Third Frontier is doomed without a school system to match

 

In 2005, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a plan to spend an extra $1.6 billion in bond money (increasing the program to $2 billion over 10 years) to support high-tech science research and industries in the state (see here).

But it makes no sense to spend billions of dollars of state funds to boost technology if Ohio's education system is not up to producing the educated workforce needed to power the innovations in medicine, nanotechnology, computers, fuel cells, and energy that the Third Frontier is already fueling.

Now fast forward to 2007 when the Ohio Board of Education began mulling recommendations by Achieve Inc. and the McKinsey Group to overhaul Ohio schools and make them "world class."

Every industrialized nation is emphasizing education, especially math and science education. In the United States, a reform coalition in Delaware wants to transform its schools and has come up with six recommendations (see here) that cover much of the same ground as the Achieve report. Delaware's plan recognizes that its children will have to be educated to compete with top graduates from China, Germany, Japan, and Russia. One idea is to increase class time by 140 hours a year, part of a proposal to boost standards and graduation requirements.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Achieve/McKinsey study recognizes progress the state has made and presents a set of common-sense initiatives  (see here) such as boosting standards and assessments, pushing teacher development, motivating students, and linking increased funding to accountability.

The report also defines the coming debate over what "world class" means in Ohio. Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Tave Zelman has embraced it. But state school board members are divided, not so much over the ideas in the report but on exactly what role they should play in implementing its recommendations.

The state budget the General Assembly approved in June sets priorities. The budget calls for spending $15.8 billion on education over the next biennium and it boosts per-pupil spending by 6.6 percent over the next two fiscal years. The budget, however, was in preparation months before Achieve issued its report, so the next biennial budget will be far more indicative of the reports influence on the state's leaders. A look at the current budget does, however, help to examine current state education spending related to two critical Achieve recommendations: 1) providing an educational choice through charter schools for children and families trapped in failing district schools and 2) getting students ready for college.

The Governor's initial budget proposal-counter to the Achieve recommendations which advocated for controlled growth of charters-would have put an iron-clad moratorium on the state's charter school program, cut funding for the schools, and created new and costly regulatory barriers for these schools of choice. The budget ultimately signed into law, however, does allow students access to charter schools but it does not allow the program to expand beyond it current geographic limitations (in the most troubled school districts). The budget also puts additional accountability requirements on charters.

Far more of the budget involves funding for student achievement, which is at the core of the Achieve recommendations. Achieve noted that the best school systems challenge children academically and test them rigorously. Ohio must go far beyond what it has achieved in the last decade by aligning elementary and secondary school skills with what colleges, universities, and the modern workplace expect of recent high school graduates. Achieve calls for statewide examinations in core subjects to replace local examinations, eventually leading to the elimination of the state graduation test.

Lawmakers rescinded a Senate proposal that the state education department designate on future school report cards which district and charter schools offer high school students all components of the Ohio Core Curriculum. The budget also rescinded a Senate requirement that all students complete two semesters of fine arts between the seventh grade and high school graduation.

The budget allocates state money to provide intervention to help struggling African-American males graduate from high school. It provides $20 million over two years to help create up to five new STEM science and technology schools. There's also state money for summer institute training of 150 English, social studies, and foreign language teachers and 600 science and math teachers.

But, if the Achieve report and the efforts of other countries and states is the benchmark, these efforts only scratch the surface. The next state budget will begin to show how high the General Assembly is prepared to aim. The question is whether Ohio's schools will be up to the task of producing the creative class needed to imagine new products and innovations in the future as well as the scientists, engineers, and technicians to cast those ideas into reality.

More By Author

January 16, 2009
February 17, 2009