Schools of Thought

Our View: States' education laws aren't making the grade

By Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Michelle Rhee is the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, a nonprofit organization that identifies as a “grassroots movement” to produce “meaningful results" for education on local and national levels. She previously served as chancellor of schools in Washington D.C.

Joel Klein is CEO of Amplify, the education division of News Corporation, and a StudentsFirst board member. He is the former chancellor of New York City schools.

(CNN) - It’s hard to watch Robert Griffin III play football and not think about education policy.

RG3, as fans call him, is a rookie who has been playing in the National Football League for all of 18 weeks, but led the Washington Redskins to twice as many victories as they had last year, their first winning season since 2007 and their first divisional championship in 13 years. Now imagine if the Redskins had a little less money to pay salaries next year and cut Griffin from the team, keeping instead a handful of bench-warmers. It sounds ridiculous, but that practice is exactly what happens in most school districts where policies require teachers to be laid off based on seniority, not talent.

Here’s another nonsensical example: There’s overwhelming evidence that quality public charter schools provide a viable education option, particularly for students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. In fact, test scores released in July 2012 showed New York City public charter schools outperforming traditional schools throughout the entire state, despite poverty rates 150% of that of the rest of the state and far greater numbers of minorities. Incredibly, eight states still do not allow public charter schools to exist. That means children assigned to low-performing schools in places such as Birmingham, Alabama, Louisville, Kentucky, and Omaha, Nebraska, are trapped without a choice or a way out.

These aren’t teacher problems, or student problems. These are policy problems. In far too many states, the laws and policies in place that govern education put up significant barriers to higher student achievement.

In fact, according to a first-of-its-kind report card that we published this week, nearly 90% of states earned less than a “C” grade on the subject of education policy. Ours is a new type of education report card that doesn’t look at teacher performance or students’ test scores, but instead focuses solely on the laws in place determining how our schools are allowed to operate. StudentsFirst will publish it annually, and this year no state earned higher than a B-minus.

That ought to shock parents, educators, and lawmakers alike. It indicates that no matter how hard our children study, and no matter how much passion teachers pour into their classrooms, the rules and regulations governing education are holding schools back.

There is no shortage of effective educators and innovators in our country. However, they are currently forced to operate in a bureaucratic, out-of-date environment. That’s why StudentsFirst’s singular mission moving forward is to shape policy and help pass laws at the state level.

It is clear there are three key policy areas - call them pillars - upon which a solid education system must be built. First, the teaching profession must be elevated. That means using meaningful evaluations of teachers and administrators in making personnel decisions, ensuring teachers are paid as professionals, and providing alternative means of getting qualified instructors certified and into classrooms. Second, parents must be empowered with meaningful information and choice. And third, transparency is necessary to ensure that education funding is being spent wisely and school districts are governed properly.

We hope the report cards provide a wake-up call. They can serve as roadmaps for policymakers to use in creating the kind of environments that prioritize students’ interests and give educators the tools to improve student achievement.

The report cards also provide reason for optimism. Florida, for example, is setting an example - beginning with a strong foundation for reform built by Governor Jeb Bush and continuing today, under Governor Rick Scott - by bringing more rigor and accountability into its school system. The changes are paying off; Florida students recently outperformed a majority of the country and the world in an internationally benchmarked test. Tennessee has also seen student achievement rise following the enactment of student-focused reforms there.

Some states have also shown that reform doesn’t require an incremental, years-long process. In a single year, Louisiana lawmakers adopted what may be the strongest law in the country on teacher and principal performance evaluations, and they expanded parents' access to quality school choice. Those are changes we expect will lead to dramatic student improvement.

These examples beg the question: Why do we continue to tolerate a public education system that fails our kids when we know significantly better outcomes are possible?

Our schools are supposed to be America’s great equalizers, ensuring every kid a shot at success. We know, given the right tools, that every student can achieve at high levels. Maybe sending our state education systems home with an “F” or a “D” is the strong jolt lawmakers need to remember that student-centered education policies are the foundations on which strong schools are built.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein.