Rhee is an unlikely candidate for such a public hot seat. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. so her father could attend medical school. Normally, second-generation Korean Americans hew to private-sector and more prestigious career paths such as medicine, engineering or business.
A confluence of events made Michelle different. Her mother raised her in a hyper-strict, traditional fashion (think "tiger mom") that even many Korean mothers had let go. Not surprisingly, Michelle rebelled. Not that much, but enough to set her life on an independent trajectory.
After sixth grade, Michelle was sent to Korea to attend school for a year, a setting where she understood little of what the teacher was saying. There she became resilient and learned to rely solely on her inner resources. Then in high school she was exposed to an inner-city Toledo classroom, where she repeatedly returned to volunteer.
That led to a three-year stint with Teach for America in one of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods. (If you ever saw the TV show "The Wire," you've seen where she taught.) After Baltimore she built a national organization dedicated to seeking out better-qualified teachers.
Then in 2006, the newly elected mayor in D.C., Adrian Fenty, tapped Rhee as a "change agent" chancellor, shocking city officials who expected a big-name, experienced schools chief.
There's no question Rhee fulfilled expectations as a change agent -- she closed a couple dozen schools without consulting local politicians, cleaned out half the central office staff, fired roughly 400 teachers for being ineffective and swapped out more than a third of the principals.
That strong dose of reform pushed up test scores and scraped D.C. schools off the worst-in-the-nation list. Backlash to those reforms, however, was the biggest reason Fenty lost his re-election bid in 2010, and Rhee stepped down as chancellor.
So were her efforts for naught? Rhee doesn't think so and has launched StudentsFirst to carry her fight nationally. What hurt her in D.C., Rhee maintains, was that all the players in school policy, from union officials to textbook writers to school lunch providers, worked in an environment structured to benefit adults, not students. StudentsFirst will take the side of students, she vows.
At the heart of her efforts lies the issue of teacher quality, and here is where she could have an impact.
The single biggest reason behind those headlines about the United States slipping to the middle of international education rankings is that top-scoring nations draw their teaching corps from elite college graduates, and we don't.
Teacher quality has been slipping for several decades, accelerated by the fact that our best and brightest female graduates now have so many more -- and better-paying -- job opportunities in fields other than teaching.
What can Rhee and StudentsFirst do about it?
Public mood on this issue seems to be swinging Rhee's way. And the odds of her making a significant difference nationally are certainly no longer than the odds she faced in D.C., where she boosted student learning more than anyone could have imagined.
Richard Whitmire, who covered education for the Gannett News Service and USA Today, is the author of the new book "The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On the Nation's Worst School District."