Mitch Chester departs for Massachusetts leaving the plate half full

Mitch Chester, former senior associate superintendent for policy and accountability at the Ohio Department of Education, began a new job Monday as commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Massachusetts. Before leaving the state, Chester talked with Ohio Education Gadfly Editor Mike Lafferty about his thoughts on the state of public K-12 education in Ohio. The entire interview is online here, and following is a summary of the conversation.

Q. You were brought to Ohio to improve the state's accountability system. Are you happy with the progress?

A. Absolutely....Back in the mid '90s, when we first started looking at reading, less than half of our fourth graders could reach the proficient standard....And at this point, some 10 years later, more than three-quarters of Ohio's third and fourth graders are reading at proficient levels. So there's been just tremendous progress made, both in terms of developing an aligned system and in terms of the improvement in learning and achievement for students.

Q. What haven't you accomplished?

A. The standards movement talks about being clear about what we want students to learn..., measuring progress toward and against those expectations and...accountability, being transparent with the results. I think the piece that's just a work in progress is how we build systems of support for teachers and administrators that help them to improve the quality of the curriculum and quality of the instructional program.

Q. How do you resolve the achievement gap between urban and suburban kids, poor kids and more well-off kids?

A. We have made some very strong growth for all groups of students....For example, (on the NAEP eighth-grade writing assessment)...the one group of students that made some of the strongest gains of any group in Ohio was African-American students....The bad news...is that the gaps are much too large and they persist. And so we're not closing them fast enough.... The other manifestation of this is when we've calculated the on-time graduation rate. We're about to turnkey from a previous way in which we calculated graduation rates, which really masks, to a large degree, students' progress through the system. We're about to turnkey to a much more straight-forward calculation. It looks at the students who were first-time ninth graders four years earlier and calculates the percentage that have a diploma in hand after four years. And then we'll follow those cohorts forward through until at least the sixth year, so we'll look at five-year graduation rates and six-year graduation rates as well as four-year rates. And I'm afraid that for many schools and districts this is going to be a very sobering statistic, because it will be a much lower percentage than has been reported through the rate that has been used in the past. But it is a much more direct indication of student success in moving through the system and progressing to graduation than the statistic that's been used up until now.

Q. What really does the state have to do?

A. (We must get) savvier about curriculum and instruction...so that...students find themselves in an engaging, demanding, but supportive academic environment. There's some interesting research that I've been tracking and that we're piloting in Ohio (that) shows students are very perceptive about whether or not they're being engaged academically, whether there are high expectations being made of them academically but, at the same time, whether the adults in the building are supporting their success against those expectations....I think it's critical that we...make sure that we're providing that kind of engaging intellectual environment and the support for students that we know in which students can thrive....I could not put a specific time frame on how long it would take. But I think there's a lot of opportunity within the current resource allocation to do a better job of connecting nonacademic and academic resources.

Q. In a Gadfly interview in February (see here) First Lady Frances Strickland pushed for measuring creativity as an important part of the assessment process. Can creativity be measured through a standardized assessment?

A. I think a large part has to do with what gets defined as creativity. I think we can continue to push our tests toward an assessment of students' ability to apply what they know...as opposed to just measuring what they know. We do that to a large degree on our tests in Ohio but we can push further in that direction. The question of measuring creativity is an open question and (it's unclear) that it can be measured in any kind of reliable way without constraining the notion of what creativity is.

Q. What's the most important lesson you learned in Ohio?

A. It's rare for me to meet an educator... who feels like he or she is doing the best that can be done for the students that he or she serves....They want to do more, and when provided with the...support and resources, educators in Ohio have shown time and again that they're up to the challenge of doing a better job....Early on, our schools were charged with assimilating new populations as this country grew through immigration and our schools did arguably a decent job of that....After World War II, our schools were charged with thinking of nothing less than high-school education as the education default....The adults in the system did a great job of providing a system that provided at least a high-school education for everyone. We're at a new era, where not only do we expect our schools to educate everyone but we expect them to educate them to high standards (a college-readiness standard). I think we've seen progress against that. We have a long way to go, but I'm very optimistic that the adults are up to the challenge.

