Wednesday, January 9, 2013

States That Have Implemented Rhee's Reforms Are Negatively Correlated With NAEP Test Scores

Michelle Rhee and her unionbusting/Tea party funding "education reform" organization Students First are at it again. They released a map of states, where they are ranked based on their willingness to support Rhee's favored reforms. They were surprisingly honest in their assessments of each state's education policies, and should be commended for that. The reason that I say "surprisingly honest" because Doug Henwood crunched the numbers, and Michelle Rhee's rankings are actually inversely correlated with actual educational achievement:
StudentsFirst, the school “reform” outfit led by the notorious Michelle Rhee, is out with a state-by-state Report Card on the nation’s schools. Grades were awarded on the basis of states’ conformity to the standard reform agenda—ease of creating charter schools, ease of firing teachers, ease of hiring teachers who aren’t certified in the traditional fashion, and testing testing testing. In the past, there’s never been any evidence that this agenda actually improves educational outcomes—and this report is no exception. Despite Rhee’s love of testing, there’s no mention of how states that do well under her criteria do on standardized tests compared to those that score poorly. That’s no surprise, really, since states that get high grades from StudentsFirst do worse on tests than those that score poorly.
StudentsFirst has Louisiana at #1 in its rankings—but the state ranks 49th in reading and 47th in math. North Dakota, which StudentsFirst ranks 51st, comes in at #14 in reading scores and #7 in math. Massachusetts, which ranks #1 in both reading and math scores (and which is also the most unionized state for teachers in the country), comes in at #14 on the Rhee scale.

Looking more rigorously at the results, the correlation coefficient on the rankings in the StudentsFirst report card with state rankings on reading scores is -0.20. (The correlation coefficient is a measure of the similarity of two sets of numbers, ranging from -1.0, completely dissimilar, to +1.0, perfect similarity.) That’s not a large number, but the negative sign means that the correlation is in the wrong direction: the higher the StudentsFirst score, the lower the NAEP reading score. The correlation on math is even worse, -0.25.
The results aren’t perfectly negative, and there’s not a perfect downward stairstep pattern in the NAEP columns on this table. But the evidence is nonetheless against Rhee. Alas, that’s the typical story of school reformers’ efforts. For a bunch of business-supported technocrats supposedly in love with metrics, there’s absolutely no empirical support for their ambitions. You might suspect that their real aim is to bust teachers unions and save money educating a population that elites have lost interest in.

Rhee herself has a rather checkered history. When she was being vetted to run the DC public schools, she claimed miraculous results in her previous work in Baltimore—but, as the Washington Post put it, “she could not produce data to support [her] statement.” That didn’t stop her from getting the job. And when she left the Washington post, an investigation by USA Today found strong evidence of cheating behind her claims of vastly improved test scores. And now she has a foundation, promoting the same agenda using data that can’t survive fact-checking. But the corporate and financial elite loves her education agenda, and when the elite loves you, there’s no blemish that can’t be overlooked.
I quoted extensively from this cause I think there is a real utility to what was done here. When Rhee supporter Matt Yglasias looked at the data, he thought that looking at their ratings would be a good way to measure the results of these reforms. I actually agree! One of Rhee's main beliefs is that economic factors are an excuse, and not the cause of poor education achievement, and that her reforms alone can turn Louisiana into Massachusetts. Considering I don't think her reforms will do anything to increase educational achievement, I would guess that they won't help and the states that have implemented her reforms will stay bottom of the barrel. I genuinely hope this is something people revisit because Students First has put their cards on the table. I'm not sure they realize how bad this list makes them look (I guess they hope we give them the benefit of the doubt and start looking from improved outcomes starting... now), but even then, I would be pretty much floored if any of those states made huge jumps in achievement over the next few years.

Of course, the easy answer for the negative correlation is these are policies designed to punish teachers and empower administrators rather than ones to actually improve educational outcomes, which is what I tend to believe. But in trying to pretend that students first isn't a union busting front group, Rhee is just going to make herself look foolish when her reforms do nothing to improve their stated goals. Since her union busting goals are popular in elite circles I'm sure this dichotomy will continue to be swept under the rug, but it does seem like she's painting her organization in a corner in the long run by trumpeting goals that she will never achieve. Then again, her entire career is based on one exaggeration or outright lie after another, so why would she think this was a bad idea? She's become a media star and multi-millionaire using this strategy, why would she stop now?

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