5 Ways Michelle Rhee’s Report Puts Students Last

On Monday, the pro-privatization education group StudentsFirst, led by former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, released a State Policy Report Card, ranking states and giving each a letter grade based on their implementation of a slew of education reform policies. Rather than focus on issues facing students and families, particularly those affected by unequal access to school resources, the policy benchmarks in the new report reveal StudentsFirst’s obsession with charter schools and de-professionalizing the teaching profession. The report pushes policies that are either untested or disproven — but happen to be welcome in the halls of right-wing think tanks and politicians.

States are given a clear choice in this report, and for that at least we can thank its authors: either you care about students, or about StudentsFirst. There’s little room for both. Thankfully, many educators and policymakers across the country recognize this. That’s why Richard Zeiger, California’s chief deputy superintendent, called his state’s F grade “a badge of honor.”

Here’s a list of 5 reasons why this State Report Card is a veritable wish list for privatization advocates and a recipe for failure for everyone else:


1. Ironically, It Ignores The Needs of Students

Missing from this report card is any evaluation based on multiple success measures, including student graduation rates, a college ready curriculum, access to art and music classes, or learning benchmarks that will prepare students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their community. All that is presented is a simple ideological litmus test: do states adhere to StudentsFirst’s preferred policies, regardless of their effects?

Let’s take a look at the rankings. Comparing StudentsFirst’s list to The Opportunity to Learn (OTL) Index, which is our synthesis of numerous indicators of student achievement, is revealing. Of their top ten states, eight of them fall in the bottom half of the OTL Index. It’s even more startling when you look at national achievement measures like NAEP scores, which are some of the best ways to compare states to each other. Every single state in StudentsFirst’s top ten is in the bottom half of NAEP states for eighth grade reading, and only one manages to break into the top half for eighth grade math (Indiana, ranked 23rd).

There is also little correlation between StudentsFirst’s rankings and the graduation gap between Black and White students — a key indicator of whether a state’s policies promote equity or erode it. For example, while StudentsFirst ranks the District of Columbia #4, the Schott Foundation found that D.C. has the worst graduation gap in the nation (http://blackboysreport.org/state-reports).


2. It Opposes Personalized and Student-Centered Learning

Citing a single Brookings Institution literature review, the StudentsFirst report argues that reducing the number of children in each classroom is both only marginally effective and a poor use of education funds. That particular Brookings review has been roundly criticized for its methodology and the logic of its policy prescriptions. As the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado put it:

“In the end, Class Size: What Research Says and What It Means for State Policy fails to make the case that increasing class sizes is either relatively harmless or cost-effective. It is not a report that state policy makers can trust as a valid guide to policymaking.”

Research has consistently found that the teacher-to-student ratio is an important variable in ensuring that all students have an opportunity to learn. And for a report that wants to empower parents, it’s curious that they would reject small class size: it’s something that parents consistently clamor for.


3. It Argues That We Don’t Have Enough Quality Teachers… While Advocating That We Lower the Bar for Teacher Preparation

The official line for Alternative Certification (alt cert) proponents goes something like this: existing teacher certification programs are inadequate or aren’t producing enough teachers, so there should be multiple ways for people to become teachers, particularly those with subject matter expertise.

In practice, alt cert has meant that countless individuals, often with very little training in how to teach (as little as a few weeks for those in Teach For America, for example), can become teachers and take charge of a classroom full of kids. They are also twice as likely to teach in a classroom of students of color.  Not surprisingly, the StudentsFirst report is in full support of weakening requirements for those entering the classroom. 

If you jump over to the report’s “Alternative Certification Accountability” benchmark, listed separately, you’ll notice that no state that received a top mark of 4 in alternative certification also received a 4 in holding their certification programs accountable. A whopping 46 states received a score of 1 or 0 in accountability. The report itself concedes that “only five [states] have any meaningful processes by which to evaluate and decommission programs.” It appears that StudentsFirst is more interested in applauding alternative certification for simply existing than alternative certification that’s actually working.

