Julia Steiny: Michelle Rhee Throws Gas On Ed Reform Hostilities

by Julia Steiny

The ever-controversial Michelle Rhee and her organization Students First have issued a State Policy Report Card, grading states' reform policies. Almost all the states got either a "D" or an "F." Dummies.

Julia Steiny

As the Chancellor of the D.C. schools, Rhee posed for the 2008 cover of Time Magazine looking witchy with a broom, symbolizing her efforts to sweep bad teachers and policies away. Students First grades states according to their implementation of her take-no-prisoners policies, some of which are good, while others are baseless. Yes, hire and maintain staff by merit, not seniority. But tying teacher pay to test scores does not improve achievement.

Curiously, Louisiana and Florida emerge as stars in this report, while Vermont, elsewhere considered a pretty good place to educate a kid, is an embarrassment.

So I examined their system for calculating the grades and lo! Brownie points go to states that annually grade schools with "A" through "F" letters. I laughed out loud. They justify their own right to call states names by applauding those states also engaged in routine "D" and "F" name-calling. By that measure, if only more states would rush the public to ugly conclusions, the fur could really fly.

Hey kid, you go to a "D-" school, you loser. How does that make you feel? Your "D-" so bummed your teachers out, they're trying to bail out of the building to get away from you. It's your fault, so quit whining and do your science work.

Do people seriously think the kids don't notice?

Report cards have become all the rage among states and ed reformers. In a convenience society, "A" through "F" offers quick, mindless judgments on schools' effectiveness. Ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush's group, Foundation for Excellence in Education, released a video arguing that letter grades are the only way to communicate clearly with parents.

Communicate what, exactly? And for what purpose?

A fine line divides passionate advocacy and flat-out fighting to win. In the realm of education, the question has to be: is it good for kids? Quickie judgments are not. It's like calling a kid fat or stupid while ignoring that she's also sweet, creative and great on the flute. We punish children for calling each other names, but blare their school's shame from the news. It's bizarre.

Yes, some schools should be rebooted, but grades won't assist good decisions about such a painful matter.

So, I would ask Mr. Bush, whose video is silent on the matter, what is a good school, one deserving an "A?"

People often ask me which are the best schools.

I ask: What are your priorities?

They almost invariably respond: What do you mean?

Start with high achievement. Sort your state's schools, high to low, by their students' median family income. Now sort them again by test results. The two lists will come close to matching. Yes, some of the better charters, magnets and vocational schools break the pattern. But even then, dig into their specifics — longer days, impressive outside partners, cool academic strategies — to see how they're breaking the pattern.

Because, according to test scores, which is how most grades get calculated, "A" schools have affluent kids. Hmmm.

What if your priorities include diversity, which affluent schools rarely offer? What if you want a warm, fun and helpful atmosphere, which is why parents flock to charter schools, despite their sometimes lackluster academic performance. How about a school that's super innovative and steeped in technology? A focus on social-and-emotional learning? Uniforms? Zero-tolerance discipline codes? Restorative, social-justice-minded discipline? Hands-on learning? Traditional instruction? Themes to engage your disengaged kid, like ecology, STEM or the arts?

Now that you've identified your "A" school, or as close as you could get, what sort of grade would Rhee or Bush give to it? What would the grade mean?

To my mind, the grades are only about fighting.

A certain brand of reformers want that big fat "F" to prod parents into battle. Grades are incendiary. Bombs. Designed to win a war. Fighting for control has led to inventing new weaponry, such as "parent trigger" laws, whereby parents can band together and insist the district turn their school over to a charter management organization. (A "win" for the parents and reformers, perhaps, but the jury's out on whether it'll help the kids.) And often the fighting backfires, bringing throngs of families to plead for the life of their struggling school, which may serve them well as a community center, if not as a great place to learn.

I've been observing the escalation of this fight for over 20 years. I assure you that very little good has come of it. Fighting among the adults has taken root as a horrible habit, injurious to the health of the kids.

High-school kids' NAEP scores have barely budged since the 1990s. Thousands of jobs still go begging for lack of a skilled workforce. But fight on we will. Grades feed the battles.

Reductio ad absurdum ad nauseam.

I'm not making excuses for wretched schools. But nuance is necessary. I hate wretched policies that hurt kids, however inadvertently. Teach the public what good education can and should look like. But quit bludgeoning and name calling. We don't tolerate such behavior among the kids. But we model it.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected]l.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny
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