Ohio at the crossroads--more of the same or a new approach?

Gov. Ted Strickland's education plan calls for "modernizing" Ohio's K-12 education system, but perversely his "evidence-based" approach to school funding would likely scuttle his efforts to pull Ohio primary-secondary education into the 21st century.

According to an analysis (see here) released Tuesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Strickland plan "would prop up an outdated system of school finance that establishes funding levels based on convention rather than need, sustains institutions whether they work or not, spends money with little regard for results, holds adults accountable for compliance not results."

Author Paul T. Hill, Corbally Professor at the University of Washington, director of that university's Center on Reinventing Public Education, Senior Fellow at Brookings, and former senior social scientist at RAND, puts it this way: "though Governor Strickland asserts that his school-funding model is evidence-based, in fact there is no proven link between what's proposed and what's effective in schools-or, for that matter, what Ohio's schools and children actually need."

This is serious criticism from an analyst who knows what he is talking about. An Ohio State University graduate, Hill was lead author of a six-year, $6 million, nationwide assessment of school finance completed in December. Funded by the Gates Foundation, Facing the Future: Financing Productive Schools (see here) is the most comprehensive study of its kind ever conducted and presents some of the best-grounded findings about the links between state spending and school performance.

The Strickland plan, however, flies in its face. As Hill explains, "once one gets past the rhetoric, one finds that the main active ingredients in the governor's plan are spending increases geared toward helping schools and districts employ more administrators, teachers, and support staff." In short, the details of the plan read more like a jobs program than an education plan-maybe not a bad thing as an anti-recessionary scheme but not a sound way to revamp school finance.

Hill maintains that the governor's plan "is tight where it should be loose and loose where it should be tight." If Ohio truly wants an adequate education for all its children, Hill contends, it must be "open to experimentation with different forms of instruction, different mixes of teacher salaries and other instructional assets like technology, and different uses of time. It should also encourage innovative instruction and new mixes of teacher-led instruction and on-line learning." Hill warns, "It can't do those things by tying up all the money in salaries."

If Ohio wants its schools to improve, it must also let money chase performance. Here, Hill explains, the governor's plan is too loose. To encourage performance the system, Hill says, "must be tight and disciplined about closely measuring how much every student learns every year in every school-including charter schools and on-line schools-identifying outliers, reproducing the highest performers, and replacing the least productive schools."

On balance, Gov. Strickland's school-finance plan seeks to impose certainty where none exists. According to Hill, "What we have now is a finance system that is focused on maintaining programs and paying adults, not on searching for the most effective way to educate our children. This system doesn't fit America's (or Ohio's) needs." Hill admits "we haven't figured out how to educate the growing number of poor and minority children." But, the Governor's plan would "finance and control schools as if we knew exactly how."

Hill says a very different and vastly more flexible approach is called for if we are serious, about educating all children to world-class standards and maximizing their talents. "Schools and systems that work best," he explains, "especially for poor and disadvantaged youngsters, are not all alike: they use funds, teachers, students' time, materials, and technology very differently. Some take money out of administration to pay for materials, technology, and information systems to track results. Many go for longer days rather than longer years and allow principals to make trade-offs (e.g., adjusting class size according to student needs and teacher abilities)."

The irony here is that Gov. Strickland wants to personalize and modernize education. Yet, the implementation of his "evidence-based model" does none of that. It would simply bulk-up a one-size-fits-all model of education under the banner "evidence-based." According to Hill, "Governor Strickland and Ohio lawmakers should modify their current course of direction. It is not too late to take a decent plan and make it great."

Read Ohio at the Crossroads: School funding-more of the same or changing the model here. See coverage of this report from some of the state's newspapers here and here.

A few more thoughts...

In the news business, reporters have a saying for a boilerplate quote an editor can remove to tighten a story. It's "throw-away" and that's exactly what the governor's response to the Fordham/Paul Hill study deserves.

Strickland's spokeswoman talked of the governor's plan having components that have been shown to help students succeed (see here). We should hope so. But, again, there's no applicable evidence that they will for all children across an entire school district, let alone across an entire state.

The governor continues to say his top-down, one-size-fits-all requirements are best for Ohio schools. Why does he think there is one, state-mandated solution for bettering education in every school in the state, let alone the inner-city classrooms crying out for innovation and change? Top district superintendents know this and are opting out of cookie-cutter education. In Cleveland, the district has opened an office of new and innovative schools dedicated to opening new schools, including charters. Gene Harris, the savvy superintendent of the Columbus City Schools has pledged to open new single-gender schools as part of that district's reform plan. In Dayton, the top performing schools are either stand-alone charters or district schools that have many charter-like freedoms (see here). The governor's one-size fits all approach has been tossed aside by many working with our neediest children.

Education is crying out for more innovation and experimentation. Consider that only 36 percent of eighth graders in Ohio scored proficient or better in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2007 (see here). The math results were similar and the data were far bleaker for poor and minority youngsters. It's laughable that giving teachers and school leaders a chance to innovate, while also holding them tightly accountable for results, would somehow violate fiscal accountability and transparency standards as the spokeswoman contends.

Now, let's free our school leaders and teachers to figure out what works and then reproduce it. Taxpayer education dollars should produce education for children, not just paychecks for adults.

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