Governance

Ohio’s urban school districts, like many others across the country, face a slow burning governance crisis. Elected school boards in cities like Columbus, Dayton, Lorain, and Youngstown are proving incapable of providing the leadership their cities, schools, families and children need to be successful. In Dayton, for example, long-time school board member Yvonne Isaacs summed up the challenge when she told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2012, “There is really no continuity in terms of the vision and the direction of the district…I think what we have lost is the ability to collaborate and to set vision.” Youngstown’s dysfunction is legendary: It’s been under state financial control for years and now faces a state academic takeover.

But, no city in Ohio currently displays better the dysfunction of big city elected school boards than does Columbus. Columbus City Schools is a district in turmoil. Mayor Michael Coleman spelled out the challenges in a recent Columbus Dispatch op-ed thusly:

The children of Columbus City Schools need our help. Forty-seven percent of kids enrolled in the district attend schools receiving a D or F grade by the Ohio Department of Education, while just 21 percent go to A or B schools. The district ranks near the very bottom statewide in terms of how much a student learns in a given year.
State and federal investigations into allegations of student-data manipulation hang like a black cloud over the district. The results threaten to further lower the academic-performance scores of our schools,...
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“Autonomy, in exchange for accountability” has been the mantra of charter school theorists since before the first charter opened its doors in Minnesota in 1991. But, far too often over the last two decades this mantra has been more ideal than reality. Getting the balance right between autonomy and accountability has been so hard because there has been much confusion over the appropriate roles and responsibilities of the non-profit charter school governing boards, school operators, and authorizers in the autonomy/accountability deal.

Fordham’s new policy brief by Adam Emerson, “Governance in the Charter School Sector: Time for a Reboot,” tackles the governance issue head-on. One section in particular is especially interesting to me because of our role as a charter school authorizer in the Buckeye State. Ohio, and other states with strong charter school networks (both non-profit CMOs and for-profit EMOs), has struggled to balance the power and influence of school operators with that of their non-profit governing board. Too often boards are seen as little more than a necessary evil while operators run the show. It is not at all uncommon for charter school operators in Ohio to “hire” board members, and then use them as a rubber stamp for all school operations. 

As a state approved charter school authorizer in Ohio we have always held a different view. Our position has been that the non-profit governing boards are independent, and clearly in charge of, any outside organization that they engage to run their education programs. It has been our...

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Richard (Dick) Ross was sworn into Monday by State Board of Education President Debe Terhar as Ohio’s 37th State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The ceremony took place at Reynoldsburg City High School (just east of Columbus, where Ross was formerly district superintendent). Dr. Ross takes over the leadership reigns of the Ohio Department of Education after serving as Governor Kasich’s director of 21st Century Education for the last year. While in the Governor’s office Ross helped to craft the state’s A-F report card, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, and the new school funding plan being debated in the legislature. For more see here.

Congratulations Dr. Ross and we wish you the very best. The children and families of Ohio need you to be successful.

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Ohio’s urban school districts, like many others across the country, face a slow burning governance crisis. Elected school boards in cities like Columbus, Dayton and Youngstown are proving incapable of providing the leadership their cities, schools, families and children need to be successful. In Dayton, for example, long-time board member Yvonne Isaacs summed up the challenge when she told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2012, “There is really no continuity in terms of the vision and the direction of the district…I think what we have lost is the ability to collaborate and to set vision.” Youngstown’s dysfunction is legendary and it faces a state takeover.

But, no city in Ohio displays better the dysfunctionality of big city elected school boards than does Columbus. Columbus City Schools is a district in turmoil. Mayor Michael Coleman spelled out the challenges in a recent Columbus Dispatch op-ed thusly:

“The children of Columbus City Schools need our help. Forty-seven percent of kids enrolled in the district attend schools receiving a D or F grade by the Ohio Department of Education, while just 21 percent go to A or B schools. The district ranks near the very bottom statewide in terms of how much a student learns in a given year.

State and federal investigations into allegations of student-data manipulation hang like a black cloud over the district. The results threaten to further lower the academic-performance scores of our schools, and administrators could face indictment.

Our schools are at a crossroads. If...

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  • According to news reports, New Jersey governor Chris Christie is on the verge of announcing that the state will take over the deeply troubled Camden school district. During my tenure with the NJDOE, though the state controlled aspects of three other districts, Camden was always at or near the front of our minds. The condition of the city, especially the state of its schools, is as tragic as I’ve seen. Decades of nationwide experience demonstrate that state takeovers of districts are beset by a long list of challenges—educational, financial, political, and organizational. But if there’s any Governor bold enough to push through the obstacles, it’s Chris Christie. And if there’s any state chief with the brain, heart, and backbone to make it work, it’s my old boss, Chris Cerf. There are tough days, weeks, and months ahead, I’m sure, but I’m confident that this is in the best interest of Camden’s long underserved boys and girls.
  • If you like data—especially if you’re in the “data-driven-decision-making-can-solve-everything!” camp—this story from the NYT Metropolitan section is definitely worth a read. Actually, if you’re worried about the pronounced use of data in education—especially if you’re in the “we’re-turning-our-kids-into-widgets!” camp—you probably want to read it, too. The first few paragraphs about identifying oil-dumping scofflaws pretty much summarize the piece: If we collect enough data and analyze it the right way, heavens, the problems we can solve. Lots of people nowadays talk about using interim assessment data to improve instruction, change class
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Richard (Dick) Ross was sworn into today by state board of education president Debe Terhar as Ohio’s 37th State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The ceremony took place at the Reynoldsburg City High School (just east of Columbus). Dr. Ross takes over the leadership reigns of the Ohio Department of Education after serving as Governor Kasich’s director of 21st Century Education for the last two years. While in the Governor’s office Ross helped to craft the state’s A-F report card, the 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee, and the new school funding plan being debated in the legislature.

