Ohio Gadfly Daily

“This is about leadership.” Such was the closing comment of state superintendent Dick Ross at this morning’s Columbus event “Always Reformed, Always Reforming.” It was a remark spurred by the findings from Fordham’s recent publication Half Empty or Half Full? Superintendents’ Views on Ohio’s Education Reforms. At this event, school and policy-making leaders gathered to discuss the findings of Fordham's newest publication, a survey of Ohio's superintendents who are tasked with implementing a host of eduational reforms.

Steve Farkas of the FDR Group led off the event with a presentation of the findings the survey of 344 of the state's 614 superintendents. The survey found varied opinion from school leaders for the Buckeye State’s recent reforms. Among the seven reforms we inquired about, superintendents strongly support the Common Core and individualized learning. District superintendents, however, are far less enamored with the Third Grade Reading Guarantee and school choice options (vouchers and charter schools).

A panel discussion followed with Fordham’s Terry Ryan moderating and Senator Peggy Lehner, Kirk Hamilton, and Steve Dackin participating on the panel. Senator Lehner is the chair of the Senate Education Committee, Kirk Hamilton is the executive director of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators (BASA), and Dackin is the superintendent of Reynoldsburg City Schools near Columbus.

Panelists (from left to right): State superintendent Dick Ross, Steve Farkas of the FDR Group, Kirk Hamilton of the Buckeye Association of School...

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For the better part of three decades, states have been implementing all manner of school reforms, ranging from academic standards to district report cards, from statewide graduation tests to new technologies, from teacher evaluations to alternative certification, from charter schools to vouchers. Ohio is fairly typical in this regard. It’s been struggling with all of these and many more, mostly sent forth from the state capitol.

How do district leaders feel about education reform?
Real gains to student performance depend mainly on hard work by district leaders, principals, and teachers.
Photo by michibanban

As the reform load has grown weightier, however, we at Fordham have come to understand more clearly that while lawmakers can help set the conditions for improvement (or get in the way of needed changes!), any real and sustainable gains to school and student performance depend mainly on hard work by district leaders, school principals, and teachers. Along with students and families, they fuel the engines of improvement, even as state officials may turn the key. 

In the commercial world, Ohio has long been known as the country’s “test market” because if something sells in the Buckeye State, it is apt to sell nationwide. (Ben Wattenberg and the late Richard Scammon once wrote that the most typical American was a forty-seven-year-old suburban...

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The Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) is Dayton’s highest performing high school (district or charter). The school is authorized by the Dayton Public Schools and is widely supported across the Dayton region. It partners not only with the Dayton Public Schools but the University of Dayton, Sinclair Community College, and numerous local businesses and philanthropic groups. In fact, when the school launched an elementary campus at the start of this school year more than 300 volunteers worked to clean the school, paint walls, and fix up the 85-year-old-building that now houses DECA prep. These volunteers included inmates from the county jail who volunteered to help.

DECA delivers and Dayton knows it. The numbers help tell the story:

*390 Enrollment

*78.4 Percent economically disadvantaged

*87.9 Percent non-white

*100 Percent of students Percent in Math and Reading on the 10th grade Ohio Graduation Test.

*100 Percent of its graduates (and graduation rate is over 95 percent) are admitted to college and 87 percent make it to their sophomore year.

DECA is a Bronze Medal winner from U.S. News & World Report in its annual ranking of America's Best High Schools in 2012 and 2009. And has been studied widely by, among others, Fordham, Harvard, Great City Colleges of Education, the Gates Foundation and the Center for Secondary School Redesign.

But despite all this success in a city where far too many kids fail academically, DECA’s success is being trashed by the organized-labor funded Join the Future in Columbus because the school requires students to go through an...

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Few school systems have embraced a crisis of opportunity quite like the school system in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Just five years ago, when the economy collapsed on everyone, the Reynoldsburg district was cutting deep into its staff and establishing buffers such as a $500 pay-to-play activity fee on families. Exasperated parents fled to neighboring districts and voters repeatedly rejected the district’s many levy requests. Pupil enrollment eventually fell by 10 percent from 2008 to 2012, and once crowded schools found themselves with extra space.

