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Posted at 12:03 PM ET, 09/14/2010

A state ranking scandal: Not So Smart, ALEC

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of the non-profit Forum for Education and Democracy, a collaboration of educators from around the country.

By George Wood
The recent headline in the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press was sent to me by my good friend Carl Glickman: “Low-income Vt. students rank No. 1: Report faults state on education reform.”

It seems that despite the gains made by the kids in Vermont, ALEC , or the American Legislative Exchange Council, gave the state an “F” for education reform. Incredulous, I decided to check out ALEC’s web site for verification. Guess what? While it gives Vermont a #1 “performance ranking” it also gives Vermont a grade of “D”, dead last, on education reform.

I have often thought that debates about public education go on in an "evidence-free" zone, but this takes the cake!

To understand how this first to last phenomenon occurs, you have to see how the smart guys and gals at ALEC come up with their ratings.

The performance rating, the one that puts Vermont on top, comes from student gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics exams over the period of 2003 to 2009. In particular, they look to see what states help low-income children increase their scores the most.

Like tests or not, congratulations to Vermont and its teachers for their good work.

But when it comes to rating education reform, ideology, not data, raises its ugly head.

Seems that ALEC has an agenda here, with private school choice, charter school availability, online learning, homeschooling, and alternative routes to teaching certification making up 8 out of 13 categories (or over 60%) of the grade. Three more of the categories come from how well ALEC thinks a state does on retaining effective teachers and firing ineffective ones and two others rate the state’s education standards.

Because Vermont does not buy the political agenda of ALEC around school choice, charters, and alternative certification they get a “D”. Tough graders, these guys. (“Teacher, I go the answers right, why did I get a bad grade.” “Because I didn’t like how you did it.”)

After digging through ALEC’s so-called “Report Card on American Education” (and please, click here to read it, just in case you don’t believe me) I am amazed at the paucity of evidence upon which the education reform ratings are based.

There is no evidence that school choice, charters, alternative routes to teaching, etc. necessarily improve student performance. In fact, as Diane Ravitch, formerly a supporter of such agendas, has pointed out there is actually evidence that these strategies hurt the educational attainment of our children.

Of course, maybe ALEC’s report card is the best evidence we could have that such strategies do not work. Take a look at the top five states for student performance and the grades/ranking that ALEC gives them for education reform:

Vermont rates #1 in performance but gets a “D” in reform.
Massachusetts rates #2 for performance and a “C” in reform.
Florida rates #3 in performance and B+ in reform.
New Hampshire rates #4 in performance and “C” in reform.
New York rates #5 in performance but earns a “D+” in reform.

For even better evidence that the reforms ALEC supports should be avoided at all costs, here are the bottom five states:

Louisiana is #47 in performance but earns a “B” in reform.
New Mexico is #48 for performance and gets a “B” in reform as does the #49 state, Michigan.
West Virginia is ranked 50th in performance and earns a “C” for reform.
South Carolina comes in at 51st in performance (the list includes the District of Columbia) but is near the top of the education reform rankings with a “B”. (“B+” was the highest ranking given, and Vermont’s “D” was the lowest, no grading on a curve for these guys).

Being from Ohio, I had to also take a peek at our scores. We ranked 35th in performance, but forgive me for not being surprised that we earned a “B-“ for our school reform efforts. The report’s authors must have been supremely impressed by our charter school laws, the topic of yet another scandal this week.

The authors of ALEC’s report card (who come to us from the Goldwater and Heritage Foundations) are to be thanked. They have provided all the evidence we need to show that the emperor, this time in the guise of the charter/choice/alternative certificate crowd, has no clothes. I just hope someone tells the people of Vermont.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 14, 2010; 12:03 PM ET
Categories:  George Wood, Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  ALEC, American Legislative Exchange Councilranking, NAEP and states, florida and ranking, george wood, louisiana and ranking, massachusetts and ranking, michigan and ranking, new hampshire and ranking, new mexico and ranking, new york and ranking, performance rankings, performance ratings, ranking states, reform rankings, school reform rankings, state ratings, state school rankings, vermont and ranking  
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No evidence supporting school choice? A bizarre and utterly mistaken claim. Please see my Journal of School Choice literature review: Comparing Public Private and Market Schools, 2009, for 156 statistical research findings on the subject.

Posted by: acoulson | September 14, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Thanks George! Apparently how students actually perform on one of the best measures we have matters far less than how willing the grown up are to drink the kool-aid of education reform (money is a powerful incentive...especially among some of us less wealthy folk...) Resist I say! Congrats to VT for wearing their own Ruby Slippers! s

Posted by: charlottehummel | September 14, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

I am glad you pointed this out. I have often thought that some school districts do not need reform. I am also not impressed with what "reform" actually consists of these days.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 14, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

What a surprise, the current "reform" fad hurts student achievement. Of course, anyone who was paying attention knew that, but it's interesting to see the "reformers" admit it, even if they didn't realize it. Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction of Duncan's national education policy: Don't do what works, do what we believe in.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 14, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Bingo!!! it's all about the in vogue policy agenda versus real results. All we have to do is look at the results of Chicago. it's a testament of the policies of Arne Duncan.

Posted by: oknow1 | September 14, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Valerie!

Posted by: jlp19 | September 14, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

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