Founded and run by controversial former Washington D.C. education reformer Michelle Rhee, StudentsFirst judged the states’ education policies based on three categories: how strictly the state evaluates teachers, the effort each state’s schools put toward “empowering” parents, and how well the state governs schools and allocates educational funds.
StudentsFirst’s evaluation puts the onus for success squarely on teachers and principals. The group awarded Louisiana’s schools an A grade (the highest grade in the nation) for teacher evaluation. “[Louisiana] has adopted meaningful educator evaluations,” says StudentsFirst’s website, “and it requires districts to base all personnel and salary decisions on classroom effectiveness.”
The group gave Louisiana a C for its ability to communicate to parents the success of their children’s schools and its teachers, and to provide opportunities to move children to different schools, though the study concludes that the state has room to improve: “Louisiana’s parent trigger law is unique because the only turnaround option it provides parents is to petition to transfer a low-performing school to the RSD. Louisiana could strengthen its parent trigger law by [instead] giving parents the option of implementing one the four Race to the Top intervention models.”
Though she agrees with many of StudentsFirst’s policy suggestions, Sametta Brown, CEO of Capital One-New Beginnings Charter School Network, believes that in placing the onus on school faculties, the evaluation’s “parent empowerment” section ignores some important factors. Brown sites a lack of support in the home as a big impedance to both student and teacher performance. “Many parents have not internalized the fact that they are the child’s first teacher,” said Brown. “Some parents think they just send their children to school. But parents are expected to teach their kids as well.”
“I can’t create better parents, but I can create better schools,” responded StudentsFirst’s VP of National Policy Eric Lerum. “We have to tackle what we can tackle. We can change the educational outcome, and that’s what we as an organization focus on.”
‘Spend Wisely and Govern Well’
Students First claims, “[Louisiana] has established a model for state-level intervention of low-performing schools through [RSD],” However, the state scored low (C-) in its ability to spend its funds wisely, and govern efficiently. Students First suggests that Louisiana “require districts to link spending data to academic achievement to increase transparency and fully enable data-driven decision making.”
Data driven decision-making is a controversial method which many educators believe does not take into account each student’s individual needs and talents.
Lerum did not comment on the many recent cuts to Louisiana’s education budget, but did say, “We need to tackle not just what states are spending; we need to link that to student achievement. We don’t know right now what the dollars buy us. It becomes difficult to argue for more money if we can’t say that spending $1,000 more per pupil will get us a certain outcome. Looking at states’ spending we see that it’s all over the board as far as the outcomes they get.”
Lerum stressed the need for fiscal transparency at the state level — though when asked to name StudentsFirst’s two biggest funding sources, he replied, “We don’t name our donors.”
Overall grades in the three categories were determined by grades given in many sub-categories.
In the sub-category ‘Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely to Improve Outcomes for Students,’ Louisiana scored a D+. “Louisiana allows the [RSD], local school districts, and public charter schools to realize cost efficiencies through contracting flexibility,” compliments the website. “However, Louisiana should provide greater staffing and spending flexibility to school districts by removing class-size limits past the third grade and other restrictions that limit districts’ ability to reallocate resources to meet the greatest needs.”
Students First, however, gives Louisiana an A under the sub-category ‘Evaluation & Contracts, ’mostly for its status as a right-to-work state: “While [LA] has teacher unions, state law is silent on collective bargaining as it pertains to evaluation. To increase teacher effectiveness,” the group suggests, “Louisiana should explicitly remove evaluation as a component of collective bargaining.”
Who is Michelle Rhee?
The lobbying group suggests that in order to cut through bureaucracy and centralize control, Louisiana should, “permit mayoral control of low-performing school districts.” This monarchical power would be not unlike that granted to Michelle Rhee in 2007 after she was named chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. Rhee famously used this power to single-handedly fire many underperforming teachers and principals.
Test scores went up. But as predicted by the many education experts who oppose data-driven policies which place all responsibility with the teachers, Rhee’s success was eventually tainted by a cheating scandal. The most “successful” D.C. schools under her three-year as chancellor were accused of high erasure rates on tests, as well as remarkably big jumps and drops in scores. MSNBC reported that, “The results that year after Rhee left showed a significant decrease in test scores in schools that had done well under her leadership.”
While many praise Rhee’s methods (see the documentary “Waiting for Superman”) others still push for a deeper investigation of the D.C. scandal (see the recent critical PBS documentary, “The Education of Michelle Rhee”).
The website Salon dismissed StudentsFirst’s state evaluations as being highly subjective, based not on states’ actual successes, but “on how many of Rhee’s policies the state had agreed to adopt.”
Along with parental involvement, the evaluation seems to ignore other possible key factors.
Standardized testing has been at the core of most data-driven education policy initiatives, especially those of Ms. Rhee, so the omission of testing from the StudentsFirst evaluation formula begs many questions.
The Washington Post wondered how Louisiana could be deemed successful when the state, “consistently ranks at or near the bottom…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.”
“We are not looking at the impact of the policies yet,” admits Lerum. “There isn’t data available for the vast majority of states to back up whether the new policies are going to do anything. But the data that is available says that in…Massachu-setts, half the students are not proficient. The status quo there is not serving all the kids in that state. Louisiana is adopting the most aggressive policies, because they are trying to change something; the status quo policies there have not served their kids well, and they’re brave enough to do something about it.”
New Beginnings’ Sametta Brown believes that the omission denotes that StudentsFirst “may be forward thinking. The trend is now to move to another way of testing,” said Brown. “It’s probably on the horizon that we won’t be using standardized testing the way we know it today, but rather, as a barometer for how we could design programs to meet students’ needs.”
Nor does Students First’s evaluation ever mention poverty—a determining factor especially important to consider in New Orleans, which suffers from a 25-27 percent poverty rate.
“That’s a chicken or egg argument,” said Lerum. “Does poverty cause low achievement? Or can better education opportunities solve poverty issues? A disadvantaged kid needs all kinds of mental health services, and social services, but the worst thing we can do is put an ineffective teacher in front of him, and keep sending him to a bad school.”
A Grain of Salt?
While praising many aspects of the report, Sametta Brown adds, “A lot of these evaluations are made by policy people who have education degrees… [They] can write this sort of nice plan, and correct some data to make it look very pretty, but it’s never been tested and tried. These types of reports often become another trend we adopt in education for a while, then when we realize it doesn’t work and we’re on to something else.
“Suggestion is one thing,” she stated, “implementation is another.”
Questions to Louisiana’s Department of Education were answered in broad, vague terms. When asked how seriously the department will take StudentsFirst’s evaluation, LADOE press secretary Barry Landry replied, “The report’s findings validate the courage and boldness of Louisiana’s policymakers, voters and educators. The Department is reviewing the report, as we do with all reviews of our policies.”
This article was originally published in the January 28, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper
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