Zelman reviews a near-decade as top school super

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Tave Zelman announced this week that she will become the senior vice president for education and children's programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting beginning Nov. 3. She had announced her resignation in May after Governor Ted Strickland attacked her performance and called for an overhaul of education policy in his February State of the State address.

Zelman and her influence on public education in the Buckeye State will be missed (as Fordham's president Chester E. Finn, Jr. noted here).  We wish her all the best on her future endeavors; this influential post at CPB seems like an excellent fit for Dr. Z. We also understand that today is her birthday-and hope that she has a happy one.

Zelman-who works for the Ohio State Board of Education, not for the governor-has been state school superintendent for 9½ years. She recently reflected on her tenure in a conversation with Gadfly Editor Mike Lafferty.

Q. Nobody likes to leave like the way you're leaving, but you had a pretty good run as superintendent.

A. We've worked hard, and we're proud of our accomplishments. I understand how the governor may want his own team. I wish him well.

Q. Have you discussed education with the governor?

A. We had discussions.... We've never had a conversation as I'm having with you here today to clearly articulate our visions-his vision or my vision-on education, but we both want the best in education for the children of Ohio.

Q. So you never actually sat down with him for a conversation in which he said, "Susan, what are your ideas and here are mine?"

A. In our first conversation, he questioned me about my stance, my belief, on the No Child Left Behind Act, which I've always believed was an important piece of civil-rights legislation, particularly for poor-and-minority children. I still do believe in the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act. Now, is it over-prescriptive and technical? Yes, of course. But it certainly (has) the right goals.

Q. After the State of the State message, did you make any overtures to the governor? Did you say, "Look, what's your beef? Let's sit down and talk about this." 

A. The State of the State announcement was a surprise. The fact that I didn't really know about what he was saying until a few hours before he said it...that was a good signal that the partnership did not develop as I had hoped it would.... My board president and my board were certainly not happy with the proposed diminished roles of the state superintendent and state board. But, I soon understood that I really needed to work out a compromise with my board president (and) that I would certainly step down.

Q. Was there a deal that the governor's idea of an education czar would disappear if you would disappear?

A. I was hoping that would be the case.

Q. What would you say you accomplished as superintendent, besides raising expectations and building capacity?

A. Ohio has accomplished a lot, particularly if you look at our national data; if you look at the data from Education Week (the Quality Counts issue) and the Education Trust both on achievement-gap issues and in terms of funding and equity.... When you look at the national data, we are up there as one of the states making progress in absolute performance of our students, particularly in math. We can show that we have closed achievement gaps. So that is a good thing. The second thing is that we have made progress in school funding, particularly on measures of equity.... (And) we were the first state in the country to say we need some benchmarks of what we are doing in relation to other countries.... (Also) as state superintendent, I never just advocated high expectations. If you go back and analyze my budgets...I put together budgets...that advocated for building the capacity of the profession and the capacity for districts and schools to implement these high standards in lots of different ways.

Q. You mentioned more money. What, in particular, has that gone for?

A. I think southeast Ohio has benefited a lot...Is it enough? Probably not....We found 45 schools that were schools of promise-high-poverty, high-performing schools. We have some really good examples-examples of elementary schools that really broke down grade structures, where teachers developed methods of flexible grouping, where teachers...developed their own forms of data analysis. We are getting incredible results for kids where teachers and principals opened the schoolhouse door and did a good job of linking health and human services to schools; where teachers really worked with us and developed some community-engagement and family-involvement strategies. Teachers have used our websites and worked with parents and students together-working on literary skills and math skills. So we have some great examples of some terrific education in southeast Ohio. Of course, we have some very bad examples as well.

Q. Where has money had the least impact?

A. I think that we haven't done a good job on how the money can be used effectively and efficiently.... America spends the most for the education of our children and the reality is that other countries are getting better outcomes and spending less. In America, for example, we advocate for reduced class size, but...you see that in certain countries the class size is much larger, but teachers have more time to work on lesson-plan development....They also organize the schools in more flexible ways so that they do more grouping. So I just think there are things that we should be doing to benchmark ourselves against a variety of different practices, and to go deeper into our work and (on) how to better organize our schools.... We have to reconstruct and change our mental model about what we want high-quality instruction and teaching and learning to look like in our schools. One thing I do love about the governor's vision is that he talks about creating learning environments, and what I like about that is that it takes us away from our traditional mental model of school.... I've always said that when we have standards, what we really...(are) advocating is for our children to have the skills and the abilities they need to live and create a better humanity than they found.