But while other suburban school districts succumbed to hand-wringing at such moments of despair, Reynoldsburg responded with innovation. It slashed central office staff and sent more resources to individual schools, empowering principals with key decision-making authority. It developed “themes” at schools with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and it established more charter schools and enhanced school choice throughout the district. Most unusually, it bartered with a community college, a hospital, a preschool, and a dance company to utilize its extra space in ways that benefitted its own students.

But perhaps most important, write Ellen Belcher and Terry Ryan in their informative profile of the district for the Fordham Institute, Limitless, Education, the Reynoldsburg Way, is the approach the 6,300-student district has taken to school leadership and administration—that of portfolio management. Principals have the authority to design unique academic programs, and they get to make the calls and employ the people that are the right fit for their schools. The superintendent acts...

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From left: Greg Harris, Robert Kilo, Judy Hennessey and Terry Ryan

A coalition that included high performing charter schools from Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton testified in front of the Senate Finance Committee’s Education Subcommittee on May 7th. Following introductions from Fordham’s Terry Ryan, Dayton Early College Academy’s Superintendent Judy Hennessey began to speak in front of the Subcommittee only to be interrupted by Committee Chair Senator Randy Gardner, “Senator [Peggy] Lehner has just commented you lead one of the best schools in the country.”

Jokingly Judy Hennessey nodded and said, “Now we are striving for world class.”

The coalition of high performing charter schools included school leaders and policy advocates from KIPP Central Ohio, United Students Network, Breakthrough Schools, Dayton Early College Academy, and Students First Ohio who gathered to urge Senators to enact policies that would help facilitate the growth of high performing charter schools in the state. Among the policies discussed, the coalition asked the subcommittee to consider the reinstatement of funding for the Straight-A Fund (from $150 million to $300 million), increasing the per pupil facilities funding to charter schools (from a proposed $100 to $300 a student), and strengthening accountability for the state’s lowest performing charters. 

Introduced by Governor Kasich at the outset of the budget cycle in February, the Straight-A Fund would support the growth and replication of innovations in the school system. The coalition wholly supported the implementation...

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As the charter movement enters its third decade, it is imperative that policymakers and legislators understand the perspective of those schools that have succeeded in providing their students with a quality education. The charter sector in Ohio is often seen by those outside as a monolith – for better or worse – but Fordham has long known that there are both high-flyers and underachievers. As an organization that focuses on the availability of quality education for Ohio’s children, Fordham feels it is imperative that the lessons of the high-performing charter schools be known above and beyond the “charter sector” as a whole.

As a step in accomplishing this goal, Fordham’s own Terry Ryan has helped form a coalition of high performing charter schools to testify in front of the Senate Finance Committee’s Education Subcommittee. The schools in which these leaders work represent some of the best public schools that Ohio has to offer. While each leader is advocating for their school and telling the story of what success looks like in their cities, they also provide overarching policy recommendations that could help forward the expansion and replication of successful charters including:

  • Supporting the implementation of the Straight-A-Fund
  • Increasing the per pupil facilities funding to charter schools
  • Implementing tougher laws that would lead to the closure of failing charter schools

Below you will find links to the testimonies this coalition have turned in to the Subcommittee.

Andrew Boy, Founder & Executive Director at United Schools Network (USN)

School Profile: ...

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The quality of teacher professional development (PD) can be described as abysmal at worst and dubious at best. Linda Darling-Hammond remarks that “American teachers say that much of the professional development available to them is not useful.” Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week writes that “perhaps no other aspect of the teacher-quality system in the United States suffers from an identity crisis as severe as that of professional development.”

The research bears out the wary comments above. Two recent PD studies, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), found no effect in student achievement when teachers participate in PD. The first, a middle school math study, administered two years of PD to 92 teachers, and found no effect on teachers’ knowledge or student achievement. The second, an elementary reading study, administered PD to 270 teachers for one year. The study found no effect on student achievement, either at the end of the year-long PD program or the year after.

