January so far is looking like Michelle Rhee month. Last night the self-described education reformer was the hour-long focus of PBS’s Frontline series. The day before, her organization StudentsFirst released its report card on the state of education policy in which Rhee and her colleagues “flunked” most states. The headlines wrote themselves (see here and here).
But before we collectively freak out about our own states’ GPA, let’s take a critical look at what StudentsFirst is grading. First — and I can’t emphasize this enough — there are no points awarded for education performance. None. Zero. So if you’re concerned about that ‘F’, Vermont, relax. You are still a high-achieving state.
What they did look for were state education policies that aligned with the StudentsFirst agenda. These include teacher and principal staffing decisions based on student achievement measures among others, and “empowering parents” through charter schools and vouchers. Limiting their rankings to policies, however, leads to some strange juxtapositions.
In the following table, I list the top ten performing states in education as identified in KidsCount, the annual report card published by the Anne E. Casey Foundation. The KidsCount education index includes pre-k participation, NAEP scores in reading and math and high school graduation rates. I then compare these to each state’s StudentsFirst grade:
Not much relationship here between achievement and StudentsFirst policy preferences. When looking only at the StudentsFirst grades in school choice, the relationship is even sketchier: 6 of the top ten states earned an “F” while the highest grade was a “D.”
Brookings Institute released a much less publicized report card before Christmas that graded urban districts on school “choice and competition,” but like StudentsFirst, placed little value on actual performance. Likewise, the Brookings’ rankings look a little wacky when compared to district performance. For example, New York City was ranked second with a letter grade of B+. Yet its eighth-graders performed significantly below the overall national average on NAEP in math. Number three-ranked D.C. (a “B”) was 19th out of 21 urban districts on the same test. In contrast, middle-schoolers in urban Austin exceeded the national average of all students. Brookings gave that Texas school district an F. (Comparable data was not available for number one-ranked New Orleans.)
We can probably go overboard drawing conclusions from these inconsistencies. To begin with, we can’t say for sure that the Brookings/StudentsFirst agendas work against achievement. But we can say one thing: there are many high-profile organizations that are promoting education reform policies that do not have a proven track record to support them.