As described in the Frontline documentary, Michelle Rhee was forced to leave as Washington D.C. School Chancellor, after doing her best to privatize schools, attack teachers with punitive “assessment” and destroy collective bargaining. Because of her destructive policies, she became the darling of those right wing advocates of “school Reform”. Her lobbying group, “StudentsFirst” was a rousing financial success and she funneled that money into state level campaigns nationwide. According to Daniel Denvir of Slate, reporting right after the election:
Nov. 6 was a good day for Michelle Rhee. The former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, through her organization StudentsFirst, poured money into state-level campaigns nationwide, winning 86 of 105 races and flipping a net 33 seats to advocates of so-called school reform, a movement that advocates expanding privately run public charter schools, weakening teachers’ unions, increasing the weight of high-stakes standardized tests and, in some cases, using taxpayer dollars to fund private tuition through vouchers as the keys to improving public education.
Rhee makes a point of applauding “leaders in both parties and across the ideological spectrum” because her own political success — and the success of school reform — depends upon the bipartisan reputation she has fashioned. But 90 of the 105 candidates backed by StudentsFirst were Republicans, including Tea Party enthusiasts and staunch abortion opponents. And Rhee’s above-the-fray bona fides have come under heavy fire as progressives and teachers unions increasingly cast the school reform movement, which has become virtually synonymous with Rhee’s name, as politically conservative and corporate-funded.
StudentsFirst didn’t have to spend much money in Idaho because the “Luna Laws”, Students Come First, were (as the similar title indicates) directly out of Rhee’s preferred policy manual, and funded by outside corporate dollars. The Idaho legislature passed the Luna Laws, but the Idaho voters rejected them in what Diane Ravitch described as a “stunning defeat”.
Voters in Idaho gave Mitt Romney a landslide but simultaneously voted overwhelmingly to repeal the “Luna Laws,” the brainchild of state superintendent Tom Luna.
This stunning victory for public education demonstrates that not even red-state Republicans are prepared to privatize public education and dismantle the teaching profession.
The Luna Laws imposed a mandate for online courses for high school graduates (a favorite of candidates funded by technology companies), made test scores the measure of teacher quality, provided bonuses for teachers whose students got higher scores, removed all teacher rights, eliminated anything resembling tenure or seniority, turned teachers into at-will employees, and squashed the teachers’ unions.
The campaign to support the Luna laws was heavily funded by technology entrepreneurs and out-of-state supporters of high-stakes testing and restrictions on the teaching profession, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The voters in this reddest of red states overturned all three of the Luna laws (which he called “Students Come First”; anything in which children or students or kids come “first” is a clear tip-off to the divisive intent of the program).
The Republican dominated Legislature and the Idaho School Boards Association, however, are determined to ignore the voice of the people and implement as much of the Luna Laws as they can get away with. According to the Spokesman Review:
Idaho voters rejected a rollback in teachers’ collective bargaining rights in the November election, but the state’s school boards association is gearing up to try to put some of the same provisions right back into Idaho’s laws.
“We really tried to focus on the things that the trustees felt were most important to them, and to leave the rest of it alone,” said Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association. “We hoped that the union would support at least parts of this – we know they won’t be able to support all of it.”
Among the provisions the school boards group wants to revive: A June 10 deadline by which, if districts haven’t reached agreements with their local teachers unions, they can just impose contract terms unilaterally. At least 16 Idaho school districts did that this year.
“It’s Proposition 1 right back up there again,” said Maria Greeley, a Boise school trustee who opposed the resolution at last month’s state school boards association conference. “I’m not saying that everything in it is bad. … The one piece that concerns me the most is that deadline, because it gives districts the opportunity to abuse the negotiation process. It doesn’t make them come in and do the tough work of working through it.”
As for Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst (more accurately- CorperationsFirst), the latest publicity stunt is the state-by-state “Report Card” released this week. Doug Henwood calls the Report Card for what it is- self-promoting crap:
StudentsFirst, the school “reform” outfit led by the notorious Michelle Rhee, is out with a state-by-state Report Card on the nation’s schools. Grades were awarded on the basis of states’ conformity to the standard reform agenda—ease of creating charter schools, ease of firing teachers, ease of hiring teachers who aren’t certified in the traditional fashion, and testing testing testing. In the past, there’s never been any evidence that this agenda actually improves educational outcomes—and this report is no exception. Despite Rhee’s love of testing, there’s no mention of how states that do well under her criteria do on standardized tests compared to those that score poorly. That’s no surprise, really, since states that get high grades from StudentsFirst do worse on tests than those that score poorly.
Note the irony here. Rhee’s mantra is teacher/school accountability based upon student test scores, but she doesn’t even consider standardized test scores in rating the states. When Henwood compares state student test scores with the Rhee’s “grades”, there is a strong negative correlation. The higher the student test scores, the lower the grade.
Rhee’s group gave letter grades to each state, along with a GPA that allowed them to be ranked from 1 to 51. (DC counts as a state here.) No state got a grade higher than a B-, and only two states made that grade. Eleven states got an F. Tough! But do these grades mean anything?
To evaluate the StudentsFirst grades, I got 8th grade reading and math scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, aka NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card. Testing can be a debased pursuit when it’s used to measure individual schools and teachers (sample sizes are just too small, and there’s too much statistical noise from year to year to base anything on), but the NAEP is as good as they come for measuring broad trends.
Here are the results. StudentsFirst has Louisiana at #1 in its rankings—but the state ranks 49th in reading and 47th in math. North Dakota, which StudentsFirst ranks 51st, comes in at #14 in reading scores and #7 in math. Massachusetts, which ranks #1 in both reading and math scores (and which is also the most unionized state for teachers in the country), comes in at #14 on the Rhee scale.
Looking more rigorously at the results, the correlation coefficient on the rankings in the StudentsFirst report card with state rankings on reading scores is -0.20. (The correlation coefficient is a measure of the similarity of two sets of numbers, ranging from -1.0, completely dissimilar, to +1.0, perfect similarity.) That’s not a large number, but the negative sign means that the correlation is in the wrong direction: the higher the StudentsFirst score, the lower the NAEP reading score. The correlation on math is even worse, -0.25.
If you group the states by their StudentsFirst grades and look at the average test scores and rankings, you can understand why Rhee & Co. didn’t bother to get into outcomes. The two states that got B-’s did almost 8 points worse on math than those that got F’s, and over 9 points worse on reading. The B- states were toward the bottom of the rankings, and the F were above the middle. (And yes, 22-45 is -23, not -22, as the table suggests; the difference is a result of rounding.)
StudentsFirst grades and NAEP 2011 test results, 8th grade
Rhee NAEP scores NAEP ranks
grades reading math reading math
B- 258.4 275.3 42 45
C+ 257.3 276.1 37 34
C- 263.8 282.0 29 31
D+ 268.3 286.8 18 21
D 263.5 283.3 30 26
D- 266.2 285.0 23 24
F 266.2 284.8 22 22
F less B- 7.8 9.5 -20 -22