Ross is the fourth state superintendent in two years, and enters the department during a time of change, challenges and opportunity. Ohio is revamping its school funding system, implementing new academic standards through the Common Core in English Language Arts and Mathematics, new standards in science and social studies, and putting into place new assessments through PARCC. Ohio is also a school choice hotbed, and is expected to see continued growth in both charter school students and students receiving public vouchers to attend private schools. These programs are under much scrutiny and could use improvements to their accountability and oversight.

Much of the department’s senior leadership has turned over in recent years and a big part of Ross’ early efforts will need to be around building his senior leadership team. He is the man for the job as his entire professional career has been defined...

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I usually keep two books going at once. I like to find the connections and divergences between seemingly unrelated texts.

Recently, I’ve been making my way through a biography of Catherine the Great and the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.

Going in, I figured the brain-candy thread tying the two together would be the dissimilarities between their nearly contemporary lives: Douglass (1818–95) born into American slavery, eventually escaping, becoming a leading abolitionist and statesman; Catherine (1729–96) born into German nobility, marrying into Russian royalty, ruling for more than 30 years.

But as it turns out, the stories of these historical giants have three associations particularly relevant to our work.

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great tried to end serfdom—but eventually grew acclimated to power.
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons

First, though she was spectacularly wealthy—casually distributing estates, amassing the largest art collection in Europe’s history—Catherine tried to end the abomination of serfdom. As the book recounts, “The conditions of Russian serfs resembled that of black slaves in America.”

It is striking how two people from such disparate backgrounds could be compelled to advocate for the same moral cause. Douglass lived the horror: He had no knowledge of his age and was separated from mother in infancy. He was often awakened in morning by “the most heartrending shrieks” of slaves...

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When charter schools first emerged more than two decades ago, they presented an innovation in public school governance. No longer would school districts enjoy the “exclusive franchise” to own and operate public schools, as chartering pioneer and advocate Ted Kolderie explained. Charters wouldn’t gain all of the independence of private schools—they would still report to a publicly accountable body, or authorizer—but they would be largely freed from the micromanagement of school boards, district bureaucracies, and union contracts. Autonomy, in exchange for accountability, would reign supreme.

Over the course of its twenty-year history, however, American education and its charter school sector have evolved in important ways. One of the significant ways is school governance—not a topic that gets a lot of attention but, as it turns out, a crucial one that is overdue for an overhaul (and not just in the charter sector).

The growth of nonprofit charter networks (CMOs), the ubiquity of for-profit school-management companies (EMOs), and the emergence of “virtual” charter schools have all upended the notion that charters would mostly be freestanding “community-based” schools of the “one-off” variety. Yet the public policies and practices that characterize charter governance haven’t kept pace with these real-world changes.

To examine this mismatch more closely and consider how it might be set right, we interviewed nearly two dozen analysts, authorizers, board members, and practitioners with interest in and knowledge of charter schools. Not one of them felt that the inherited assumptions and regulations about governance in the charter sector are truly well...

A useful new report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation underscores the painful divide between parents and education reformers on the crucial topic of what to do about bad schools.

School hallway
Schools play many roles in communities, and the prospect of closing one undermines most of those.
Photo by hundrednorth

In a nutshell, if the neighborhood school is crummy, parents want it fixed. So do community leaders. Ed reformers are far more apt to want to close it and give families alternatives such as charter schools.

As Andy Smarick has perceptively written, schools play multiple roles in communities, and the prospect of closing one undermines most of those. Hence, shuttering a school affects more than the convenience of keeping one’s own kids in a familiar (and generally close-at-hand) facility, maybe even with that nice Ms. Greensleeves who teaches fourth grade there. As Jean Johnson writes on behalf of Public Agenda, based on a recent series of focus groups (as well as much other research), “Most parents see local public schools as important community institutions and viscerally reject the idea that closing schools—even those that are persistently low-performing—is a good way to improve accountability in education.”

On the reform side, however, Johnson writes, “In many communities, school leaders are closing or drastically reorganizing low-performing schools. Many districts are turning to...

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  • The U.S. Department of Education just announced more SIG money going out the door. At a TBFI event late last year, the Department and I tussled about the results to date, which showed that more than a third of participating schools (already among the lowest performing in the nation) had gotten worse despite this multi-BILLION dollar program. I sadly predicted these grim results several years ago—not because I’m clairvoyant but because stacks of research over decades showed that turnarounds aren’t a reliable or scalable strategy for generating more high-quality seats. But the Department remains bullish; the release says, “Early findings show positive momentum and progress in many SIG schools.”

    Many of us are looking forward to thoroughly analyzing the program’s effects, but we’ve been in a holding pattern. The Department still hasn’t released school-level results from Year 1 yet (even though those tests were given two years ago), and we’ve not yet received any results from Year 2 (even though those tests were given a year ago). Forgive the quick snark, but maybe we just have to wait until close of business on the Friday before Thanksgiving week again to get results.

  • If you follow the common-assessments consortia, make sure to read this post by Catherine Gewertz about PARCC’s and SB’s plans to maintain financial sustainability when federal dollars run out. This is just one of the many, many, many reasons to fret about Common Core–aligned tests. Need more?
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