she stands sternly in a classroom with a broom in hand. The cover line: “How to Fix America’s Schools.” I’ve been eager to meet Rhee for a while, since a lot of people who have smart ideas about education – Melinda Gates, Allen & Co. banker Nancy Peretsman, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings – have told me that she’s one of the smartest, bravest education reformers to come along in years. She’s wildly controversial, which makes her all the more interesting.
A 37-year-old Teach for America alum who ran a non-profit called the New Teacher Project in New York City, Rhee had never run a school or a district before D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed her to his top education post last year. Since then, she has closed schools, fired hundreds of underperforming teachers and principals, and fought to replace tenure with pay for performance.
Rhee has hit walls and earned the ire of unions, but that doesn’t discourage her. “You always have to lead from the front,” she told me yesterday when I asked her what is the best advice she’s gotten along the way. Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, gave her that advice last year, and he told her: “Don’t feel the need to bring everyone along with you. If you do that, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Though a staunch Democrat, she’s worried about Obama’s yet-to-be-revealed choice for Secretary of Education. “The Democrats have fallen down in such a significant way,” she says, “and have not pushed the things that could help the least fortunate.” Who would be her pick for the top education post? She mentioned two people I’d never heard of: Kati Haycock, president of the D.C.-based Education Trust, and Michael Barber, a McKinsey consultant in London who has advised education policymakers including Klein. As for Klein, he’d be a terrific, if controversial, choice, she said. “If the criteria is, how well do you get along with the unions, then we’ve lost already.”
P.S. For more new ideas about education reform, read “Bill & Melinda Gates Go Back to School” in the current issue of Fortune . Click here to see Melinda Gates on video, talking at our recent Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit about the lessons she learned about trying to fix Amerca’s schools. Also, former IBM chief Lou Gerstner shared his ideas in a Monday Wall Street Journal op-ed.