Q. What's the role for charters in the next decade?

A. I think that charters can be the R&D for the educational system and should be used to test ideas...and be able to (break the mold).... I feel that choice should be given to poor parents and they should have the same option that rich and middle-class people do. However, I don't support vouchers or charters at the expense of killing public education.... I believe in the notion of the common school.... The beauty of going to the common school was that it was a melting pot for people from different ways of life.... They had access to high-quality instruction to live the American dream. I think that is a very important fundamental tenet.

Q. There are set rules on how to close a poor-performing charter school. Why shouldn't we apply those rules to district schools?

A. I've always advocated for a level playing field. And what is good for the goose is always good for the gander. I think we have a moral responsibility to put our children in systems in which they are going to grow and thrive. And it is true of teachers, also. No teacher wants to work in a dysfunctional system.

Q. What if a school grades an "F" three years in a row?

A. Here is the real issue. The school that grades "F" three years in a row, (you need to) go into that school and diagnose the problems. Are good teaching and learning going on? If not, why not? Why are the teachers not able to improve the quality? What about the educational leadership of that school? Are the resources being applied appropriately? Is there a coherent reading curriculum grade-to-grade? Do the teachers understand what the expectations are? What are the standards? Do the teachers know how to engage parents? What we've done is to develop a set of diagnostic tools which would (be used in) schools (including charters)...needing it most.... People will be able to get better support and technical assistance. Just don't restructure a school if it gets an "F." What does that mean? It's the same thing in terms of students failing a test or subject. It is important for us to figure out why and to come with a diagnosis, and, with that diagnosis, come up with a prescription.... I think the same thing is true for districts. If they are not performing well, we need to figure out why not.

Q. Do we need a state high-school graduation test?

A. I've never been a fan of the OGT. I hope that the vision for a high-school assessment in the future would be a subject-matter (test). I personally like that because I think it says that Algebra II in Morgan County is the same as Algebra II in Chagrin Falls or Upper Arlington or Bexley or Columbus. For me, this has always been about curriculum equity, ensuring that there is an alignment between what we expect, how we teach, how we assess, and making sure that all children have access to high-quality curriculum and instruction.

Q. Do you ever see charters receiving the same funding as public-district schools?

A. I think that there is some very interesting work being done, nationally, around weighted-student funding.... What I think is so important about that is that it ensures that the money for different kids is...going to the kids needing it the most. So, I'm a really strong advocate for weighted-student funding. The money follows the child. And I also think it would allow for better devolution of the funding...from the state to the central office to the school level and empower principals to have more resources while managing their schools.

Q. Can you look at anything since charters have been operating in this state and say, "This is an improvement?"

A. One is you have some really good and innovative charters that (show promise) for different types of kids who don't want to go to a traditional high-school setting. That's a good example of kids having the ability to learn within the community, having community mentors, having important internships.... It has implications for how we may want to structure high schools. I do believe that our urbans have done incredibly well over my tenure. I think that there are many reasons for that, but one is they face competition from charters.

Q. Are charters going to be around in 10 years?

A. I think, nationally, charters will be around because I think we are moving into this notion (of) individualization, customization of education. I think public schools working in collaboration-partnerships with charter schools-can, perhaps, better meet the needs of more diverse learners. I'm optimistic that these partnerships can lead to some very interesting experimentation with good research, planning, and evaluation.

Q. How has your relationship with the state board changed over your nine years?

A. I don't have a contract. I serve at the pleasure of the board. Governors run every four years. I run every month. You are only as good as your last board meeting. I have great respect for my board-I love my board because it is so diverse. It is like a mini-legislature.... We've always had some very open, honest, and interesting debates, and I think we are better able to make recommendations to the legislature and to the governor because of the diversity.

Q. You plan to write a book about your experience as superintendent, but what are your other plans?

A. I don't know. Actually within the past several weeks, I've turned down two jobs. I love being the state superintendent of public instruction. I love my job, I've learned a lot. I am really trying to figure out what's my next large challenge. I'm certainly looking for a job that will take what I've learned here and...apply it and improve the educational lot of poor children in our country.

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