Our Opinion: StudentsFirst flunks its first test

/ 9 January 2013 / eunice

Tom Dennis, Grand Forks Herald, January 9, 2013 – Feedback is vital, and feedback from a notable educator such as former Washington, D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee is welcome. So, hopes were high when Rhee’s new group, StudentsFirst, graded the K-12 school policies in all 50 states.

Unfortunately, the grades don’t live up to their billing. One sentence describes why: Minnesota got a D, North Dakota got an F and even Massachusetts — home of the highest-scoring students in America — rated only a D-plus.

Any grading curve that puts those three high-achieving states toward the “failing” end isn’t worth the computer screen it’s drawn on. And that’s a shame, because Rhee was one of America’s most notable superintendents in years, and her group’s project should be more thoughtful.

In Washington, Rhee took charge of a hidebound bureaucracy and shook things up, with dramatic if mixed results. Supporters point to such treatments as the pro-Rhee, pro-school choice documentary, “Waiting for Superman;” it got lots of attention during its nationwide release.

Critics say that students in the nation’s capital still test at about the same level as they did before Rhee’s service. (If you’re interested in this debate, watch for the next showing of PBS’s most recent “Frontline,” which profiles Rhee. Its first broadcast was Tuesday night.)

After Rhee left Washington in 2010, she helped found StudentsFirst, a nonprofit that will push for her favored reforms (such as merit pay for teachers and ending teacher tenure).

And that’s the problem with her group’s new State Policy Report Card, because it grades entirely on the presence or absence of those reforms and not at all on what those reforms are supposed to do — namely, raise student achievement.

This shows up most clearly in the case of Massachusetts. This page has sung Massachusetts’ praises before, and we’re not alone. Diane Ravitch, former U.S. assistant secretary of education and herself an education reformer, also makes the case:

“The public schools of Massachusetts are unquestionably the most successful in the United States,” Ravitch wrote this week.

“On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, they are No. 1 in the nation, by far. When Massachusetts students took part in the latest international assessment, they were ranked among the highest performing nations in the world in math and science. Black students in Massachusetts performed as well as Finland.

“Rhee graded Massachusetts D-plus.” Conversely, Louisiana was one of only two states that got a B (no state earned an A), “even though that state is among the lowest ranking states in the nation on the NAEP,” Ravitch wrote.

Not coincidentally, Massachusetts has a completely unionized teaching force, while Louisiana got its B because Gov. Bobby Jindal is following Rhee’s preferred reforms — namely, “vouchers, charters, online learning and for-profit schools,” Ravitch wrote.

Ravitch has a point. Reforms helped make Massachusetts’ schools what they are. But those reforms include a high-stakes testing and accountability system and more money for low-income school districts, not necessarily Rhee’s preferred lineup.

Next time, StudentsFirst should grade on the basis of reforms that have been proven to work, not those that the group merely hopes will work. Those new grades would be a lot more useful all around.