Michelle Rhee's report card doesn't add up

California gets an F for bucking corporate education reform

Like a lot of local folks, Bites tuned in to The Education of Michelle Rhee earlier this month, the Frontline documentary on Sacramento’s own self-styled education-reform badass, bride of the mayor, bee-murderer, etc.

The doc covered familiar ground, mostly Rhee’s tenure as der chancellor of D.C. schools. There’s footage of Rhee firing a school principal on camera and showing that if you just scare the bejesus out of educators, their test scores will go up, at least temporarily. Though they may cheat to do it. (Here is probably a good place for the usual disclosure that Bites is married to a public-school teacher and generally prefers not to see teachers terrorized.)

And the Frontline producers do leave their viewers with the impression that at least some administrators got away with some cheating during the dramatic (and short-lived) spike in test scores at some schools during Rhee’s tenure in D.C. And while chancellor Rhee presumably didn’t know about the cheating, Frontline suggests she sort of half-assed the investigation.

But the cheating scandal has already faded. Rhee’s StudentsFirst education organization, headquartered downtown on K Street, is still plugging away, trying to get state governments to adopt the hardball policies Rhee initiated in D.C.

StudentsFirst picked the day before The Education aired to debut its own “policy report card” of the 50 states. It generated some buzz around our state; plenty of news outlets dutifully reported some variation of “StudentsFirst gives California education an F.”

Casual readers may have been given the impression that the report actually measured something important—like student achievement. But in fact, the report card was more of a political wish list, rather than an actual assessment of how states are doing at educating kids.

California flunked the StudentsFirst test because the state still allows teacher tenure, and it doesn’t put mayors in charge of school systems. We still don’t use test scores in teacher evaluations. StudentsFirst also says California is too generous with teacher pensions and not generous enough with charter-school operators. The list of violations goes on.

The report card doesn’t actually say anything about how well these policies are working in the states that follow them. For example, Louisiana and Florida earn B grades on StudentsFirst’s policy report card—the highest marks; Rhee is a tough grader. But students in those states lag behind the rest of the nation in reading and math scores. Ironic, given the constant emphasis Rhee puts on testing and results.

So, is there any evidence that the states which follow StudentsFirst policy prescription are actually doing any better in terms of student outcomes? “I don’t think it’s easy to draw that correlation yet; the majority of these policy changes happened within the past two or three years,” says Eric Lerum, vice president of national policy for StudentsFirst.

On the other hand, Lerum argues, there’s no evidence that the status quo is good for kids, either. “There’s no argument for standing still. What we have right now isn’t working. It’s killing our kids.”

Because schools are failing, right? Everybody knows it. Just check the editorial page in any daily newspaper.

“It’s absolutely not true that our schools are failing,” says veteran education consultant and former legislative staffer John Mockler, who wrote California’s school-funding rules, Proposition 98, along with a good chunk of the state’s education code.

In 2003, Mockler points out, 37 percent of California students scored “proficient” or better on state standardized tests. This year, it’s 57 percent. The percentage of Latinos who scored proficient moved from 20 to 46 in that period; African-Americans saw similar progress, jumping from 22 to 45 percent. The “achievement gap” with white students persists, because white kids’ test scores rose quickly as well. But that’s very different from saying schools are “failing.”

And that’s not too bad, Mockler argues, for a state with a (stunningly) fast-growing population of English language learners, and bottom of the barrel per-pupil spending.

He’s a bit galled by Rhee’s report card. “It is, like all of her work, just politics.” Mockler gets a lot of the credit, or blame, for the state of the state’s education system. Not surprising, perhaps, that he would defend it. Then again, what Mockler calls “the California Schools Suck Industry,” has its own powerful incentives for declaring the state’s schools as failures.

For Rhee, charter schools are literally part of the family business—Mayor Johnson cut his political teeth taking over “failing” public schools with his St. Hope company. And her group gets a lot of corporate money from foundations—like Broad, Gates, Walton, who are pushing the privatization of public schools. There may be no data to show any of StudentsFirst policies are good for students, but they’re good politics and good business.