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Michelle Rhee's Group Grades States, And No One Gets an A

Santa Claus may have a list that he checks twice, but the start of a new calendar year, and state legislative sessions, means that lists about state education policy proliferate. The one getting a lot of chatter this morning, in The New York Times and elsewhere, is the A-F "report card" on school policy from the Sacramento-based StudentsFirst education advocacy group.

The quick synopsis is that only two states, Florida and Louisiana, got as high a B-, the highest grade awarded to any state, while 11 states managed to "flunk" completely, and 25 states got a D+, D, or D-. Big states like Illinois, New York, and Texas all received Ds. California got an F, and North Dakota got the lowest GPA of all, a 0.40.

StudentsFirst (led by former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee) wants objective data to be used in teacher evaluations, those evaluations to be used in staffing and tenure decisions, a higher number of and more equitable funding for charter schools, and for governments to "spend wisely" on K-12. The group uses those four major categories and several sub-categories within those to determine states' grades.

Taking a look at Louisiana, where, although Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has either delighted or outraged education policy advocates with his sweeping voucher program, it's actually in the category of "elevate teaching" where the state scores best with StudentsFirst. The state does particularly well on this front because it "requires districts to base all personnel and salary decisions on classroom effectiveness."

Lawmakers in states with plans to revamp public schools in their states might find the group's report card particularly useful. It would not be surprising, for example, for West Virginia legislators to use the state's F grade as an easy talking point during the state's K-12 overhaul push, which got off to a controversial start with the November firing of state superintendent Jorea Marple, who now plans to sue the state to get her old job back. And state newspapers in Georgia and Iowa have stories today highlighting their states poor grades from StudentsFirst, which might light a fire under one or two legislators with big plans for 2013.

Foes of the controversial Rhee and of her policy preferences were quick to jump into the fray, however. In The New York Times piece, California Chief Deputy Superintendent Richard Zeiger is quoted as saying that StudentsFirst "makes its living by asserting that schools are failing'' and that he considered the state's failing grade a "badge of honor." (Rhee in turn attacked Zeiger on Jan. 7 for his comments to the Times, calling what Zeiger was defending a "social injustice.") Education historian and commentator Diane Ravitch took a shot at Rhee on Twitter by wondering if anyone moved to Louisiana or Florida for their schools. And the American Federation of Teachers said that as a state's grade on StudentsFirst's report card got higher, the actual grades of its students got worse.

As I've written about previously, StudentsFirst is increasing its presence in state elections, so the group has dollars to dole out as well as report cards. Lawmakers may have more reason than just policy concerns to pay attention to Rhee's group.

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