Rhee Versus Reality: How Not to Grade Restaurants and Schools

Imagine for a minute that there’s an organization called “Nutrition First,” and their mission statement describes them as a watchdog for whether restaurants are serving healthy food and handling it safely. Imagine that “Nutrition First” releases a set of restaurant reviews, in which they give different restaurants letter grades based on how healthy it is to eat there.

Now imagine that Nutrition First is actually run by people who are fanatics about pizza, and they get most of their funding from Domino’s and Pizza Hut. When you look at the letter grades they give restaurants, you realize that they’re actually grading every restaurant not on how healthy it is to eat there, but by how much pizza they sell. Chinese restaurants, Indian restaurants, salad bars, steakhouses: every letter grade turns out to depend on criteria like “total pizza sales,” “amount of cheese on pizza,” “pizza topping variety.”

You’d think, correctly, that “Nutrition First” is kind of a silly name for such an organization, and that the letter grades aren’t actually very useful, since they’re based on the preferences of the people who run and fund the group, not the needs of people who eat at restaurants.

So why in the world are we supposed to pay attention to Michelle Rhee and her organization “StudentsFirst” when they try to grade public school systems?

When you look at the actual criteria Rhee is using to measure education policy, it’s pretty clear that it’s not really related to kids’ experience in school. It’s based on the political preferences of Rhee and her allies. Another thing to note is that these ratings don’t correlate at all with ways to measure outcomes for students—including graduation rates and 8th-grade math and reading test scores.

It’s a tricky thing to measure school performance (indeed, Rhee herself has come under fire for questionable scores on tests meant to evaluate student performance), and there are a lot of complicating economic and social factors to take into account. But it seems to be basic common sense that you’d expect educational outcomes for students to be a big part of the way you evaluate school systems. If the name of your organization is “StudentsFirst,” you’d expect these grades to be based on how the schools are working for students rather than whether ideologues have scored political victories.

Michelle Rhee is allowed to have her political opinions and judge whether states are acting in accordance with her preferences. This isn’t the same, however, as caring about good schools, and it’s a little dishonest to take a political agenda and slap on the name “StudentsFirst.”

In other words, don’t tell us that a restaurant is unhealthy just because they don’t serve as much pizza as you wish they did.