Michelle Rhee’s new state reform report card

(Preston Keres/THE WASHINGTON POST)
(Preston Keres/The Washington Post)

These days Michelle Rhee is here, there and everywhere.

StudentsFirst, her school  reform advocacy and lobbying organization that has taken aim at teachers unions, today released a reform policy report card that grades states on whether they have followed the corporate-based reforms that she likes. It is getting national publicity.

She is the focus of an article in the Harvard Political Review, a student-run publication,  titled, “Can Michelle Rhee Save American Education?”

She is the subject of a documentary by John Merrow that is being broadcast Tuesday on Frontline. It focuses on her 3 1/2 years as D.C. public schools chancellor, a job she left in 2010 when her mentor, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost a primary to the current mayor, Vincent Gray.

She went on to form StudentsFirst and pledged to raise $1 billion to upend the public education system according to her reform tastes. Those include merit pay for teachers (which has been tried over decades and never worked well); using standardized tests to evaluate educators (which assessments experts say is a bad idea); charter school expansion; voucher expansion; and weakening of teachers unions. Rhee says these reforms will improve education; critics say that they are harming it and that they are in reality serving to privatize the public education system.

Implementation of these reforms and other measures were the prism through which StudentsFirst graded states. Nearly ninety percent of them got less than a C. Eleven states got an F.

In Rhee’s grading system, the D.C. school system that is implementing the reforms she instituted got a higher grade than the states of Maryland and Virginia — which consistently are at or near the top of lists of high-performing states — and Virginia. Maryland got a D-plus. Virginia got a D-minus. The District? The urban system with the highest achievement gap in the country? It got a C-plus.

The states that got the highest score handed out — a B minus — were Florida and Louisiana. No surprise there.

Florida’s reform efforts were spearheaded more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who was the national leader in these kinds of reforms.  The school accountability system that Bush set up, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, is scandal-ridden, but he still travels the country promoting his test-based reform model. 

Louisiana is the state where Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal instituted a statewide voucher program that gave public money to scores of Christian schools that teach Young Earth Creationism, the belief that the Earth and the universe were created by God no more than 10,000 years ago. Kids learn that dinosaurs co-existed with humans. That’s the state that got Rhee’s top grade.

One of the measures that was not used was standardized test scores — which is ironic given that she is a big supporter of test-driven accountability for students, teachers and principals. This allowed StudentsFirst to give bad grades to states with high standardized test scores, such as Massachusetts. The reason? StudentsFirst says that while the state is consistently ranked first in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for 4th grade and 8th grade reading and math, there was a large gap in scores in 2011 between white and Hispanic students.

Louisiana consistently ranks at or near the bottom of states for NAEP scores, and the achievement gap in Louisiana is huge: State tests show a 22.1 point gap for black and white students in English Language Arts in spring 2011 and a 26.7 point gap in math. But the state is implementing reforms that Rhee likes.

California got an F, and Richard Zeiger, California’s chief deputy superintendent, called it a “badge of honor,” given (he said to the New York Times) that StudentsFirst “makes its living by asserting that schools are failing.” Rhee actually responded in a statement taking him to task for saying it.

Meanwhile, a former officer of StudentsFirst, David Coleman, went on to co-author the Common State Standards and is now  president of the College Board, which owns the SAT and the Advanced Placement program.

StudentsFirst had a big presence in the 2012 elections, creating a long list of recommended candidates in numerous states and pouring money into getting them elected so they could push Rhee-style school reform. In Missouri alone, StudentsFirst spent more than $100,000 on 21 chosen candidates. The organization says that it won 86 out of 105 races — for a success rate of 89.9 percent — and helped flip 33 seats held by non-reform candidates to those who Rhee supported.

Before the primary and November elections, Rhee was involved in reform efforts in a number of states, helping Indiana’s Republican governor at the time, Mitch Daniels, push through reform legislation, including a statewide voucher program. In nearly every state where there was charter legislation, she was active.

Every time a state schools chief job has been open in a state interested in reform, her name has come up, but she was never interested. Why would she be? She has the ability to attract big private money to run an organization that allows her to do what she wants nationally. For her, it may even be better than being U.S. secretary of education.

How powerful is she? Very. If you like her style of reform, then you will think that’s a good thing. If you don’t,  be very worried.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | January 7, 2013