Governance

For decades, Ohio policymakers have piled regulations onto public schools. Up to a point, this top-down, input-driven approach made sense, back in an era when too many students weren’t receiving even a rudimentary education, and when we weren’t nearly as fussy about academic results.

But times have changed. We now realize that students need strong minds—not just strong backs—to compete for jobs in a competitive and knowledge-based economy. Rigorous academic expectations are the “coin of the realm” in contemporary education policy—but there is also now near-universal consensus that youngsters deserve schooling experiences tailored to their individual needs, gifts, and interests.

These powerful forces demand a radically different approach to public education—and especially to the old regulatory regime that ruled it. The state must demand that schools raise their academic performance to ready all Ohio students for success in college or career. (Currently, 40 percent of Ohio’s college-going freshmen require some form of remediation.) In return, educators should have the autonomy to design instruction aimed at achieving these ambitious goals and to customize their approaches to accord with their pupils’ needs, capabilities, and circumstances. This means that the compliance-based approach to public education must give way to more flexible arrangements.

Ohio...

In Redefining the School District in America, Nelson Smith reexamines existing recovery school districts (RSDs)—entities in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan charged with running and turning around their state’s worst schools—and assembles the most comprehensive catalog of similar initiatives underway and under consideration elsewhere.

Among more than twenty recommendations gleaned from both failed and successful attempts to create and implement RSDs, Smith recommends that those who go down the turnaround path should:

  • Call your lawyer. A close reading of the state constitution is essential. Some states are so wedded to traditional forms of “local control” that setting up a state district will require fancy legal footwork, if not a constitutional amendment.
  • Decide the endgame—for both schools and the turnaround district. Apart from setting goals for school performance, other decisions must be addressed—and the earlier the better.
  • Expect course corrections. Running a statewide district is a huge, complex undertaking full of political, financial, and logistical challenges—not to mention the myriad crises and complications that always arise in institutions serving real children. Sometimes even turnaround efforts need to turn around.
  • Give the locals a chance. After taking over failing schools, reformers sent by the state may want to clean house and start fresh with
  • ...

The Ohio Senate recently passed Senate Bill 3 (SB 3), legislation focused on “deregulation,” and sent it on to the House. The bill would allow high-performing districts to be exempt from certain state regulations. Judging from the testimony presented, the most controversial provisions dealt with teacher licensure.

SB 3 gives high-performing school districts two pieces of flexibility around teacher licensure. First, it allows qualifying districts to choose not to require its teachers be licensed in the grade levels they teach (though the bill maintains that a teacher must hold a license in the subject area they teach). Second, it allows these high-performing districts to hire teachers who don't hold an educator license but are instead qualified based on experience. Senate President Faber has argued that these provisions expose students to high-quality teachers they might not encounter otherwise—a retired math professor who wants to teach high school students, for instance. Opponents object to allowing unlicensed teachers into classrooms because important skills like behavior management and writing lesson plans aren’t necessarily intuitive, and their absence could outweigh the benefit of content knowledge and experience. This debate raises some important questions: Does teacher licensure matter? And is there...

AEI just released a very good, short report on charter authorizing, “The Paperwork Pileup: Measuring the Burden of Charter School Applications.”

It argues that applications have become too onerous. Authors McShane, Hatfield, and English found authorizers are requiring more and more paperwork from prospective founders, moving chartering away from outcomes-focused accountability. As a former authorizer, I agree with much of the report. In my experience, government programs tend toward rule-based compliance and sclerosis. Systems eventually suffer an accretion of rules, and central administrators create policies to simplify their work at the expense of those they monitor. More specifically, I concur that some charter applications seem to equate length with rigor, ask for information with limited bearing on school quality, and pose major obstacles to first-time operators.

But some of the criticisms aimed at the report are also fair. NACSA believes its recommendations would threaten accountability. The organization defends, for example, application questions related to discipline, safety, and budgeting. They also pointedly note that some organizations calling for less regulation lack practical “experience working with charter schools and authorizers.” NACSA, on the...

Last week, Fordham hosted Robert Putnam for a discussion of his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, which argues that a growing opportunity gap is leaving many American children behind. Watch the replay of the event, or read the transcript of the event below.

Michael Petrilli:              

Good afternoon, everybody. Good afternoon. My name is Mike Petrilli. I am the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. For those of you that don’t know us, we are an educational policy think tank. We are based here in Washington, D.C. but we also do on-the-ground work in the great state of Ohio which also features prominently in Dr. Putnam’s book. You can shout out for Ohio, that’s okay. Yes, and just as long as it’s not Ohio State, that’s another story. But Thomas B. Fordham was an industrialist way back in the day in Dayton, Ohio, so we have a mission to do on-the-ground school reform work in Ohio. We push for educational reform out of Columbus and we are...