So, PD is ineffective. What, then, of the cost?

The cost of PD has ballooned in the past two decades, such that today, Ohio spends upwards of $400 million per year on PD. The chart below shows the average per-pupil PD expenditure for Ohio’s traditional public schools—the black dashed line—and the average expenditures for three groups of schools. (There’s considerable variation in districts’ PD expenditures—major urban districts spend the most; rural districts the least).[1] To get a taste of the variation, I display three groups:...

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The last couple of weeks have witnessed unremitting and well-coordinated attacks on the Common Core academic standards. States from New Jersey to Michigan to Ohio to Alabama have all been targeted by “a grassroots rebellion” against the Common Core. This rebellion has the backing and encouragement of national pundits such as Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin and Phyllis Schlafly. It also seems to have considerable cash behind it (though nobody will say from where). The Fordham Institute team has been drawn into the national fray, and in recent weeks we’ve been drawn into the battle in our home state of Ohio. Just yesterday, we had a long conversation/debate with a group that included individuals from Citizens for Objective Public Education (a Phyllis Schlafly inspired group), Tea Party groups, Religious Right groups and hard core local-control groups that believe standards, curriculum and assessments should be set by only your own town’s board of education..

These critics contend, inter alia, that the Common Core:

  • is a national curriculum (critics of the Common Core confuse standards with curriculum);
  • is a takeover of education by the federal government and the beginning of the end of state/local control;
  • requires the mandatory collection of intrusive personal data about kids (including possible retina scans);
  • de-emphasizes handwriting skills;
  • favors “repair manuals” over classic literature; and
  • isn’t nearly as rigorous as current state standards.

Every single one of which assertions is flat wrong. To read more about these debates see here, here and here.

The most peculiar...

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Redefining the School District in TennesseeIs it time for Ohio and other states to take bolder steps toward turning around our most troubled schools and districts? There are a growing number of states that say yes, and they are leading the way in launching “recovery school districts.” The oldest and best known of these efforts is the Louisiana Recovery School District, but other states are embracing the idea: Tennessee, Michigan, and (most recently) Virginia.

Recovery school districts, simply put, are state-created entities that take responsibility for running—and turning around—individual schools that have languished academically for years while under district control. Fordham, as part of its series on school-governance alternatives and reforms, is issuing a three-part series focused on recovery school districts. The first report is on the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), which was seeded as part of Tennessee’s winning Race to the Top (RttT) application in January 2010.

Nelson Smith, former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and long-time school-reform leader, was the perfect person to report on the history, challenges, and early successes of the Tennessee ASD. According to Smith, Tennessee’s RttT application committed the state to turning around the “bottom 5 percent” of schools, and Tennessee allocated $22 million of its $500 million RttT award to launching the Achievement School District. Support for this effort was bipartisan, and strong leadership has...

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My colleague, Adam Emerson, recently penned a piece on rethinking charter school governance; specifically, how charter school governing entities (i.e., school boards) are structured and the pros and cons associated with different arrangements. It is a good piece, but I would argue that structure means nothing without capacity.

We have an internal saying within our charter school authorizing operation: “As the board goes, so goes the school.”

More often than not this proves to be the case, which is why board capacity – and by that I mean the collective strength of the school’s board to govern a fiscally, organizationally and academically healthy school that is achieving its goals for students - is critical.

Have a high performing charter school? Chances are it’s got a savvy board whose membership consists of mission-aligned individuals with diverse professional expertise and experience that is leveraged to advance a strategic and defined vision, and achieve a specific set of goals.

As the board goes, so goes the school

School not doing so well? Probably the issues start and end with the board, and will fester as long as the board lets them.

Adam touches on this issue by pointing out that education management companies and other service providers sometimes control charter school boards (as opposed to the board controlling the vendor). He’s absolutely right; this happens and it shouldn’t. However, to place the blame squarely on the vendors who contractually formalize (sometimes egregious) arrangements advantageous to the vendor with charter school governing boards...

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