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What to Make of StudentsFirst

In the short time that StudentsFirst has been in existence, it has left an indelible imprint on the school reform movement. The organization recently made headlines when it issued its report card on how well states are following the policies it deems indispensable for educational quality ("11 States Get Failing Grades on Public School Policies From Advocacy Group," The New York Times, Jan. 7).

No state received an "A." Only Florida and Louisiana received a "B-minus." Alabama, California, Iowa, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York got "D' grades, with Connecticut a slight notch above with a "D-plus." Contrary to popular belief, StudentsFirst does not use test scores in its ratings, basing its grades strictly on state laws and policies. Specifically, it takes into account how easily bad teachers can be fired, how many choices parents have, and how tightfisted school budgets are.

Like all advocacy groups, StudentsFirst has the right to make its voice heard. Whether students will indeed be the primary beneficiaries of the policies it favors, however, is another question. So far, I see little evidence that is the case, perhaps because Michelle Rhee is such a polarizing figure. But it may also be that education reformers historically have not significantly improved public schools. Rhee maintains that StudentsFirst is completely misunderstood ("Patt Morrison Asks: Hard lessons with Michelle Rhee," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 11, 2012). She says that all she wants is to "recognize the most effective teachers, identify those who are not effective and quickly develop them or move them out of the profession."

It's an appealing argument, but how does StudentsFirst know who the best teachers are? When Rhee was chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, she instituted IMPACT in the 2009-10 school year to evaluate teachers. All teachers were supposed to receive five 30-minute observations during the school year, three by an administrator and two by an outside master educator with a background in the subject being taught. Their ratings were based on a framework with 22 different measures in nine categories. On paper the strategy was impressive, but in reality it was unwieldy. For example, every five minutes observers were expected to check for how many students were paying attention. Teachers were supposed to demonstrate they could tailor instruction to at least three learning styles.

Perhaps StudentsFirst will come up with a better way of evaluating teachers, schools and states. I'm always open to evidence. But so far, it seems to be largely based on corporate practices.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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