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Most states failing to implement policies to improve K-12 education

Jan 15, 2013 by

“In effect, students and families in these states are left without any options outside of the traditional public school system,”

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – There’s been a lot of bipartisan chatter in recent years about the need to rethink and remake America’s public education system.

But in the view of StudentsFirst, the pro-reform advocacy group headed by Michelle Rhee, all that talk has not resulted in many state policies that will improve schools and academics.

Last week, as many state lawmakers were settling into a new legislative session, StudentsFirst issued its inaugural State Policy Report Card. The purpose of the report card is to gauge the progress each state has made in creating a better education system – something most politicians, parents, and policy wonks agree needs to happen.

The grades were assigned after StudentsFirst researchers examined how well each state is doing in three areas: Elevating the teaching profession, empowering parents through information and school choice, and spending resources wisely and governing well.

The results are not overly encouraging. Only 11 states received an overall grade of C-minus or better; the top two states (Louisiana and Florida) only scored a B-minus.

A depressing total of 38 states, including California, received D’s or F’s.

The group’s report card is stirring up quite a controversy. Critics are panning it because states that score highest on national assessments (i.e. Massachusetts, Minnesota) got D’s, while an academically struggling state such as Louisiana received the group’s highest mark.

“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,” sneered Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss.

Such criticism misses the point of the report card, replied Rhee.  The report is designed only to measure the current level of academic performance – not to determine the quality of education in any given state.

“We didn’t say in any way that we want to show people how bad it is,” Rhee told the New York Times. “We wanted to show the progress that is being made, but in places where progress is slower to come, be very clear with leaders of that state what they could do to push the agenda forward and create a better environment in which educators, parents and kids can operate.”

Massachusetts, for example, has the nation’s highest test scores (as Rhee’s critics have noted), but that doesn’t mean the state’s school system is firing on all cylinders. According to 2012 data, 78 percent of Bay State tenth-graders rated as “proficient” or better in math. That’s a nice score, but hardly a reason for lawmakers to take a victory lap.

It could do better, and perhaps with more reforms in place it would.

The recurring theme throughout the StudentsFirst report card is that K-12 education must improve, and that requires retooling or removing many policies that have been in place for decades.

“After more than a century of doing things in education the same way, we think it’s time to challenge the status quo and make sure every policy impacting our schools is there to serve and benefit all kids,” noted Rhee in the StudentsFirst report card.

The honor roll

In determining each state’s grade, StudentsFirst analyzed its education policies and rated them on a grade point scale (0 to 4), based on how well those policies matched the group’s three goals: Elevating the teaching profession, empowering parents with data and school options, and ensuring that education leaders are making good spending and governing decisions.

While no individual state aced all three areas, StudentsFirst identified several high achievers that might make the honor roll in future report cards.

In the policy area of elevating the teaching profession, Louisiana and Florida earned the highest marks (A and A-minus, respectively). Michigan, Indiana, Colorado, Rhode Island, the District of Columbia, Tennessee, Arizona and Delaware were the only others to score above average grades in this area.

“States that scored well here often allow for multiple pathways into teaching for highly qualified professionals and reward teachers for excellent work, as measured by meaningful teacher evaluations that factor in the teacher’s impact in the classroom,” the group wrote.

StudentsFirst analysts praised Louisiana and Florida for moving aggressively “to ensure that effectiveness is the primary driver in all personnel decisions, from teacher placement to compensation to dismissals.”

In other words, Florida and Louisiana may not be at the top of the chart academically, but they are leading the pack in their efforts to improve.

In the area of empowering parents with data and choice, only Indiana can claim an above average grade (C-plus), according to the report. The Hoosier State earned that score by providing parents with “access to vital information about the quality of schools and teachers,” analysts noted.

“Additionally, Indiana has multiple publicly funded education options, including public charter schools and an opportunity scholarship program for low-income students, which together work to provide parents with options when their assigned neighborhood school does not meet the needs of their children.”

Despite the many school options, Indiana officials need to do a better job in holding charter schools accountable, the group said.

In the final policy area – ensuring that school district leaders are spending wisely and governing well – Michigan and Rhode Island are alone at the top of the class (B and B-minus, respectively).

Michigan is credited for letting “the majority of the state’s funding for public schools (be) unrestricted and (allowing) schools to make their own decisions about how money is spent, such as in contracting for services and class-size requirements.”

Analysts also liked The Great Lakes State’s “intervention model that enables the state to take control and drive reform in financially or academically failing districts.”

“In total, 16 states earned a C-minus or better, mainly because they offer some sort of governance flexibility and do not restrict staffing decisions based on class size,” StudentsFirst analysts noted.

Summer school for everyone else

A stunning 38 states received an overall grade of D or F, which means there’s a lot of talk about reforming public education, but there’s precious little action.

Rhee’s group assigned special demerits to Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia for failing to provide families with charter schools or any other form of school choice.

“In effect, students and families in these states are left without any options outside of the traditional public school system,” the group wrote in its report card. “When the systems fail, and leaders in turn fail to improve them, students in these nine states are trapped.”

Such stinging criticism has some defenders of the education establishment miffed.

Richard Zeiger, California’s chief deputy superintendent, went so far as to call his state’s F grade a “badge of honor,” according to the New York Times.

“This is an organization that makes its living by asserting that schools are failing,” said Zeiger.

Actually, StudentsFirst is hardly alone in thinking that America’s public schools are in desperate need of a makeover.

Early in his first term, President Obama warned about the “relative decline of American education” which “is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy and unacceptable for our children.”

Despite lackluster findings, the StudentsFirst ended its report on a hopeful note.

“The country is in the midst of an incredible moment of opportunity for change, and state leaders are embracing it” the group observed. “Expect to see more states putting students first over the coming year.”

StudentsFirst report: Most states failing to implement policies to improve K-12 education – :: Education Research, Reporting, Analysis and Commentary.

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