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States — including New York — have been forced to drastically reduce the budgets of public schools, because of the stuggling U.S. economy. As a result, the nation’s schools are now facing more dire circumstances than ever — overcrowding, poorly maintained facilities, underpaid teachers, and a bureaucratic system that often prevents students from receiving the quality education they deserve. One organization is working to reform the nation’s schools by putting students’ interests first.

StudentsFirst was created by Michelle Rhee, an educator and former chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools from 2007 to 2010, who saw the need for a shift in school systems. She launched the organization on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in December 2010 and within a year, announced that it had more than one million members.

The Sacramento, Calif.-based organization has organized its “top priorities for change” into three categories: to improve the teaching profession, to empower parents by giving them more knowledge about their children’s education, and to call on politicians nationwide to pass legislation for improving each state’s public school system.

Last in, first out

StudentsFi­rst’s main goal is to eliminate teacher tenure, which it claims will “elevate the teaching profession.” Instead, it wants teachers to be paid according to their abilities to teach, not based on their seniority. The organization says it finds it unfair that when state budget reductions force school districts to fire educators, the last teachers hired are the first fired.

This policy, called “last in, first out,” is also, according to StudentsFirst, financially impractical, because schools are firing the least-experienced teachers who have the lowest salaries. StudentsFirst thinks this can push competent teachers out of jobs while retaining more experienced teachers who may not be as “effective” in classrooms.

Rhee says she believes that teachers can improve their skills as educators if they are given evaluations with constructive feedback. She thinks teachers’ evaluations should be based on criteria such as students’ test scores, observations by trained professionals, and feedback from students, parents, and principals. If teachers receive good evaluations, says Rhee, then they can be deemed “effective” educators.

StudentsFirst supports the use of technology so that qualified teachers can bring personalized instruction to students in low-performing schools. When students learn through online instruction, it says, they are able to learn a greater variety of subjects.

Bill Gates, former CEO and current chairman of Microsoft Computers, is backing Rhee in her push for state legislation to “facilitate digital learning” and allow students to take classes via the computer, instead of being obligated to learn in classrooms, for course credit.

Parental decisions

The organization says it wants to give parents more information about the schools their children are attending, so that they can make more informed decisions about their children’s education.

First, all public school students should receive equal funding, no matter what school they attend, “as long as the schools prove results over time,” says StudentsFirst. All families should receive customized reports about their children’s academic growth in comparison to students in other schools, districts, and states.

Furthermore, parents should receive report cards that give a school a letter grade based primarily on its academic achievement. These report cards will make schools more transparent for parents, and will give the schools an incentive to raise students’ performances, according to the organization.

It also believes in the concept of parents having a “choice” in their children’s education. One such choice that StudentsFirst argues for is for parents to create their own publicly funded schools, known as charter schools. Each school has a charter that states its own set of rules and standards, but the school is still held accountable for its students’ performances, especially on standardized testing. Currently, many state laws limit the number of public charter schools that can be created — a policy that StudentsFirst says needs to be eliminated.

In addition to charter schools, StudentsFirst is in favor of publicly funded scholarship programs for low-income families to send their children to high-quality private schools.

In California, community organizers have introduced a “policy innovation” that would allow parents to sign a petition, so they can gain “legal authority” to try and improve a failing school. This can include hiring a new principal, or “putting the school under the management of a high-performing charter school operator.”

Another alternative is for parents to sign a consent form before their children are placed in a classroom with a teacher identified as “ineffective.” They would also have the choice to have their children reassigned to another classroom with a teacher who has a better performance record.

Budgets

StudentsFi­rst’s third “policy priority for change” is to “ensure that taxpayer resources are spent wisely and are focused on improving outcomes for children and families.” For instance, it supports a structure in which the city mayor takes control of the public schools and “holds them accountable to the students’ results.”

It also wants school budgets to be shared with the public so that states and districts do not use taxpayers’ dollars on ineffective teaching practices. According to StudentsFirst, state programs to reduce class sizes and increase teachers’ salaries for advanced degrees “might have marginal benefits, but the evidence of their effect on student achievement is weak.”

Consequently, StudentsFirst opposes the billions of dollars states spend on legislation to limit classroom sizes. It argues that there is evidence indicating that as soon as children reach third grade, the size of the students’ classrooms show no effect on their performances. Furthermore, the organization insists that “school districts nationwide spend $9 billion on supplementary pay” for teachers with advanced degrees, which the organization says has “no correlation to student achievement.”

Supporters

With a very specific policy agenda behind it, StudentsFirst was responsible for changing legislature in seven states in 2011. Some of the laws it amended included abolishing the “last in, first out” practice, reforming teacher tenure and evaluations, allowing teachers to receive merit pay, expanding successful charter schools, offering parents more information about their local schools, and providing school scholarships to low-income students.

Besides Gates, Rhee has many other high-profile supporters, including Mayor Bloomberg, who has praised StudentsFirst. Keeping in step with its policies for change, Bloomberg took mayoral control of city schools as soon as he was elected. In 2007, he created “progress reports,” in which schools receive letter grades based on various standards, primarily student test scores.

Like Rhee’s push for tenure reform, Bloomberg restructured tenure for city teachers in 2008 by granting tenure to teachers based on performance — not seniority. In his State of the City address in January of 2012, he said he hoped to work with the United Federation of Teachers this year to improve teacher evaluations and merit pay.

Opponents

Although Rhee has many public supporters, she has also been a controversial figure in the field of education. While she was chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools, Rhee angered the Washington Teachers’ Union when she fired 461 teachers for “bad performance.” When former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who appointed Rhee to chancellor, did not win the D.C. Democratic primary in September 2010, she resigned from her position.

More controversy erupted in 2011 when several U.S. school districts, including Washington, were accused of cheating on state assessment tests during Rhee’s tenure. Since she had placed so much emphasis on standardized test scores to evaluate and compensate teachers and principals, many educators blamed her for, what they said, was practically forcing schools to cheat on tests.

One of Rhee’s most prominent critics is Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under former President George H.W. Bush. In 2010, Ravitch published her 13th book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” in which she took a public stance against Rhee.

Once a proponent of charter schools and merit pay, Ravitch says she now sees schools as having a “corporatist agenda,” in which parents can choose their children’s schools, and standardized testing determines whether a teacher is effective or not. With her view of educators with years of classroom experience as valuable assets to public schools, Ravitch has won many followers from teachers’ unions.

Ravitch also criticized Rhee for closing 20 low-performing D.C. schools during her tenure. Following the closings, many parents in the community said they would have preferred that the schools stayed open and received additional funding and resources from the government.

• • •

No matter who their fans or critics are, Rhee and StudentsFirst are crossing political party lines and gaining more attention in the media due to their lobbying. Calling her agenda “bipartisan,” Rhee advises Republican governors like Rick Scott of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey, yet her spokesperson at StudentsFirst, Hari Sevugan, is the former national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee.

Despite her political alliances on a state level, Rhee says she still believes that StudentsFirst needs the support of citizens in local school districts if reform is necessary to occur. As the organization states on its website, its vision is “to transform America’s schools through building a national grassroots movement of parents, teachers, students, and concerned citizens who demand change.”

Visit studentsfirst.org to find information about the policies StudentsFirst supports and the contributions members can make either through donations or joining online groups to participate in advocacy work.

Allison Plitt is a contributing writer for New York Parenting Media and a mother living in Queens with a 6-year-old daughter. If you have ideas to share about topics for articles or resources for families, please contact her at allisonplitt@hotmail.com.

Updated 4:31 pm, July 9, 2018
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