A world-class vision of a world-class education

For as long as we can remember, certainly for the past decade, K-12 education in Ohio, as in many other states (see here), has been defined by intermittent, piecemeal reforms and initiatives. Much of it has been partisan and self-interested. The result is many layers of accumulated efforts, like an archeological site at Jericho or Olduvai Gorge. The result is not world-class performance, the narrowing of achievement gaps nor the development of a high-skills, 21st Century workforce. Such woes may be especially acute in regions such as the Midwest that urgently need an education makeover in order to have a fighting chance of an economic makeover, but in fact they're true across the land.

Sometimes good makeover advice arrives at the national level, as in the fine recent report from the National Center on Education and the Economy (see here). That kind of advice is hard to follow, however, because we lack good national mechanisms for doing so and because the main responsibility for K-12 education in America remains state-specific.

Once in a blue moon, a state gets the advice it needs for a full makeover (see here and here). This month, Ohio received a smart, ambitious, comprehensive plan that deserves attention well beyond Buckeye State borders, even though its implementation is the responsibility of Ohio leaders. Ten days ago, the Ohio State Board of Education received a remarkable 137-page report (available here) that it had requested from Achieve, Inc. With funding from the Gates Foundation, Achieve commissioned McKinsey & Company, one of the world's foremost consulting firms, to examine Ohio's K-12 system and report back on how the Buckeye State could become a world leader in education by 2015. The lead author of the report is Sir Michael Barber, former chief education policy advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio sets two big goals: 1) creating a public system of education as strong as any in the world; and 2) helping Ohio close its persistent academic achievement gaps, which have been largely impervious to earlier school reform efforts. The Achieve/McKinsey/Barber report then organizes its reform agenda around three attributes found in world-class systems:

  • High challenge -- sets ambitious learning expectations and lays them on the people most responsible for producing such achievement, notably teachers, principals, superintendents, and students themselves.
  • High support -- provides the necessary resources to, and builds the capabilities of, those same people so that they can deliver the necessary results.
  • Aligned incentives -- includes both positive incentives and negative consequences for meeting (or failing to meet) those expectations of student achievement.

To reshape Ohio's K-12 education program in line with those attributes, the report puts forth seven broad recommendations and a host of smaller ones that, if implemented together, would put Ohio squarely on course to educational excellence.

  1. Ensure readiness for college and the global economy by raising Ohio's standards and improving assessments. The McKinsey team recommends revising academic standards to make college readiness the overarching goal of the K-12 system. Performance against more rigorous standards would be measured by a streamlined assessment program which, at the secondary level, would include "end of course" exams in core subjects.
  2. Empower principals. Central to improving classroom instruction is helping principals better control the instructional leadership of their schools. The report recommends giving them authority over hiring and staffing decisions, school budgets, and instructional choices such as curriculum. In return, they would be accountable for student outcomes, academic achievement chief among them.
  3. Set clear expectations for teachers and align evaluation, professional development, rewards and consequences. Teachers, too, would become more accountable. Merit and performance pay, plus professional learning opportunities, would give teachers incentives to hone their skills and to innovate. Chronic underperformers would be objectively evaluated and, if unable to improve, removed from classrooms and school buildings.
  4. Support students in meeting high expectations. The state would develop a comprehensive diagnostic process for identifying and addressing pupils' academic and nonacademic needs. Incentives such as college scholarships would help ensure that all students are encouraged to pursue a college-prep curriculum.
  5. Ensure that funding is allocated fairly, efficiently, and accountably. Ohio's long-broken school-funding system would be replaced by a state-dominated weighted funding plan wherein per-pupil amounts, adjusted to the specific needs of students, would follow them to the schools they choose to attend (very much in line with our Fund the Child proposal). Devolving most financial decision-making to principals, districts would become school-support entities providing critical services such as financial management, transportation, special ed, etc. Increased transparency would help state policymakers gauge the true price of a world-class education and ensure that taxpayer dollars are well-spent.
  6. Increase effectiveness of school and district ratings and improvement. The state would align its annual rating system to reflect performance against federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets. Troubled schools and districts would receive support through a diagnostic system akin to the British "inspectorate" system. Outside school "doctors" would help district and school leaders pinpoint weaknesses and chart a course for improvement, which might include professional development for teachers, targeted interventions, and complete school restructuring.
  7. Give all students access to high-quality, publicly-funded school options. The McKinsey team insists that young Ohioans be able to attend any (public) school in the state, including but not limited to district-operated and charter schools. This report echoes recommendations (see here) by national charter-school organizations (including Fordham) to shutter the poorest performing schools; encourages high-performing networks and schools to open; strengthens the accountability of sponsors; and recommends funding parity (including facilities funding) for solid performers.

In all, Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio offers a compelling, optimistic and ambitious vision. For it to gain real traction in the months ahead, however, it needs bipartisan support. Which it deserves. As we size it up, there's much here to appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike.

Four reasons why Democrats should take this report seriously:

  1. It calls for more equitable funding for needy kids and urban districts.
  2. It seeks support and incentives for teachers and school administrators working with the toughest students.
  3. It calls for increased charter-school accountability.
  4. It takes educator professionalism seriously and empowers principals and teachers to get the job done.

Four reasons why Republicans should take this report seriously:

  1. It promotes markedly increased school choice and equitable funding for schools of choice.
  2. It calls for fiscal transparency and more efficient, productive uses of education dollars.
  3. It advocates merit and performance pay for teachers and principals.
  4. It would make it easier to replace underperforming educators.

There is plenty here for lawmakers, educators, and citizens to consider. (Of course there could be more. We looked in vain, for example, for mention of alternative preparation-and-certification pathways for teachers and principals.) But it would be a mistake to pick the report apart and focus only on its isolated elements. For its real power is the interaction of its parts. For instance, instruction isn't likely to improve without serious accountability measures at the principal and teacher levels. Weighted student funding doesn't fulfill its potential absent greater autonomy for principals. A diverse portfolio of high quality charter schools may never exist without a thorough "house cleaning" of poor performers and more equitable funding for good ones. And until there's better data-collection and greater transparency at all levels, these ambitious reforms may never get off the ground at all.

Nobody in Ohio or elsewhere will like everything in this report. It doesn't pander--well, it only panders a little--to vested interests. Rather, it looks over the horizon and explains clearly what the state's education reform agenda should look like. We hope that warring factions, elected and appointed officials, and community leaders can suspend their short-term schemes and think big and comprehensively. Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio points the way.

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