In 2006, Ohio enacted one of the nation’s first “default closure” laws, which requires the lowest-performing charter schools to shut down whether their authorizers want them to or not. The law, still in effect today, has forced twenty-four charters to close. The criteria for automatic closure are well defined in law and are based on the state’s accountability system.

This new working paper, which complements our recent study on Ohio school closures, evaluates the effect of closures induced by the automatic closure law on student achievement. (By contrast, Fordham’s study examined both district and charter closures that occurred regardless of cause, be it financial, academic, or other.) To carry out this analysis, the researchers compared the outcomes of students attending charters that closed by default to those of pupils attending charters that just narrowly escaped the state’s chopping block. The sharp “cut point” for closure versus non-closure allowed the analysts to compare very similar students who attended similarly performing schools—thus approximating a “gold-standard” random experiment.

The key finding: Students displaced by an automatic closure made significant gains in math and reading after their schools closed, a result consistent with our broader study. Moreover, the analysts found that the academic...

Recently I had the privilege of listening to practitioners from Ohio’s high-performing districts who shared how they’re achieving success. These districts are earning A grades on their state report cards in notoriously difficult areas such as closing achievement gaps, effectively serving gifted students and students with disabilities, and increasing student achievement across the board. 

The series of events was hosted by Battelle for Kids in conjunction with the Ohio Department of Education, and I was able to hear from five of the exemplary districts: Marysville, Orange City, Oak Hills Local, Solon City, and Mechanicsburg. Here are the important commonalities I found among the strategies discussed.

1. Plus time

This strategy goes by a different name depending on which district you visit: “no-new-instruction time,” “flex time,” “plus time,” and “support classes” were all terms I heard, but the basic idea was the same. Each of these high flyers altered their daily schedule so that students received around forty minutes a day of either enrichment or remediation. To be clear, this isn’t an additional class in which students learn new information; instead, this is a time for...

Much attention has been paid to why teachers quit. Statistics and studies get thrown around, and there are countless theories to explain the attrition rate. While recent reports indicate that the trend might not be as bad as we’ve thought, teacher attrition isn’t just about whole-population numbers—it’s about retaining the most effective teachers within those numbers. Indeed, a 2012 study from TNTP (formerly known as the New Teacher Project) notes that our failure to improve teacher retention is largely a matter of failing to retain the right teachers. A separate study suggests that retaining the best teachers is all about reducing barriers that make teachers feel powerless and isolated. The 2014 National Teacher of the Year recently pointed out that, among myriad other causes, lacking influence in their own schools and districts (let alone in state policy) is often at the root of teacher attrition.

Keeping high-performers in the classroom has long been a trouble spot for schools. “If you don’t offer leadership opportunities for teachers to excel in their profession, to grow, and still allow them to stay in the classroom,” says Ruthanne Buck, senior advisor to Secretary of...

With little fanfare, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) last month released a draft of its new “School Quality Snapshot”—Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s bid to evaluate each of Gotham’s more than 1,800 schools based on “multiple measures.” The DOE’s website invites public comment on the new reports until May 8. Here’s mine:

I confess I wasn’t the biggest fan of the single-letter-grade school report cards of the Bloomberg-Klein era. But as a signaling device to schools and teachers about what mattered to the higher-ups at the DOE’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters, they were clear and unambiguous: Raise test scores, but most importantly raise everyone’s test scores. With 85 percent of a school’s grade based on test scores—and 60 percent of the total based on test score growth—the report cards, for good or for ill, left little room for doubt that  testing was king. Valorizing growth was an earnest attempt to measure schools’ contributions to student learning, not merely demographics or zip code.

Fariña, whose contempt for data I’ve remarked upon previously, values “trust.” You may worry if your child can’t read or do math. So does Chancellor Fariña, sort of. But she deeply cares if “teachers trust the...

The education components of Governor Kasich’s proposed budget—and the House's subsequent revisions—made a big splash in Ohio's news outlets. Much of the attention has been devoted to the House’s (unwise) moves to eliminate PARCC funding and their rewrite of Kasich’s funding formula changes. Amidst all this noise, however, are a few other education issues in the House’s revisions that have slipped by largely unnoticed. Let’s examine a few.

Nationally normed vs. criterion-referenced tests

As part of its attempt to get rid of PARCC, the House added text dictating that state assessments “shall be nationally normed, standardized assessments.” This is worrisome, as there is a big difference between norm-referenced and criterion-referenced tests.

A norm-referenced test determines scores by comparing a student’s performance to the entire pool of test takers. Each student’s test score is compared to other students in order to determine their percentile ranking in the distribution of test takers. Examples of norm-referenced tests are the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford 10 exams. A criterion-referenced test, on the other hand, is scored on an absolute scale. Instead of being compared to other students, students are compared against a standard of achievement (i.e.,...

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