California has earned an F on a report card issued by the maverick education-reform group StudentsFirst. And as a sign of how fractious school politics has become, the state's No. 2 education official called the failing grade "a badge of honor."
Founded by former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, StudentsFirst pushes for education policy reform at local, state and national levels. To further its agenda, the group published a report card Monday rating the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
In three areas rated, California earned a grade-point average of 0.69 and ranked 41st in the nation. Not that most states fared a lot better: the national GPA was a mere 1.22, on a scale up to 4.0, or a D. The highest-scoring states, Florida and Louisiana, earned only a B-minus.
On the individual metrics, California earned two Fs, in empowering parents and in improving the teaching profession, but did rise to a D in the area of spending and governance -- for the ability the state has to intervene in low-performing schools. But the report noted, the state has not strategically used that authority.
The critical report set off reactions including anger, derision and dismissal.
Richard Zeiger, California's chief deputy state superintendent of public instruction, called StudentsFirst "an organization that frankly makes its living by asserting that schools are failing." In a prepared statement, he said, "This group has focused on an extremely narrow, unproven method that they think will improve teaching. We just flat-out disagree with them."
In response to Zeiger, Rhee shot back, "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." She called that system "a social injustice."
The report focuses not on the traditional criteria for judging schools, such as student achievement, per-pupil spending or staffing, and instead looks at policies that StudentsFirst believes foster better teaching and learning.
Thus it awards points for laws that encourage high-quality charters, allow intervention in failing schools, and link student growth to teachers' evaluation, placement, layoffs and pay. The group believes states should link spending to academic achievement, and create compensation plans that don't penalize teachers for moving from district to district.
Dana Bunnett, director of the San Jose-based children's advocacy group Kids in Common, said that the evaluation is useful. "Elevating teachers, empowering parents, spending wisely and governing well -- these are areas we do need to look at in this state," she said. She believes it's important to evaluate teachers, and support and coach them to improve. "Teachers should be elevated because it's the most important job in the world."
The survey dings states, including California, for preserving seniority rules for teachers and limiting charter-school growth.
But it's not clear that all the changes that StudentsFirst advocates improve education. For instance, the group wants to award city mayors the power to take over failing schools, although there's questionable evidence that such takeovers help students learn better.
Teachers unions attacked the report, saying it's timed to coincide with the start of legislative sessions, and that it doesn't measure achievement, class size, graduation rates or other academic indicators.
Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, said, "this so-called 'report card' is simply political gamesmanship on the backs of our students once again."
Critics also pointed out that states like Massachusetts, which perform at the top of national education tests, are rated poorly. The survey proves, they said, that Rhee stands for privatizing education and destroying unions. As chancellor of schools in the nation's capital, Rhee developed a rigorous evaluation system for teachers and fired those who did not improve student achievement. With StudentsFirst, she has continued to be a lightning rod for controversy. Last year, Rhee drew protesters when she spoke at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland about her agenda for school reform.
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.