Governance

In spring 2013, Ohio policymakers approved a two-year, $250 million investment aimed at spurring innovation in public schools. Known as the Straight A Fund, this competitive grant program has since catalyzed sixty new projects throughout the state, many of which are joint ventures between schools, vocational centers, ESCs, colleges, and businesses.

As a member of the grant advisory committee, I gained a firsthand view of the exciting projects happening around the state, everything from “fab labs” (a computer center outfitted with computer-aided drawing software and 3-D printers), outdoor greenhouses, and robotics workshops. Those who are interested in these projects should plan to attend this conference in Columbus on February 5.

In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers should continue to invest in innovation by reauthorizing the Straight A Fund. At the same time, the legislature should also consider a few alterations that could give an even stronger boost to the most innovative project ideas. The suggestions are as follows:

Remove the cost-reduction mandate.

A small provision in the Straight A legislation required grantees to show “verifiable, credible, and permanent” cost reductions that would result from the grant. As a result, applications were evaluated significantly on the cost-reduction criteria. (You can read applications online here.) Although well-intended, this provision created two problems:

First, applicants clearly struggled to quantify the cost reductions attributable to their project proposals. In some of the applications, the proposals made half-baked or underwhelming cost-reduction claims. For example, some described how a...

In the past year, Ohio policymakers have turned their attention to strengthening vocational education. Rightly so; too many non-college-bound students exit high school without the skills to enter the workforce. Blue-collar businesses in Ohio, for example, continue to express concerns about the “skills gap”—the mismatch between the technical abilities they need and the actual skills of their workers. But retrofitting vocational education to meet the demands of today’s employers remains a work in progress. As Ohio schools retool vocational education, they should seek examples of those who have accomplished this very task, and a new paper from the Pioneer Institute provides five case studies of technical high schools in Massachusetts that are well worth reading. A common thread emerges: All of the schools are thriving with the support of their local businesses. These companies have advised the schools on program design (e.g., what skills and jobs merit emphasis), and they have driven fundraising efforts. A couple examples are worth highlighting. One technical school worked closely with advanced manufacturing companies in the area to raise half a million dollars to outfit the school with cutting-edge metal working machines. (Previously, the school had provided technical computer skills, but not actual hands-on machinery experience, leaving manufacturers frustrated.) Another school partnered with the community bank to open an actual retail branch within the school building. High-school students had the opportunity to work alongside full-time employees to learn banking, retail, and marketing skills. Vocational programs that both match local business needs and receive...

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice recently released the latest in its School Survey Series—this installment features data compiled on Ohio’s private schools. Because private schools are less regulated than public schools, there’s a dearth of information available. What does exist is largely demographic in nature or the result of surveys voluntarily completed by school leaders. The Friedman report uses a combination of data from the U.S. Department of Education (survey) and the Ohio Department of Education (demographic), most of it presented in terms of percentages. While there are some differences between the two sets of numbers, no matter how you slice it, the numbers of private schools and students have declined over the years. The annual federal surveys show average enrollment in private schools was 245 students in 2011–12, down from a peak of 272 students in the 1995–96 school year. And the demographic makeup of private schools is shifting as well. From 2005–06 to 2011–12, the number of black private school students increased by 3 percent, while their share of the public school population moved downward—likely a result of the state’s myriad voucher initiatives. In 2014–15, nearly half of Ohio’s private schools are registered to accept students in the largest voucher program, the EdChoice Scholarship. However, many of those schools report to ODE that they are not operating at full capacity, and author Andrew Catt’s analysis of the self-reported numbers suggests that as many as 36,794 currently open seats could theoretically be filled with scholarship...

Leadership Evolving: New Models of Preparing School Heads

VIDEO: Leadership Evolving: New Models of Preparing School Heads

What does school leadership development in England look like, how is it changing, and what can other countries learn from the English approach?

A firestorm has erupted in Ohio on a proposed state board of education administrative rule. The headline on Diane Ravitch’s blog cries, “Ohio Alert! State Board of Education Will Vote on Whether to Eliminate Arts, P.E., Librarians, Nurses at Elementary Schools.” The headline, though sensational, is flat wrong and misleading.

Let’s set the facts straight. The Ohio state board of education is proposing to eliminate the staffing-ratio mandates for non-classroom-teaching staff. (These include counselors, gym teachers, elementary art and music teachers, etc.) The board, then, is not pronouncing a death-sentence on music or art. Local schools may hire as many non-classroom-teaching personnel as they see fit. Rather the proposal aims to give districts more flexibility over how they staff their schools.

Here is the rule in question, as presently written [OAC 3301-35-05 (A)(4)].

A minimum of five full-time equivalent educational service personnel shall be employed district-wide for each one thousand students in the regular student population as defined in section 3317.023 of the Revised Code. Educational service personnel shall be assigned to at least five of the eight following areas: counselor, library media specialist, school nurse, visiting teacher, social worker and elementary art, music and physical education.

In other words, the current regulation requires districts to hire at least five employees per 1,000 students in the eight areas defined under the rule. But this is a rigid human-resource policy, leaving schools with less flexibility in how it delivers educational services. For instance, what if a district...

