Ohio Gadfly Daily

In a 2011 Education Next article called “The Middle School Mess,” Peter Meyer equated middle school with bungee jumping: a place of academic and social freefall that loses kids the way the Bermuda triangle loses ships. Experts have long cited concerns about drops in students’ achievement, interest in school, and self-confidence when they arrive in middle school. Teachers have discussed why teaching middle school is different—and arguably harder—than teaching other grades. There’s even a book called Middle School Stinks

In an attempt to solve the middle school problem, many cities are transitioning to schools with wider grade spans. Instead of buildings for grades K–5, 6–8, and 9–12 (or any other combination that has a separate middle school), districts are housing students at levels ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade on one campus. To determine if a switch to K–8 grade span buildings is in the best interest of Ohio districts, I took a look at the research, benefits, and drawbacks surrounding the model.

Research

A 2009 study examined data from New York City to determine if student performance is affected by two measures: the grade spans of previously attended schools, and transitions between elementary and middle school buildings. New York City provided the perfect laboratory for such a study, since it houses a large number of elementary and middle schools with a wide variety of grade spans that are managed under the same educational policies. The study found that students attending K–8 schools earned significantly...

  1. Editors in Columbus opined today in favor of the Bright New Leaders for Ohio Schools program, aiming to recruit and train high-quality principals for the schools that need them the most. (Columbus Dispatch, 4/10/15)
     
  2. Union bus drivers in Dayton approved a 10-day strike notice yesterday. It took only 222 words before the mention of a threat to the lives of children was mentioned. Probably a new record. Seriously, though, a driver strike would not only affect Dayton City Schools students but also private school and charter school students in more than two dozen buildings, including Fordham-sponsored Dayton Leadership Academy. DLA principal T.J. Wallace lays out the real threat here: kids without options not being able to get to school. (Dayton Daily News, 4/10/15)
     
  3. Middletown schools underwent a performance audit recently, required due to low fund balances and concerns about the district’s financial health in the future. The State Auditor recommended some serious reductions in force, potentially saving the district more than $3 million per year. Cue the predictable cries of “old data” and “we’ve already made changes not accounted for here”. Good luck, Middletown. (Middletown Journal-News, 4/10/15)

In a previous post, I explained competency-based or “mastery” grading: a restructuring of the common grade system that compresses everything from course tests, homework, and class participation into a system that assesses students based entirely on whether or not they’ve mastered specific skills and concepts. (For a look at how mastery grading works in practice, check out how schools like Columbus’s Metro Early College School and Cleveland’s MC²STEM high school, and even suburban districts like Pickerington, make it work). In this piece, I’ll discuss some additional benefits and drawbacks of mastery grading.

Mastery grading is innovative in that students only move on to more complex concepts and skills once they mastered simpler ones. As a result, the failure to master on the first attempt isn’t “failure.” It’s a chance for students to receive additional instruction and support targeted at specific weak spots, work hard, master key concepts, and move on with a firm foundation in place.

For teachers, the possibility of meaningful achievement data that is disaggregated by child and skill and directly drives instruction should be drool-worthy. Imagine knowing at the beginning of the year—before ever giving a diagnostic assessment—what your new students have fully, partially, and not-yet mastered.

To be clear, implementing mastery grading effectively will take a shift in mindsets, habits, and practice, and it will increase the administrative burden at first. Teachers will have to be true masters of their content. They will also be called upon to plan even further in...

  1. The Innovative Learning Pilot program was created in the previous Ohio General Assembly session last year. The program involves the use of alternative standardized tests that schools develop on their own to match their educational programming. It is possible that the outcome of the pilot project could influence testing policies for all schools in the future. Yesterday, the list of “already-innovative” districts and independent STEM schools chosen to be part of the pilot program was announced. You can read a straight-up account from Gongwer Ohio (4/6/15). The coverage from the Columbus Dispatch (4/7/15) misses out on the provenance of the pilot project and indicates this is a brand new venture. But it does include a quote from Fordham’s own Chad Aldis, where he laments the “choose your own adventure” nature of this effort. Forget about space; standardized testing appears to be the final frontier these days.
     
