Michelle Rhee, Education and the Inputs-Outcomes Trap

Her rankings of states' education policies look at things from the wrong direction. It's a discussion we do need to have, but first we need to tone down the rhetoric.
by | January 10, 2013 AT 11:00 AM
Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee

You've got to hand it to Michelle Rhee. The former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools and founder/leader of the nonprofit education-reform outfit StudentsFirst knows how to stir the pot. This week StudentsFirst released its "State Policy Report Card." It assigns letter grades to the states based on how well their policies align with StudentsFirst's policy agenda, which includes overhauling teacher tenure, using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and expanding charter schools.

Apparently few states' policies align well with StudentsFirst's ideas. No state got an A. The two states graded the highest, Florida and Louisiana, each got a B-minus. Eleven states got an F.

As you'd expect, Rhee's report has launched a furious backlash. Richard Zeiger, California's chief deputy schools superintendent, called his state's F rating a "badge of honor," telling the New York Times that StudentsFirst "is an organization that frankly makes its living by asserting that schools are failing." Diane Ravitch, whose blog is widely read by educators, wrote of Rhee's report: "There is zero evidence that her policy preferences produce higher test scores or better schools."

Rhee's report is correct in declaring that "state policies provide the strong foundation on which great school systems are built." But as Ravitch suggests, Rhee has the policy analysis backward. You don't start by deciding which policies are best; you start with outcomes and work your way back to see which policies are connected to good results. By that standard, the StudentsFirst report makes little sense.

For example, StudentsFirst gives Vermont and New Hampshire each an F and gives Massachusetts a D-plus. Yet these three states are consistently in the top five in the country in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores. Vermont is second in the nation in average graduation rate over the last several years. Remarkably, and with little apparent fanfare, in 2011 Massachusetts students nearly topped the world in eighth-grade science, scoring second only to Singapore. Louisiana? Despite its StudentsFirst grade of B-minus, it ranks near the bottom of the 50 states on all these outcomes.

So what should be done? First, let's tone down the rhetoric. I don't think Michelle Rhee wants to destroy public education, and I don't think Richard Zeiger is interested in perpetuating "social injustice," as Rhee accused him of wanting to do. The debate has taken on partisan language, with Rhee, who claims to be a Democrat, being accused of perpetuating a Republican education agenda. No one is exclusively right, and the extreme language thrown about by all sides has the effect of squelching reasonable debate and discussion.

Certainly there is plenty of need for improvement in our schools. But that doesn't mean we need to demolish public education. There are educators who are getting the work done well. Policy makers need to pay attention to them and try to understand what they are doing. Good policies need to be developed incrementally, with evaluation based on evidence of stable, consistent results.

You've got to stir the pot or the stew will stick and burn. But it's also a good idea to watch the flame and turn it down before the pot boils over.

Governing's Chad Quinn provided research assistance for this column.