Ohio's K-12 system slips from 5th to 11th, but that's beside the point

Yesterday, Education Week unveiled its 15th annual “Quality Counts” rating of state school systems, with Ohio earning a B- and ranking 11th
nationally. This year’s theme is education and the economy – a
“detailed portrait of how states and districts are navigating the
postrecession environment while seeking to maintain the momentum of
standards-based school reform.”

While the theme is right, this characterization is somewhat
misleading considering that school budgets continued to be propped up
this school year with a large injection of federal ARRA funds and then a
dose of Ed Jobs money to stave off teacher layoffs. Education Week’s
attempt to frame the analysis as “postrecession” may be right
chronologically, but in K-12 education at least, the worst is yet to
come. 

A year ago, state education leaders were touting Ohio’s fifth-place ranking, the Buckeye State’s best since Education Week began ranking states in 2006, as validation of the education reforms made in House Bill 1.  Ohio’s successful Race to the Top proposal centers on moving Ohio from “fifth to first.” (Never mind that Quality Counts represents just one of dozens
of ways to evaluate states’ K-12 education systems, and a better goal
might center on actual improvements to student achievement rather than
achieving a ranking relative to peer states.)

We were critical
of claims a year ago that Quality Counts was the be all and end all of
analyses. This year, we’re even more critical given that the analysis is
still focused on the same
(and possibly outdated) categories, and hasn’t accounted for the “new
normal” in education wherein constant increases in spending are simply
unsustainable.

So, does this year’s rating drop illustrate that Ohio is on a backward slide and the reforms over the past year have failed? No.

Education Week uses six categories to rate state school systems:

  • Chance for success – an index that combines information on 13 life indicators “from cradle to career.” Ohio’s grade = C+.
  • K-12 achievement – an index combining 18 state achievement measures, graduation rates, and more. Ohio’s grade = C-.
  • Transitions and alignment – measures efforts to connect K-12 to early learning, higher education, and career. Ohio’s grade = C+.
  • School finance analysis- combines myriad statistical measures to account for equity and spending levels. Ohio’s grade = C.
  • Standards, assessments, and accountability – self-explanatory. Ohio’s grade = A.
  • The teaching profession – looks at a variety of teacher policies and reforms. Ohio’s grade = C.

Ohio should be proud of its score in standards, assessments, and
accountability, earning an A overall and 100 points apiece for the
subcategories “standards” and “school accountability.”  Ohio’s lowest
marks relate to school spending, K-12 achievement change and equity, and
college readiness, though these rankings fall somewhere in the middle
of the pack (in other words, other states struggle with these areas as
well).  

Beyond the grades given in each category (which Education Week
compiles for every annual edition), what this year’s report rightly
does is differentiate promises from reality – and in this way should
serve as a wakeup call to Ohio that other states are rapidly moving
ahead of us in certain reform areas.

Education Week gives states credit only for reforms that
have been enacted – not for plans made no matter how promising they
might be.  For example, even if Ohio districts follow through on
promises to overhaul teacher evaluations as part of Race to the Top,
none of these changes have taken place and they aren’t codified in law
(as in other states), leaving troublesome room for districts to back out
of promises down the road.

Perhaps the most illuminating part of the report is a simple
checklist (under “The Fiscal Crisis and Education Policy”) illustrating
several areas where Ohio has stalled compared to peer states. For
example, the checklist places a “no” next to areas such as “Statewide
salary schedule – did the state freeze or reduce teacher compensation?”
and “Did the state change teacher layoff criteria?”

While many states have made such changes, Ohio hasn’t. While 22
states have adjusted funding or rules and benefits for teacher pensions,
Ohio has not. While 11 others have loosened state regulations on class
size, Ohio hasn’t budged – and our current school funding model would
actually tighten class-size mandates.

Given the fiscal distress facing nearly every state, Education Week
should score states on these issues and base the overall grade, in
part, on how well states are responding to the new budgetary reality.  

When it comes to loosening requirements, overhauling teacher
personnel policies (such as evaluations, pay, and seniority-based
layoffs), and giving districts and schools more flexibility in the face
of budget cuts, Ohio should move into swift action. (See these
recommendations, along with others, in our Education Imperatives for Ohio.)
It is in these areas, not the overall grades (many of which are
inflated), that Ohio should be worried about keeping up with the
Joneses, or rather the Colorados and Floridas.

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