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In giving Minnesota a D, Students First hurt its own credibility

Students First
Fully 90 percent of the country earned low grades in the recent Students First report card, arguably because the curve the group is grading on is made of pretty extreme policy prescriptions.

There are few emails I dread so much as those announcing the release of a new education report card. If I had a nickel for every one that lands in my inbox I’d be riding out the vortex in Maui.

It invariably takes either a psychometrician’s understanding of assessments or Machiavelli’s political chops to struggle through them. The majority measure only what the author wants to grade, and dress it up with crayons and apples and other school-themed kitsch just in case the conceit — report card, education, get it? — isn’t obvious enough.

I got a doozy the other day. Students First, one of the nation’s largest and most controversial education reform groups, gave Minnesota a D for its education policies — and an “overall GPA” of 1.19. I read it and mentally gave it a D for truthiness, but at the time decided writing about why — and the irritation it sparked in advocacy circles hereabouts — was serious inside baseball.

And it didn’t seem very meaningful. Fully 90 percent of the country earned low grades, arguably because the curve the group is grading on is made of pretty extreme policy prescriptions.

To deliver address at ed summit

Michelle Rhee portrait
dol.govMichelle Rhee

But now it turns out that Students First founder Michelle Rhee, as close to a household name as any national education reform advocate’s, is scheduled to deliver the opening address at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 education summit on Feb. 6.

She’ll be followed by a lineup of worthy speakers — local and national policy types whose ideas are backed by research. And who probably merit a previewing blog post all their own, where they don’t have to compete with Rhee.

Because she’s going to garner the headlines. She’s funny and trenchant — and a lightning rod for criticism. And yet if the report card is any indication it’s also going to be painful indeed because she’s going to talk about the state of our state — as she sees it.

How painful? Minnesota’s teacher evaluation law allows school districts and teachers unions to jointly establish performance-review systems provided they meet a particular standard. Put another way, a labor-management collaboration is free to do better than the state default, as is the case in Minneapolis.

The report card, however, seems to leave open the possibility that unions can negotiate down: “Minnesota allows a school board and an exclusive representative of the teachers in the district to develop a teacher evaluation and peer review process for probationary and continuing contract teachers through joint agreement. In order to help increase the quality of teaching in Minnesota, the state should require that evaluations are not subject to collective bargaining.”

Ignores accountability laws

It also gives short shrift to major changes made in recent years to the state’s charter school oversight system, wrongly asserting that charter authorizers are not held accountable for school performance. Advocates of better charter-sector quality nationwide envy Minnesota’s new accountability laws.

The report also dings the state for failing to provide vouchers, for failing to provide a mechanism for parents to demand the takeover of a failing school and for not allowing for mayoral or state control of failing schools — all policies under discussion in Minnesota only in echo chambers.

Bizarrely, Minnesota gets a B for establishing “high quality alternative certification routes to the classroom” — never mind the three years advocates have spent attempting to get the Board of Teaching to implement the laws in question.

Finally, the state gets an F for failing to issue A-F letter-grade report cards “that empower parents with accessible, meaningful information about their kids’ schools.”

This is a particularly painful irony given that in recent years the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) eschewed this crude measurement system (remember, we used to rate schools with stars) in favor of a Multiple Measurement Rating system that identifies schools that produce outsized gains in learning.

For the most part, MDE declined to participate in the preparation of either Students First evaluation. “Thank you for the opportunity to provide input into the Students First 2014 policy report card,” agency Chief of Staff Charlene Briner wrote in response to this year’s request for data. 

“As was the case for the 2013 report card, we do not believe the policies your report card emphasizes are accurate indicators of states’ progress in advancing student achievement for all children,” she added. “We also do not believe your report card provides a complete or valid picture of the significant reforms Minnesota has successfully implemented, nor the results of those reform efforts.

“We have provided limited input on Minnesota’s teacher and principal evaluation efforts. Beyond that, we respectfully decline to provide further input.”