Also important to note: the report is opposed to any regulations as to where alternatively certified teachers are placed. Given that even by StudentsFirst’s own standards very few states can ensure quality alternative certification, why policymakers should allow them anywhere and everywhere is baffling. As a recent report from The Education Trust details, uncertified teachers and teachers lacking subject expertise are more likely to teach in high-poverty secondary schools. First-year teachers are also more likely to be found in high-poverty schools in cities and towns. The very students who need fully certified, experienced teachers are the most are the ones least likely to have them. That districts can save a few dollars by hiring a TFA graduate or someone with a similar lack of experience is likely cold comfort to the students and families being shortchanged.


4. It Continues the Disastrous High-Stakes Testing Drumbeat

StudentsFirst is adamant that both evaluations and teachers' salaries should be determined primarily (50%) on “objective measures of student growth,” i.e. test scores. This will raise a red flag for anyone who has been following the standardized test craze that has enveloped America over the past 10-15 years. In a recent column in The Washington Post’s “The Answer Sheet,” teacher Adam Heenan relates:

“This year alone, my colleagues and I have devoted a significant chunk of the additional time we were supposed to have for teaching and collaborating to testing. By mid-October, our school had already sacrificed a week’s worth of teaching and learning time for Chicago’s standardized beginning-of-the-year exams for students in their regular classes, to be repeated for the middle-of-the-year and end-of-the-year exams as well. There have been two days of “testing schedules,” where teachers and students in grades 9, 10 and 11 have had to sacrifice instructional time for EPAS exams (the system of grade-aligned tests from ACT).”

It’s not just high school, either. Up to a third of the school year in kindergarten is now spent taking standardized tests, not even counting all the prep time.

In Louisiana, one of two states to which StudentsFirst gave its highest overall mark, a teacher rated “ineffective” when it comes to test scores will automatically be branded “ineffective” overall, regardless of other measures like classroom observations by principals and other administrators. Louisiana also mandates that each year 10% of its teachers, no matter what, must be considered ineffective. Fall into that category two years in a row, and you’re fired.

And the research shows how ineffective these test-based “value added” rating systems are. In March, Phi Delta Kappan published a review of those systems, showing just how dangerously inconsistent they can be — and pointing to more accurate solutions that can actually gauge what goes on in the classroom.


5. It Advocates “Equal Funding” and “Equitable Access” for Charter Corporations and Private Schools, Not Students

The reader can be forgiven for perking up with hope upon seeing sections of the report titled “Fund Fairly” and “Enable Equitable Access to Facilities.” As the OTL Campaign and our allies have long argued, the lack of equitable funding between wealthy and poor districts and schools is a critical problem facing children across the country: inequitable funding means that a student’s access to educational and instructional resources is largely defined by what zip code he or she lives in. Every child deserves a fair and substantive opportunity to learn, and that includes access to everything from AP courses to up-to-date textbooks.

Unfortunately, that isn’t at all what StudentsFirst is interested in here.

Instead, what concerns StudentsFirst in these two sections is making sure that the non-profit and for-profit corporations that run charter schools get every last penny of public money they can. “Enable Equitable Access to Facilities” means charters should get first dibs at public property and pay at or below market value for it. Especially in an age of school budget cuts, suggesting that charter corporations make off with public resources below market value is unconscionable. The report even promotes voucher programs (called “scholarships” in StudentsFirst parlance), one of the oldest ways to siphon public money into private hands. They insist that vouchers should provide a “tuition amount that is competitive with private school tuition.”


One of StudentsFirst’s crowning achievements is its consistent deployment of Orwellian language — using a term to mean its opposite.

What they call “elevating the teaching profession” is little more than its wholesale de-professionalization. Removal of workplace protections, evaluation and compensation based on crude productivity metrics, public shaming of those whose metrics drop regardless of reason, competition between teachers for scarce resources – these are the management techniques of a sweatshop assembly line, not methods for promoting excellence in teachers.

The report claims “each and every public school student deserves a quality public education” while simultaneously pushing privatization: advocating ever more transfers of public education dollars to charter corporations and private school vouchers.

There are many more problems with StudentsFirst’s state report card (including the infamous “Parent Trigger” and its open disdain for democracy and elected school boards. But the overall picture is clear: for the authors and their right-wing benefactors, ideology trumps proven results. Our students, parents, teachers, and community members deserve better.

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