This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 7, 2013 - Missouri gets a D-minus and Illinois gets a D in a new nationwide education report card issued Monday by StudentsFirst, the school reform group headed by former Washington, D.C., school chief Michelle Rhee.
But both states have plenty of company, even if their grades are nothing to brag about. Nearly 90 percent of states received a grade of C or below, with 11 getting an F. No state earned an A; the highest grade was a B-minus, for both Louisiana and Florida.
The rankings were based on state education policy, not factors such as student achievement.
“I think we came up with a report card that has pretty tough grades,” Eric Lerum, the group’s vice president of national policy, told reporters in a conference call. “But I think they are reflective of the environment that most states and most schools find themselves in.”
Added Rhee: “There is really clear evidence that the American public education system is underperforming. … Schools are not producing the kind of skilled workforce our country needs.”
In response to Missouri’s ranking, which is 34th in the nation, Chris Nicastro, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said via email:
“The StudentsFirst report card gives us another look at some critical state policy issues in education. We are pleased to consider both their research and their recommendations as we work to make Missouri one of the nation’s Top 10 performing states.”
The state has begun a pilot project for a new evaluation system for teachers and administrators.
Matt Vanover, spokesman at the Illinois State Board of Education, responded to the report this way:
“It’s obvious they have their own political agenda and are trying to grade states based on their agenda. They seem to have missed a lot of the positive things that are currently happening.”
Among policy initiatives and achievements in Illinois, he cited new teacher and principal evaluations, investments in early childhood education and student test scores and graduation rates. Illinois’ score placed it 29th nationally.
And Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association, reacted this way:
“This report creates a very misleading impression about the quality of Missouri’s public schools. This group, which is based outside of Missouri, evaluates public schools based on a particular agenda designed to undermine the authority of locally elected school boards. That agenda includes funneling taxpayer money to private schools that are not accountable to the public.”
The StudentsFirst grades are based not on test scores, as many report cards are, but on state education policies, specifically laws and regulations in three specific areas:
- Elevating the teaching profession
- Empowering parents with data and choice
- Spending money wisely and governing well
Those areas were chosen, Rhee said, because of the group’s belief that state policy is a key factor in improving education.
"The most powerful way to improve student achievement from outside the classroom is to shape policy and implement laws at the state level that govern education," she said in a statement accompanying the release of the data.
"That is why our report card focuses singularly on the education policies in place in each of our states. And when we look solely at policy, it's clear that we have a long way to go toward improving our education system in America."
The group said that even in states such as Massachusetts, which tends to be among the leaders in student test scores, policies were found to be deficient because of gaps between white students and students in minority groups.
Lea Crusey, StudentsFirst’s state director in Missouri, added: “We believe that every child in Missouri can achieve at high levels regardless of their background or circumstance. But, in order to drive learning, we must have the right policies in place that offer a supportive and enriching educational environment for learning to thrive."
Basis of the grades
Using its three key policy categories, StudentsFirst ranked each state’s performance in a number of areas. In teaching, for example, graders looked at evaluations, placement and tenure. The parents section looks at options for public education and how much information families can find, while the state spending portion of the report card analyzes areas such as accountability and teacher pensions.
But no matter what area is graded, Missouricomes out pretty much the same – poorly. Its overall grade is 0.94 out of a possible 4.0, with a D for empowering parents and a D-minus for both elevating teaching and spending wisely.
Illinois fares only slightly better. Its overall score was 1.13, with a C-plus in spending wisely dragged down by a D-plus in elevating teaching and an F in empowering parents.
Lerum, StudentsFirst’s vice president for policy, said the report card represents a broad look not just at individual policy questions but at how policies work together to help improve education. He said states need to make sure that schools have the flexibility to innovate and are required to live up to high standards.
Above all, he said, states need to maintain a momentum for reform and must have education leaders who keep progress on track.
“We’ve never seen a successful school that didn’t have a great leader in front of it,” he said, adding: “States are definitely moving in the right direction. But many states are moving much too slowly, and there’s a lot of work that remains to be done.”
Tim Melton, the group’s vice president of legislative affairs, said that too often, states are timid about getting too far out in front in education reform.
“Nobody wants to be the first,” he said, “but nobody wants to be the last.”
As a member of the Michigan legislature, he said, he was surprised that there was no comprehensive roadmap for lawmakers to follow to make sure schools were improving and the state was helping them reach their goals.
One factor that StudentsFirst cited as a way for underperforming urban schools to improve is to give mayors control of the education system. Lerum cited New York City and the District of Columbia as two places where such a system has worked to improve accountability when a local school board had fallen short.
He said having a mayor in charge makes it easier for education issues to be tied together to policies in other areas such as health and social services.
“Having those under a strong leadership vision allows mayors to take a much more comprehensive approach to solving school problems than you typically see when you have just a school board in charge,” Lerum said.
StudentsFirst, which was founded by Rhee in 2010, operates in 17 states, including Missouri but not Illinois. It says it has 33,000 members in Missouri, including parents, teachers, administrators and others who are concerned about education. It said it plans to update its report card annually.
Rhee is rarely shy in her criticism of the nation’s schools, and the StudentsFirst report card brought a sharp reaction in some quarters.
In reaction to his state’s grade of F, Richard Zeiger, California’s chief deputy superintendent, as calling the ranking a “badge of honor” in a New York Times article.
“This is an organization that frankly makes its living by asserting that schools are failing,” Zeiger said of StudentsFirst. “I would have been surprised if we had got anything else.”
A few hours later, the group sent out an email with Rhee’s response.
“Does he consider it a badge of honor that California’s education policies rank 41st in the nation?” she asked. “Or perhaps he considers it a badge of honor that children are going into underperforming classrooms every day in California without a way to choose a better school option? Maybe he’s proud that great teachers in California aren’t paid adequately and are often laid off based on seniority, not effectiveness.
“Mr. Zeiger may call that a badge of honor, but I call it a social injustice.”