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Beware of StudentsFirst report cards' simplistic solutions

01/09/2013 8:10 PM

01/10/2013 6:15 AM

Everybody's got a formula for fixing public schools.

Michelle A. Rhee believes Texas needs more charter schools, mayors taking over districts that don't meet "expectations" and publicly funded scholarships to send kids to private schools.

In her new book, Rhee calls herself a radical. Some of her ideas sound radically misguided.

Give Rhee credit: She went from being a Teach for America neophyte in a tough Baltimore school to starting The New Teacher Project, which aims to put more excellent teachers in classrooms, to shaking up the chronically struggling District of Columbia schools during three years as chancellor.

Now Rhee, whose middle initial might well stand for "audacious," is grading states based on how well they adhere to the goals of her advocacy group, StudentsFirst.

It's hard to argue with the philosophy of putting the interests of students ahead of teachers, politicians or other adults who profit from the American education apparatus.

Lofty idealism wafts from studentsfirst.org: "Even in the toughest of circumstances, all teachers are called to turn the incredible potential that fills their classrooms daily into the achievements worthy of our children and country."

As she says in a Frontline documentary that aired Tuesday on PBS, "When you have these high expectations for the kids, they will meet them." (to.pbs.org/WnLLlB)

That kind of attitude needs to drive efforts to make schools better at their vital task. But I wonder how her policy prescriptions can help produce more students who've received the education they need and deserve.

Look at the D that StudentsFirst gave Texas based on three criteria: elevate teaching, empower parents and spend wisely & govern well. (bit.ly/XhwSBN) Texas schools have many needs, but will this meet them?

StudentsFirst says Texas should strengthen its teacher corps through more-effective evaluations and rely more heavily on students' test scores for assignments and pay.

Yes, good teachers should be rewarded and ineffective teachers removed if they don't improve. But tying teachers' jobs too heavily to high-stakes tests carries a high risk of putting scores first, not students.

A thoughtful report released this week by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation included the finding that teacher effectiveness can be measured and enhanced by using a combination of student achievement gains, classroom observations and student surveys. (bit.ly/WuXqfP) The report, based on a three-year study in seven districts, including Dallas, said state and local officials must decide how to weigh each factor, though the research showed that teacher evaluations were most reliable when test results counted for a third to half of the mix.

StudentsFirst says Texas should empower parents by giving every school an A-F performance grade, sending notifications when a student is put in a classroom with an "ineffective" teacher, allowing an unlimited number of charter schools and paying for kids from failing schools to attend private campuses that are "held to certain accountability standards."

Some of this might play well with voucher supporters, but it raises more questions. How is an A-F grade more informative than the misleading system we've been using wherein most people don't look beyond the labels of "acceptable," "recognized," etc.? Since when do Texans want government holding private schools to accountability standards instead of staying out of their business? Isn't the idea to get rid of ineffective teachers, not assign students to them?

StudentsFirst says Texas has an "exemplary fiscal transparency and accountability program" but needs "more robust models" for state intervention in low-performing schools, including letting mayors control districts.

Clearly this group doesn't understand the power of "local control" as a force in Texas education. Much as school boards can be frustrating models of ineffective leadership, they are made up of elected officials who can be voted out, and the report card offers no rationale for believing that mayors offer a preferable alternative.

In striving for great schools and great teachers for all kids, more voices can refine the discussion.

But beware of claims to have all the answers.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.

817-390-7867

Twitter: @LindaPCampbell

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