Certainly education traditionalist are not fond of the State Policy Report Card released today by Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. After all, it dings states such as California for the willingness of its education and political leaders to do the bidding of National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates — and in the process, keeping in place policies and practices that do little to help children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, attain high-quality education. [As one would expect, Golden State Supt. Tom Torlakson's top lieutenant, Richard Zeiger, has called StudentsFirst's F rating a “badge of honor.”] The fact that the top-rated states on the survey are those that have embraced aggressive systemic reform — including the expansion of school choice and the revamp of teacher performance management — also has the likes of AFT President Randi Weingarten and Rutgers University professor (and Diane Ravitch Mini-Me) Bruce Baker proverbially spitting nails.
For stoking ire and lack of compelling arguments against the ratings alone, StudentsFirst is deserving of praise. But there are more-important reasons why reformers should embrace StudentsFirst’s report, launch similar reports of their own, and even use it in shaping their own efforts on the ground.
For one, the StudentsFirst report points out how even the most-aggressive reform-minded states have not taken on the school finance and pension reform overhauls that are as critical to reforming American public education as expanding school choice and revamping teacher evaluations. This includes addressing the defined-benefit pensions that are the most financially costly aspect of traditional teacher compensation for taxpayers (who must bear the more than $600 billion in teachers’ pension deficits), younger teachers (who lose out on the benefits in an age in which staying in one profession is no longer a given), and children alike. Florida deserves to be given a C for not doing more to move newly-hired and veteran teachers into the Sunshine State’s defined-contribution plan, and probably should get an even lower rating for not taking further steps to tackle its $19 billion pension deficit.
The fact that the StudentsFirst report tacitly embraces Parent Power is also important, especially given the penchant of some reformers (including Beltway and institution reform-oriented types) and most traditionalists to dismiss the presence of families as lead decision-makers in education. By rating states on whether they have developed more-comprehensive school data systems that allow families to make smarter decisions for their children, as well as on their passage of Parent Trigger laws, StudentsFirst is putting pressure on both states to treat families as real consumers of education, and reminds reformers that systemic reform isn’t possible without the help of the parents and caregivers of the children they love. That states are also being graded on how much information (including access to teacher evaluations) parents can access on the quality of teachers instructing their children is also an important step in forcing reformers on the right side of a contentious conversation within the movement. Given that the quality of a child’s education can vary from classroom to classroom (and at the elementary level, can vary among teachers from one subject to another), parents should know how well a teacher does in the classroom — and be able to use the data to force schools to improve the quality of instruction in every classroom.
Meanwhile StudentsFirst’s publishing of this report alone serves as the kind of sunlight on education policy needed to advance systemic reform. Although think tanks such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and outfits such as the Center for Education Reform have issued annual reports on how states improve curricula quality and expand school choice, there hasn’t been a comprehensive-yet-simple report on what states are doing (or, in many cases, not doing) in the area of revamping public education. As Dropout Nation noted in its States to Watch report, the school reform movement has a penchant for devoting more attention and energy to aggressive reform efforts in states such as Louisiana (as well as the failings of officials in California), than to what is happening in states such as Iowa. The fact that 28 states were rated D by StudentsFirst on systemic reform efforts should serve as a wake-up call to the movement to do more and better on the ground.
This isn’t to say that StudentsFirst’s report doesn’t have flaws. The organization’s emphasis on states launching A-to-F grading regimes fails to consider the reality that those systems, created to replace the subgroup accountability measures put into place by the No Child Left Behind Act, essentially obscure data on student achievement by hiding achievement gaps; a school in New Mexico, for example, can get an A grade and still do poorly in improving the performance of Latino children. The survey’s lack of focus on how states with sizable American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian enrollments such as Arizona are engaging tribes and families (as well as allowing tribal governments to launch charter schools) is also a problem; it may be a good idea for StudentsFirst to reach out to Native education groups that have been working diligently on this aspect of systemic reform. And while StudentsFirst does shine light on the school finance conversation, it still doesn’t go far enough in advocating for states to take over full funding of schools, a condition critical to advancing the expansion of choice, Parent Power, and even teacher quality reform efforts.
All that said, StudentsFirst did a great service for advancing systemic reform in developing and releasing its report. And its a step other reform outfits should follow — and use as their guide in their work.