  2. A bill was introduced in the Ohio House yesterday that would require all students to learn cursive writing between Kindergarten and fifth grade. NOTE: This would have been a funny clip if our CMS allowed a cursive font. But it doesn't, so it's not. (Dayton Daily News, 4/8/15)
     
  3. Montessori high schools are rare as hens’ teeth in Ohio. Oddly, Cleveland has one of them already – a pretty swanky private version. Ninety percent of Montessori schools in the US are private schools. So it is with some fanfare that the folks behind that high school announced this week that
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Rick Hess opens his book, The Same Thing Over and Over, by asking readers to imagine the following scenario:

How would you respond if asked for a plan to transform America’s schools into a world-class, twenty-first century system?

Then imagine that there is one condition: you must retain the job descriptions, governance arrangements, management practices, compensation strategies, licensure requirements, and calendar of the existing system.

Hopefully, you would flee just as fast as you possibly could.

Red tape stifles innovation, dynamism, and entrepreneurship in public schooling, while creating a culture of risk aversion and defensiveness. These latter two are hardly the features of nimble organizations that can adapt to a changing world; rather, they are the marks of decaying institutions.

Here in Ohio, state leaders are taking note. On several occasions, both Governor John Kasich and Senate President Keith Faber have expressed their desire to “deregulate” public education. That is great news. Yet the task of deregulation is not a simple one. It requires carefully distinguishing the areas where the state has a valid regulatory role from those where it should defer to local, on-the-ground decision making.

The regulatory framework that we at Fordham have advocated is “tight-loose.” In a state policy context, this implies that the state, vis-à-vis districts, should be tight on districts’ results but loose on how they achieve them. In other words, Ohio policymakers should set rigorous academic goals for schools, assess whether they are meeting them, hold them accountable for results—and...

We recently looked at an analysis of New Orleans school leaders’ perceptions of competition and their responses to it. The top response was marketing—simply shouting louder to parents about a school’s existing programs, or adding bells and whistles. If schools are academically strong, this is probably fine. But if academically weak schools can pump up their enrollment (and their funding streams) by simply touting themselves to parents more effectively than competing schools, then the intended effect of competition—improved performance among all players in the market—will be blunted or absent all together.

In New Orleans, it appears that the more intense competition is perceived to be, the more likely schools are to improve academic quality as a means of differentiation. Is a similar thing happening in the Buckeye State? Here’s a look at some anecdotal evidence on quality-centered competition effects.

New school models

Large urban school districts in Ohio have long decried the students “stolen” from them by charter schools, and nothing rankles diehard traditionalists like online schools. So it was a little surprising to find that Akron City Schools’ proposed 2015–16 budget contains a huge technology component, including plans to start an in-house online charter school. This is being done in collaboration with Reynoldsburg City Schools, a district that knows a thing or two about innovation for improvement. Akron is aiming to recruit three hundred elementary students who are currently either home-schooled or attending a charter school, as well as forty in-district high school students...

Back in January, the Education Research Alliance (ERA) for New Orleans released a study looking at patterns of parental choice in the highly competitive education marketplace. That report showed non-academic considerations (bus transportation, sports, afterschool care) were often bigger factors than academic quality when parents choose a school. It also suggested strongly that it was possible for other players in the system (city officials, charter authorizers, the SEA) to assert the primacy of academic quality by a number of means (type and style of information available to parents, a central application system). A new report from ERA-New Orleans follows up on this by examining school-level responses to competition, using interview and survey data from thirty schools of all types across the city. Nearly all of the surveyed school leaders reported having at least one competitor for students, and most schools reported more than one response to that competition. The most commonly reported response, cited by twenty-five out of thirty schools, was marketing existing school offerings more broadly. Less common responses to competition included improving academic instruction and making operational changes like budget cuts so that the need to compete for more students (and money) is less pressing. These latter two adaptations are typically the ones that market-based education reformers expect to occur in the face of competition, yet just one-third of surveyed leaders said they responded in these ways. That low level of response in this hypercompetitive market should be worrying. While advertising is an obvious first response to...

