California’s policy efforts to improve student achievement earned an F from StudentsFirst, the Sacramento-based advocacy group led by Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor. The state ranked 41st in the nation on education policies in three major areas involving teachers, parents and school finance and governance. No state earned an A, and more than two-thirds of states received D’s or F’s on the group’s State Policy Report Card.
“While there is great momentum for reform in a number of states, nearly every state has a long way to go in terms of reforming its policies,” the report states. However, California is “stagnant,” it said.
The ratings relied on a complex matrix that covered three major areas:
1) Elevate teaching: States would earn good grades if they had comprehensive teacher and principal evaluations that were based on multiple measures, including 50 percent on student growth, classroom observations and student surveys. These evaluations would be used to decide whether to lay off or fire personnel or promote them and give them raises. States also won points if they had alternative certification paths for teachers.
2) Empower parents with information: States that gave letter grades to schools and notified parents if their children’s teachers were ineffective got high scores. Establishing a parent trigger that allows parents to demand a turnaround of a low-performing school as well as broader choices for low-income students, such as Opportunity Scholarships, were rewarded with points. States could also earn good marks for establishing and supporting charter schools and holding them accountable.
3) Spend wisely and govern well: States that allow for mayoral and state control of low-performing schools would earn good grades. Fiscal transparency, the use of multiple management strategies to realize efficiencies, and no class size restrictions for grades higher than 3rd earned positive marks. This category also includes making teacher pensions portable and fair.
David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an education research and policy group, questions the basis of Rhee’s criteria.
“Some of the policies that she prefers might move state education in a positive direction,” Plank said. “Some of them probably won’t. But there is no evidence about any of them. So there is no reason this particular set of policies should work. I don’t think this report is very helpful or very interesting.”
Reactions to the report card from legislators were mixed.
“In just a short period of time, StudentsFirst has proven itself to be a leading voice for education reform and for our kids,” said Kristin Olsen, vice chair of the Assembly Committee on Education and a Republican from Modesto, in a press release that accompanied the report. “They provide a necessary counterweight to influential unions and fight effectively for the kinds of student-focused policies that will improve public schools and increase achievement.”
But Joan Buchanan, chair of the state Assembly Committee on Education and a Democrat from Alamo, agreed with Plank. “Unfortunately the metrics used to develop the StudentsFirst report cards are based on the ideas of well-meaning school reformers, not quality research,” she said, adding that, for example, no merit pay program has resulted in increased student achievement.
Poor grades on how the state evaluates teachers could be expected from StudentsFirst, but California flunking empowering parents was surprising. In the report, the state is held up as an example because of its parent trigger law. California also has a robust charter movement and has been recognized as a national leader in how it funds charters.
The only category where California earned a “D” was on “spending wisely and governing well,” perhaps because of its recent decision to give districts more flexibility in how they spend their dollars and the suspension of its requirement to reduce class sizes for additional state funds.
Overall, said Sherry Griffith, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), the policy ideas in the report are “real sexy” but overlook the great strides the state has made in student achievement.