Literal volumes have been written about Rhee. You can peruse them on your own time. For the purposes of understanding why her giving Minnesota a D is so vexatious what you need to know is this: She was the chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s school system, which she was charged with overhauling.

Much discussion for and against

Did she succeed? Critics and boosters have spent more years than she was in office constructing cases for and against. Rhee cleaned house at the central office and offered the district’s teachers six-figure salaries in exchange for the ability to remove underperformers. (They turned her down.) She also continues to star in Erasuregate, a test-cheating scandal that threatens to generate more ink than the single-gun theory.

When Mayor Adrian Fenty, who appointed her, lost office Rhee announced plans to start a grassroots campaign for education reform that would raise $1 billion and have 1 million supporters. She followed Students First’s high-profile launch with a refusal to name the group’s funders that cost it and cost her credibility.

It remains to be seen whether the report card will use up the remainder of Rhee’s political capital. 

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/30/2014 - 09:33 am.


    Thank you for highlighting this report.

    The two states with the highest grades–Louisiana and Florida–are not known for high-performing public schools. In Louisiana, state money is being used to fun charter schools that make, shall we say, dubious curriculum choices.

    The other interesting point is that the report disdains any kind of cooperative effort between teachers’ unions and schools to set standards. The agenda of this group is clear: it’s not about the kids, it’s about defeating the unions and lining the pockets of the investors who see an opportunity in so-called reform movements.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/30/2014 - 10:19 am.

    Beware the sea monsters!

    Maps can be frightening sometimes, especially when the viewer isn’t at all sure about what’s being represented on it.

    Indeed, Ms. Rhee is controversial, but offhand, I don’t think she’s worthy of the attention she’s been given. As the ongoing controversy suggests, her “reform” of D.C. schools was – to be extremely generous – a mixed bag of results. Financial support from a variety of big-name and deep-pocketed donors for Students First does not itself indicate that she’s discovered the magical educational elixir that will eliminate achievement gaps and have everyone in the country emulating Garrison Keillor’s Minnesota by being “above average.”

    I’m also inclined to be more than a little suspicious of an advocacy group that sees Florida and Louisiana as the educational leaders of the nation, while lumping Minnesota together with Mississippi and Texas, and in the meantime awarding a higher grade to a state that puts creationism on the same level as actual science – Tennessee.

    If nothing else, the map illustrates both the problem of grading on a curve when the basis of the grade is fairly extreme policy positions, and also the drawbacks inherent in using – and recommending – such a crude instrument as a letter grade in evaluating educational programs in an entire state. While Ms. Rhee is pretty good at turning a thought-provoking phrase, I’ve seen no clear evidence that the ideological path she’s following is one the rest of us should hike on.

  3. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 01/30/2014 - 10:32 am.


    That the two best performing states according to this report card are Louisiana and Florida and the worst include our own Minnesota as well as Iowa and Wisconsin is enough to dismiss Students First. It is not outcomes they are concerned with – measurable metrics of success – but what ideological prescriptions were applied. Students First as a name is a mockery. It should be Students Be Damned – We Have an Ideology!

  4. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 01/30/2014 - 03:23 pm.

    It’s not hard to see what’s wrong with Michelle Rhee – she’s just a garden variety grifter who’s found her marks.

    What’s wrong with the Chamber of Commerce?

  5. Submitted by Mark Ritchie on 01/31/2014 - 08:50 am.


    It reminds me of the US Census assertion that Mississippi was the top voter turnout state in the nation.

  6. Submitted by Sarah Magnuson on 02/01/2014 - 11:30 am.

    Headline Says it All

    What is up with the Chamber of Commerce?! This report certainly damages Rhees credibility (which was negligible up to this point); it also damages the credibility of the Chamber of Commerce. I understand wanting new and even controversial ideas being promoted…to think another thought. But Rhees conclusion to this article is so myopic that I would think even the Chamber would realize the absolute credulity of having this “expert” speak at their gathering.

  7. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 02/01/2014 - 05:38 pm.

    Agree with Beth’s assessment. I wrote a newspaper column in 2013 saying much the same thing.

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