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California gets F grade from education advocacy group

Michelle Rhee listens to a community member during a meeting. Credit: Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post

California is sorely lacking when it comes to school reform, according to a rating of states issued by a high-profile education advocacy group.

California received an overall grade of F, ranking 41st nationally, from StudentsFirst, a Sacramento-based group run by Michelle Rhee, whose outspoken views have polarized those who  share her focus on improving the nation’s schools.

Her group’s “report card” concentrates “singularly on the education policies in place in each of our states,” Rhee said in a statement. “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."

As with other rating systems, the results follow from the choice of parameters judged most important. California received its only high mark for being the birthplace of “parent trigger” laws, which allow parents, by petition, to replace the staff of a low-performing school and also to convert the campus to an independently operated charter school.

Among other recommendations, the report said California’s students would benefit from a statewide teacher and principal evaluation system that incorporates “student growth” as a significant factor.

Such “value-added” formulas attempt to measure a teacher’s impact on a student’s learning through standardized test scores that are adjusted for a student’s past performance and personal characteristics. Some experts and teacher unions are skeptical of the method, and those critics have had allies in Gov. Jerry Brown and state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Rhee’s top-rated states are Louisiana and Florida; each earned a B-.

Louisiana has been notable for converting a high percentage of campuses to non-union charter schools. It also allows many students to receive scholarships or vouchers to private schools. Florida requires 50% of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student performance. Officals also notify parents when children are placed with a teacher designated as unsatisfactory, the report states. Both states grade schools on an A through F scale, based on student achievement.

“Her top two states are led by the nation's most right-wing governors and legislatures,” education historian and Rhee critic Diane Ravitch wrote in her widely read blog. “Now we know what she stands for: privatization of American public education.”

The Rhee system gives no direct credit for actual student achievement or the level of spending on schools.  Experts have put California near the bottom on school spending, when it's adjusted for the cost of living. California also ranks poorly on student achievement, but does better when the state's students are compared to similar students in other states.

Rhee rose to prominence as the youthful chancellor of schools in the District of Columbia, where she pressured educators to improve student achievement and fired many of them. She left the job when her political patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost a bid for reelection in part over Rhee’s hard-driving efforts.

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-- Howard Blume

Photo: Michelle Rhee, head of advocacy group StudentsFirst. Credit: Sarah L. Voisin / Washington Post

 
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