Fordham working to improve our schools

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has a long history in Dayton – our roots in the city date back to the founding of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in 1959. Today’s Dayton Daily News includes an interview with our Ohio Vice President Terry Ryan about Fordham’s work in the Gem City and the pressing education issues facing Dayton and the state. We are pleased to share this interview below with our Gadfly audience.

Q: Describe the Fordham Institute and your mission.

A: Thomas B. Fordham was a Dayton industrialist who died in 1944. His widow, Thelma Fordham Pruett, established the Ford-ham Foundation in his memory in 1959, and after she died in 1995, the modern foundation was launched by renowned educator Chester E. (“Checker”) Finn Jr. in 1997. Fordham’s mission is to improve primary and secondary education in Ohio and nationally. The institute is the sister organization of the foundation, and today we regard Ford-ham as a statewide education reform and advocacy group with one foot firmly planted in Dayton, which is also a key part of our “grounding in reality” that is crucial to our work statewide and nationally.

Q: What are some of the problems and challenges in education that the Institute is trying to address?

A: We work on a whole range of issues in public education. Just in the last few weeks, we’ve shared reports and organized public forums on issues ranging from the challenges of implementing new academic standards in mathematics and reading – the Common Core – to what digital learning opportunities may mean for students and schools, to doing more with less in American education.

Dayton, to its credit, has made some real gains in the quality of its high schools, but it still faces daunting achievement challenges.

Q: School funding is more of a problem than ever. Thoughts on fixing it? Where can intelligent cuts be made?

A: School funding has been a bane to politicians of all political persuasions since at least the 1990s. It is hard to fix because demographics conspire against us. Ohio’s population is aging and families with children are getting poorer. Competition for tax dollars is intense, and education is entering an era where it really does have to do more with less. As more than 70 percent of school spending goes to paying teachers, the only real way to make education slimmer over the long haul is by helping teachers become more productive. Maybe new learning technologies can help with this the same way technology has improved productivity across other sectors of the economy. But such transitions are not easy, especially for the public sector.

Q: What is your view on charter schools, and where they fit into the equation?

A: I support charter schools and Fordham actually sponsors 11 charters across the state (three in Dayton). Charters can provide an important safety valve for kids stuck in failing schools, and they offer space for innovation. But, as a group, charters in Ohio have done less well than in other states. The fact is, some of the best public schools in cities like Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland are charter schools, but so are some of the most troubled. The Dayton Early College Academy – a school sponsored by Dayton Public Schools – is a fantastic example of how charters can make a difference in the lives of needy kids. I think school districts and charters need to fight less and work together more because the needs of kids are great and resources are scarce.

Q: What advice do you have for a young person who is thinking of going into teaching today?

A: I’d suggest pursuing a rigorous four-year degree in math or science, and then apply to Teach for America to teach in some of America’s neediest schools for two years (including now in Dayton). If they find that they love teaching and are good at it, and they want to make it a career, then I’d say they should go for it. Teachers really do have the power to change lives, but it is a hard job that is not particularly lucrative. In fact, I think it is unrealistic to expect every teacher, or even most, to do the job for 25 or 30 years. The teaching profession needs to adjust itself to working with young professionals who will likely switch careers several times during their working years.

Q: Do communities really have the ability to fix ailing urban school districts? What would it take?

A: Very few cities in the country have been very successful at dramatically turning around their school districts. There are examples of districts that have gotten better – moving from troubled to hopeful – and I’d point to Cincinnati as an example. Dayton, to its credit, has made some real gains in the quality of its high schools, but it still faces daunting achievement challenges. There is no special formula to fixing schools or school districts. But some of the ingredients I’d suggest are strong political leadership at the top (think the mayor of Cleveland or New York City), an empowered superintendent free of school-board meddling who is allowed to lead (not just manage), a relentless district focus on student performance as measured by test scores, creative use of charter school laws and partners, an openness to alternatively trained teachers and school leaders, and a system that pushes resources, decision-making and responsibility down to the individual school and even classroom level.

Q: Is there any place in the nation that’s figured out good solutions to some of the challenges facing Ohio and Day-ton?

A: No one place has figured out a ready-made solution that states or cities can simply apply. But, there are some cities doing really innovative work to improve student achievement. Places like New Orleans, Charlotte-Mecklenberg, Houston, Boston and Denver. I point people to Reynoldsburg City School District, just east of Columbus, where the district is pushing a bold package of reforms while cutting its budget and improving student achievement. As states go, Indiana, Florida, Rhode Island, Delaware and Massachusetts seem to be making real progress. We should also steal ideas from high achieving countries like Finland, Singapore and Hong Kong. Education, like everything else, is increasingly globalized.  

Q: What do you like best about your job and the work you do?

A: The best part of my job is the fantastic people I get to work with and meet every day. I get to talk and learn from a number of amazing educators, researchers, community leaders, business people, philanthropists and politicians (Democrats and Republicans) in Dayton, across Ohio and across the country. These folks are working to make a difference in the lives of kids and families every day, and I am also inspired by the parents I meet who make sacrifices every day to give their kids something better than they had.

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