  1. Anyone who’s been following Gadfly Bites for a while knows that we’ve been keeping an eye on Geauga County district merger discussions. Legislation was passed last year that would forgive the debt of tiny Ledgemont Schools if they successfully conclude moves to merge with neighboring Berkshire Schools before June 30 of this year. Oddly, Gongwer is reporting additional merger legislation in the works that would include two other county districts and a new STEM high school that seemed like it was already on track to happen without additional legislation. Not sure what’s up here, but we’ll continue to keep an eye on it. (Gongwer Ohio, 4/3/15)
     
  2. Our own Jessica Poiner told you about the Bright New Leaders for Ohio Schools effort a week or two ago in the Ohio Gadfly Daily. Now the Dispatch is on to the story. $3.5 million in state funding, the effort includes collaborators from the Ohio Business Roundtable, the Ohio State University Fisher College of Business and Ohio Department of Education aimed at developing “a new kind of school principal.” Worth a look. (Columbus Dispatch)
     
  3. There must be vinegar in the water in Youngstown these days. A weekend editorial on HB 2 – the charter law reform effort which passed the House last week – calls this first-of-its-kind bill “too little, too late.” I know they don’t want the “wild west” of charter school operation to continue here in Ohio. What could be the other option? Hmmm…. (Youngstown Vindicator, 4/4/15)
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  1. Metro Early College High School in Columbus announced earlier this week that it will begin a new program next year called Metro Institute of Technology, a partnership with Franklin University (a business college) and Columbus State Community College. MIT (clever, yes?) will be a five-year high school experience at the end of which students will earn a high school diploma and either an Associates Degree or an industry credential. This program was pitched during last year’s Straight-A Grant cycle but was rejected. Additional donors and partners have allowed the school – an independent, STEM-focused school open to all students via lottery – to go forward with it. Full disclosure: I love Metro, am therefore heavily biased, and consequently wish them and their students great success with this venture. (Columbus Dispatch 4/1/15)
     
  2. Speaking of innovation, Marion City Schools has received a grant of nearly $20,000 – from an engineering/architecture firm – to buy iPads and apps for autistic students and their teachers. The app is designed to help students bridge what can often be imagery-based world and the more word-based world of education. It is also intended as an easy way for teachers to check in with their students via technology. Congratulations to Marion schools and best of luck with the new project. I’m hopeful we’ll get updates on how it’s going. (Marion Star, 4/2/15)
     
  3. Due to the financial strain of declining enrollment, St. Aloysius Catholic School in East Liverpool will be closing for good at
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In his proposed budget , Governor John Kasich calls for the creation of a competency-based education pilot program. Competency-based education is premised on the idea that students only move on to more complex concepts and skills after they master simpler ones. While that sounds somewhat negative at first blush, it also means that mastering current content quickly leads to advancing sooner than the standard march from grade to grade. Kasich’s proposal would provide grants to ten districts or schools that were selected through an application process created by the Ohio Department of Education to pilot the program.

The competency-based model goes by different names in different places. In Ohio, there are schools that already utilize it but call it something different: mastery grading. (Be sure to check out how schools like Metro Early College School and MC²STEM high school, as well as districts like Pickerington, make it work.) Mastery grading assesses students based on whether or not they’ve mastered specific skills and concepts. Instead of an overall grade that takes homework completion, daily assignments, class participation, and test grades that cover multiple standards into account to formulate an average, mastery grading breaks down a student’s performance on individual skills and concepts. Teachers or districts can determine a scale that works for their teaching styles and students. For example, a math teacher might use a scale in which 90 percent equals mastery, 70 percent equals developing mastery, and anything less than 70 percent indicates no mastery....

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