Over the last five years, prodded by the feds, states have adopted teacher evaluation systems. According to a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, forty-one states, including Ohio, now require evaluations that include objective measures of student achievement. These aren’t the meat-axe assessments of yesteryear, though. These next-generation teacher evaluations combine classroom observations using new prescriptive protocols with quantitative evidence of learning gains on state tests (or another form of assessment) to determine each teacher’s effectiveness.

The national focus on teacher evaluations raises a couple of questions. First, why have states chosen to focus on teacher evaluations (i.e. what’s the problem that policymakers are trying to solve)? Second, are the new evaluations proving effective in solving the problem?

Let’s start with the why. Recall all the evidence that the single most important in-school factor for student achievement is teacher quality. If we know that good teachers make a difference, it's not surprising that we've focused on evaluating them. Such evaluations hold the potential to identify great teachers whom we can reward, retain, and/or hold up as models, struggling or developing teachers whom we can help to improve, and ineffective teachers who should be removed from the classroom. In other words, evaluations are intended to boost the effectiveness of teachers whom our children learn from.

That’s really only part of the answer, though. Even before there was a law mandating it, principals have long conducted teacher evaluations. Yet those traditional evaluations, typically based solely upon classroom...

In January, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education (ED) issued a joint “Dear Colleague” letter to K–12 schools. The letter calls into question whether minority children are punished more harshly than white children for the same infractions. The letter notes that schools could be guilty of discrimination in one of two ways: If a student is treated differently because of his or her race, or if a neutral policy has a “disparate impact.”

While the first method of determining discrimination is clear and fair, the second method is far more open to interpretation.  The letter explains that “examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation upon any student who commits a specified offense.” What the departments are suggesting here is that zero-tolerance policies, which impose a specific penalty for a specific offense, could have a disparate impact on minority students and may be discriminatory.

The disparate impact analysis forces the DOJ and ED into the murky water of differentiating between strict enforcement of zero-tolerance policies that are necessary to meeting educational goals and selective enforcement of policies that aren’t. Take, for example, what’s happening in Akron Public Schools (APS). The Akron Beacon Journal recently discovered that students in APS who commit egregious acts (like assaulting a teacher or bringing a weapon to school) have historically been immediately transferred to a different school—a...

All Hallows Edition

The testing pushback, a college boost for poor kids, adolescent readers, and school-supporting nonprofits.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Rise of School-Supporting Nonprofits," by Ashlyn Aiko Nelson and Beth Gazley, Association for Education Finance and Policy (Feburary 2014).

What happens when policymakers create statewide school districts to turn around their worst-performing public schools? In Louisiana and Tennessee, Recovery School Districts (RSDs) have made modest-to-strong progress for kids and serve as national models for what the future of education governance might hold.

In the Great Lakes State, the story is more complicated.

In Redefining the School District in Michigan, Nelson Smith examines the progress of the Education Achievement Authority (EAA). The EAA shares basic features with its brethren in Louisiana and Tennessee in that all three are charged with resuscitating the state’s worst schools within the confines of a separate, autonomous school district.

But unlike the RSD in the Bayou State—which comprises over eighty schools statewide—the EAA is so far a smaller effort; it is responsible for just fifteen schools, all in Detroit, with further expansion stymied. Like Tennessee's Achievement School District (ASD), the EAA was created in response to the Race to the Top competition. Yet it is an interesting hybrid of both existing models, combining the governance reforms of the RSD and ASD with a big push for competency-based learning.

States that want to embrace this approach to school turnarounds need to create conditions that are essential to success, Fordham’s report concludes. Michigan’s effort—though laudable and in many ways heroic—was hobbled from the start from too many compromises and too little political support.

Download Redefining the School District in Michigan to learn more.

This is the second brief in a...

KidsOhio.org, a highly respected education-policy group based in Columbus, released a fact sheet today on the schools that are eligible for a “parent trigger” intervention. Twenty schools in Columbus City School District have been identified, on the basis of falling within the bottom 5 percent in the state in student achievement for three consecutive years. In layman’s terms, these schools have enormous and persistent struggles with low student achievement.

The parent-trigger law, only applicable to Columbus district schools, permits four different interventions—from charter-school conversion to contracting with non-district entities to operate the school. The trigger is contingent on 50 percent of the school’s parents or guardians petitioning the school board for the change. As my colleague has pointed out, several issues muddy our judgment on whether parents and policymakers should actually use a trigger-based intervention.

But regardless of whether or not the parent-trigger is used, this group of schools—especially those with lower value-added scores—need to improve significantly. So one of the interesting things on the fact sheet was the hyperlinks to each school’s “improvement plan.”

But these “plans” can only be described as anywhere from meager to pathetic. Here is one example, from Mifflin Middle School’s improvement plan, rated D in performance index and F in value-added—a truly struggling school. (Note, I’ve looked at all twenty of the “improvement plans”; they all are generally of this quality—some slightly better, some worse.)

These are Mifflin’s “school goals”:

  • Focus on trust and communication, with an overarching commitment
  • ...

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