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Julia Steiny: Michelle Rhee Throws Gas on Ed Reform Hostilities

Thursday, January 24, 2013


The ever-controversial Michelle Rhee and her organization Students First have issued a State Policy Report Card, grading states' reform policies. Almost all the states got either a "D" or an "F." Dummies.

As the Chancellor of the D.C. schools, Rhee posed for the 2008 cover of Time Magazine looking witchy with a broom, symbolizing her efforts to sweep bad teachers and policies away. The Students First report grades states according to their implementation of her take-no-prisoners policies, some of which are good, and others baseless. (Yes, hire and maintain staff by merit, not seniority. But tying teacher pay to test scores does not improve achievement.)

Curiously, Louisiana and Florida emerge as educational stars, while Vermont, elsewhere considered a pretty good place to educate a kid, is an embarrassment.

So I examined their system for calculating the grades and lo! Brownie points go to states that annually grade schools with "A" through "F" letters. I laughed out loud. They justify their own right to call states names by applauding those states also engaged in routine "D" and "F" name-calling. By that measure, if only more states would rush the public to ugly conclusions, the fur could really fly.

Hey kid, you go to a "D-" school, you loser. How does that make you feel? Your "D-" so bummed your teachers out, they're trying to bail out of the building to get away from you. It's your fault, so quit whining and do your science work.

Do people seriously think the kids don't notice?

Report cards have become all the rage among states and ed. reformers. In a convenience society, "A" through "F" offers quick, mindless judgments on schools' effectiveness. Ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush's group, Foundation for Excellence in Education, released a video arguing that letter grades are the only way to communicate clearly with parents.

Communicate what, exactly? And for what purpose?

A fine line divides passionate advocacy and flat-out fighting to win. In the realm of education, the question has to be: is it good for kids? Quickie judgments are not. It's like calling a kid fat or stupid while ignoring that she's also sweet, creative and great on the flute. We punish children for calling each other names, but blare their school's shame from the news. It's bizarre.

Yes, some schools should be rebooted, but grades won't assist good decisions about such a painful matter.

So, I would ask Mr. Bush, whose video is silent on the matter, what is a good school, one deserving an "A?"

People often ask me which are the best schools.

I ask: What are your priorities?

They almost invariably respond: What do you mean?

Start with high achievement. Sort your state's schools, high to low, by their students' median family income. Now sort them again by test results. The two lists will come close to matching. Yes, some of the better charters, magnets and vocational schools break the pattern. But even then, dig into their specifics—longer days, impressive outside partners, cool academic strategies—to see how they're breaking the pattern.

Because, according to test scores, which is how most grades get calculated, "A" schools have affluent kids. Hmmm.

What if your priorities include diversity, which affluent schools rarely offer? What if you want a warm, fun and helpful atmosphere, which is why parents flock to charter schools, despite their sometimes lackluster academic performance? How about a school that's super innovative and steeped in technology? A focus on social-and-emotional learning? Uniforms? Zero-tolerance discipline codes? Restorative, social-justice-minded discipline? Hands-on learning? Traditional instruction? Themes to engage your disengaged kid, like ecology, STEM or the arts?

Now that you've identified your "A" school, or as close as you could get, what sort of grade would Rhee or Bush give to it? What would the grade mean?

To my mind, the grades are only about fighting.

A certain brand of reformers want that big fat "F" to goad parents into battle. Grades are incendiary. Bombs. Designed to win a war. Fighting for control has led to inventing new weaponry, such as "parent trigger" laws, whereby parents can band together and insist the district turn their school over to a charter management organization. (A "win" for the parents and reformers, perhaps, but the jury's out on whether it'll help the kids.) Often fighting backfires, bringing throngs of families to plead for the life of their struggling school, which may serve them well as a community center, if not as a great place to learn.

I've been observing the escalation of this fight for over 20 years. I assure you that little good has come of it.

Fighting among the adults has taken root as a horrible habit, injurious to the health of the kids.

High-school kids' NAEP scores have barely budged since the 1990s. Thousands of jobs still go begging for lack of a skilled workforce. But fight on we will. Grades feed the battles.

Reductio ad absurdum ad nauseum.

I'm not making excuses for wretched schools. But nuance is necessary. I hate wretched policies that hurt kids, however inadvertently. Teach the public what good education can and should look like. But quit bludgeoning and name calling. We don't tolerate such behavior among the kids. So why do we model it?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building demonstration projects in Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.


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Stephen Jacoby

Ms. Steiny,

Setting aside for the moment Ms. Rhee's methodology for assigning grades to various schools (a process that I agree runs the gamut from insightful to, at best, misguided), I would like to address your assertion that the grading system itself is problematic.

Is assigning a grade to a school somehow more derogatory than publishing its "achievement" (or lack thereof) levels? You clearly state your opinion that these grades are somehow particularly demeaning and prejudicial to those attending schools at the lower end of the grading spectrum. I disagree.

Do you believe that most parents (or students for that matter) don't already know that their school doesn't measure up to the wealthier and more successful schools one or two districts away - or vice versa? Of course they do! However, they do allow parents and students to better understand how badly the school is failing and to take action as necessary. Also, let's not forget that these scores are very useful for administrations (local, state, and federal) in helping them quickly identify problems of which they would otherwise probably remain unaware. Budgets can be allocated more efficiently when a system of grading is in place.

Lastly, how exactly would you suggest we depict a school's score? Using "A" through "F" is clear and understandable. Do you think using a scale of 0 to 100 would somehow change the situation? If not, how do you suggest we rate them? Or, are you suggesting that the concept of the scoring process itself is wrong-headed?

While I am wide open to suggestion and debate, I believe that using grades is currently the only reasonable solution understood by all parties concerned, not to mention it is the popular nomenclature of the industry to which it is being applied. I'm not suggesting it's in any way a trivial matter, but all we have to do is settle on an accurate way to measure the results and then apply that measurement fairly and uniformly across the board.

- Stephen Jacoby

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