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On Michelle Rhee's Latest State-Policy Report Card, No 'A' Grades Once Again

StudentsFirst, the K-12 advocacy organization run by Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor, on Tuesday released its "State Policy Report Card" for 2014, giving states letter grades for their education policy environment. StudentsFirst, based in Sacramento, Calif., favors school choice, report cards for schools, performance pay for teachers, and the elimination or significant alteration of many established teacher-tenure systems. 

As I say in the headline, no state received an A grade on this latest report, the group's second, just like in 2013. The only two states to receive B grades last year, Florida and Louisiana, once again are the only two states this year to get Bs (actually a B- for both states).  But what's also striking about the list is that no state's overall grade dropped. In fact the number of states receiving F grades declined from 11 in the last report to seven in this lastest one. The most prominent state to leave the report card's doghouse is California, which improved along with Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Dakota. Nevada and Georgia also improved from Ds to Cs.

(You may remember that last year, in reaction to StudentsFirst flunking California, the state's chief deputy superintendent, Richard Zeiger, essentially told the group that it could take a long walk off a short pier, and that his state's F grade was actually a badge of honor. No word yet on his reaction to California's improved standing with the group.)

Eric Lerum, the vice president of national policy at StudentsFirst, told me that the report card shows "modest improvement, definitely improvement across the board" in the state policy environment. He said that the passage of major changes to teacher and other K-12 policy in Florida and Louisiana shows that in a political context, lawmakers will do better if they enact big policy changes in one shot, rather than trying to chip away at making changes year after year.

"You know it's always going to be a battle whenever you try to enact change," he said.

On school choice issues, for example, many rural states receive F grades from StudentsFirst, Lerum said, because the political dynamic is such that local school districts exert a relatively large amount of influence on state lawmakers, who are often reluctant to impose what might be seen as onerous government requirements on their far-flung districts. 

StudentsFirst.PNG

As you can see from the map above, states are ranked  in the three "pillar" policy areas that StudentsFirst prioritizes, with each state getting a grade for each pillar. Those are: elevating the teaching profession; empowering parents; and spending wisely and governing well. In terms of "empowering parents," for example, no state reached even as high as a B, with most states receiving D or C grades. But in terms of "elevating the teaching profession," Florida and Louisiana come through with A- grades, and five other states get Bs. 

States like the last two, Lerum said, get high marks because they don't create a policy disconnect by proclaiming the value of student performance, only to not count it when making personnel decisions.

How StudentsFirst defines those pillars, of course, is a big part of what makes the group so controversial. In terms of elevating teaching, for example, the group says states with strong scores must use teacher evaluations for personnel decisions. The group's goals behind that particular policy include dismissing ineffective teachers and ending forced placement of teachers; eliminating seniority-based layoffs; and reforming or eliminating teacher tenure. (Some of these goals are labeled "anchor" and get more weight in the scoring.)

Empowering parents, meanwhile, means notifying parents about the rating of their child's teacher; issuing school report cards; and establishing a parent-trigger law.

Each of those policy priorities is controversial on some level. And Rhee's enemies will be quick to point out that doing relatively well on her report card does not necessarily equate with high student performance

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