WHAT OTHERS SAY: StudentsFirst report card misses the mark

Monday, January 14, 2013 | 4:46 p.m. CST

Everything that is wrong with the debate over improving public schools can be seen in the latest report card from Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization.

Last week, StudentsFirst declared public schools in nearly every state in the nation a failure, or close to it. Missouri received a D-minus. Illinois did slightly better with a straight D. There were 11 Fs. No state received an A. The highest grades were two B-minuses.

Alarming, to be sure. But just as alarming is the politics behind the report card. Ms. Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, has become a controversial figure in the school reform movement.

Her graders didn’t even attempt to track student performance. They didn’t analyze test scores or teacher education efforts.

No, they merely labeled the schools “failing” because state legislatures haven’t adopted the policy prescriptions pushed by Ms. Rhee’s group.

The result was predictable.

Politicians who receive political donations from StudentsFirst praised the report card.

Superintendents who live in the real world criticized it.

California deputy superintendent Richard Ziegler, for instance, called it a “badge of honor” that his state received an F from StudentsFirst.

And, of course, Ms. Rhee’s group responded to Mr. Ziegler with a critical news release.

This, more often than not, is the real state of education reform in America.

It’s a playground fight, with reform groups and teachers’ unions taking turns in the role of bully.

Ms. Rhee visited with the Post-Dispatch editorial board last year. We were not sold on some of her group’s policies.

For instance, StudentsFirst proposes that states do a better job of training teachers, pointing to groundbreaking research from Harvard University showing that one good teacher can make a significant impact on a child’s future earnings.

StudentsFirst also proposes that teachers are held to account in part by tracking students’ test scores.

We agree.

So why did StudentsFirst issue a report card that labels schools and states as failures without including any legitimate measures of performance? That’s no way to measure real progress according to StudentsFirst’s own logic.

In Missouri, for instance, much progress is being made in regard to teacher evaluation, even if it hasn’t shown up in cookie-cutter legislative solutions. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is piloting new teacher evaluation measures that include using test scores as one of many diagnostic tools. Perfecting that process and getting buy-in from teachers, superintendents and local school boards is the proper process and it is under way.

The state is also working on a plan to raise standards at the colleges and universities that educate teachers, developing a rating system that should reinforce the best practices and, in the long run, produce better teachers.

These are good things. In the pantheon of education reform proposals, they deserve applause and support, not a D-.

On the other hand, the effort in the legislature to pass legislation that would gut teacher tenure protections — even before the right evaluation measures are in place — would be a recipe for disaster.

Using the StudentsFirst rubric, the legislature could pass three bills this session, one on teacher evaluation, another gutting seniority rules and one giving parents the ability to take over poor-performing schools. That would earn Missouri schools an A from StudentsFirst next year, even if schools didn’t get any better.

This is reform?

No, this is politics.

Unlike some education reform groups, StudentsFirst is bipartisan. That’s a good thing. Some of its proposals are headed in the right direction. And by getting publicity for its “report card,” the group has accomplished a primary goal: getting attention.

But issuing arbitrary report cards followed by back-slapping news releases from politicians who have — or will shortly — receive campaign donations is a cynical way to go about standing up for children.

In both Illinois and Missouri, some common ground has been found in developing methodical and academically supported processes of improving teacher and administrative performance.

These efforts should be applauded, not caught in the crossfire of a politically motivated food fight.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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