Q. What would you say you haven't finished in Ohio?

A. Curriculum improvement at the school level..., improving the quality of instruction that students experience on a daily basis, classroom by classroom, is just a work in progress.

Q. What can push the public charter schools along?

A. Tightening up the entry requirements, who gets to run a school based on evidence of capacity, experience, background...monitoring results and exiting those institutions, which, either because of performance or because of lack of appropriate fiscal oversight, cannot demonstrate they are up to the task of educating students, needs to be tightened up....Then the third piece is capitalizing on those charter schools that, in fact, have implemented innovative practices and approaches that are paying off and using them as proof of concept, demonstration, dissemination kinds of sites....I don't think we've really accomplished that....It's not at all clear to me that unleashing market forces has forced the whole system to improve, which, again, is part of a theory of action that charter schools (providing) competition would force regular schools to improve.

Q. What about the charter complaint that they're only getting 70 percent of state support? Do they need more money?

A. I'm not sure....I don't know whether that 70-percent figure tells the story or not, but I think it's a discussion worth having. If we're going to have charter schools (they) should not go down the road with one armed tied behind their backs.

Q. Should value-added assessments ultimately replace Ohio's criterion-referenced tests when it comes to school-level accountability?

A. You need the tests as the basis of the value-added scores. What I would not advocate for is looking at schools and districts solely through the value-added measure. The value-added measure tells you what schools and districts are able to accomplish based on students' previous achievement. How much that school and district stretched that student based on where that student came to them....However that's independent of whether or not that student is in fact reading, doing math, writing at a level that's anywhere close to grade level. So we have to continue to measure against our expectations for students, not just how much progress has been made....In my mind, it does a disservice to a student to walk (him or her) out the door at the end of the 12th grade with a diploma in hand if, in fact, their skill level is nowhere near what the outside world expects.

Q. What's the proper balance between meeting state standards and showing benefit gains from year to year, especially as it relates to schools serving the neediest children?

A. I think looking at both gains and attainment lets us distinguish between schools that are serving kids who are behind but are making good progress with the students they have for two or three years in a row vs. schools that are serving students who are behind and... (in some cases) fall further behind.....The right balance for a decent value-added measure is it lets us distinguish between those two groups of schools.

Q. Should value-added data be used by districts in rating teachers, in providing things like performance pay for teachers?

A. I would use value-added data as a diagnostic tool....That can be very powerful...feedback to understand which students they're achieving with and making good progress with, and which students they're not making good progress with....The value-added measure can be helpful in identifying teachers who are more successful....Those may be the teachers we may want to employ as instructional leaders, as coaches for teachers, as mentors for teachers whether that's in addition to their classroom responsibilities or in lieu of their classroom responsibilities and that can be a way...of identifying teachers who are ready for more leadership roles.

Q. What do you think of Gov. Strickland's plan for subordinating the state board and superintendent?

A. There's a lot of value to having a state board and a chief state-school officer who have a level of independence from the governor. That value includes the notion of continuity, that with a change of governor we don't necessarily have to abandon a policy stream, a policy agenda that's underway. I think it provides some insulation from partisan politics by having a state board who selects the state superintendent, again, as opposed to a cabinet official. It's not as directly subject to the whims of partisanship.

Q. What would you recommend for improving state-level education and governance?

A. One of the challenges for the governor and for the state is ensuring that preschool, K-12, and higher education...represent a coherent policy approach...that complements those three different sectors. So having someone in the governor's office to play a coordinating role, which can bring those sectors to the table, I think, is a real advantage. I've seen that done well and I've seen that done weakly in various states, but I don't think that requires that the state superintendent of instruction needs to be a direct gubernatorial appointee.

Q. Do you have any comments or messages for Fordham or for Gadfly readers, any lessons we need?

A. The (Fordham) institute is a critical observer and commentator (and) really elevates the quality of the dialogue and the range of policy options....I certainly appreciate the institute. It may have been frustrating at times, but over the long haul, particularly Checker Finn and Terry Ryan really contribute to a smarter policy dialogue.

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