State Superintendent Heffner makes case for more demanding K-12 expectations

Ohio teachers and
administrators work tirelessly to deliver an excellent education to the
1.8 million students, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Heffner at the annual Ohio School Boards Association’s  conference
earlier this week.  So why are fewer than one in three of Ohio’s
fourth graders reading at a proficient level (according
the National Assessment of Educational Progress)? Worse, why are
achievement scores unimpressive among not only the Buckeye State’s urban
districts, but even among wealthier
suburban districts,
especially in contrast to students internationally?

Heffner argued lackluster performance in K-12 isn’t a
product of laziness, ineffectiveness, or incompetence on the part of educators
and leaders. Rather it results from an outdated system that “traps them in
mediocrity,” and has everyone working to the lowest common denominator.  But this wasn’t just a hollow declaration, or
a convenient way for Ohio’s school chief to shift blame away from demoralized
educators and cast it vaguely on “the system.”

Ohio’s educational framework quite literally is the problem, namely academic
standards, expectations, accountability structures, proficiency cut-offs, and
the fact that the “system” shields us from brutal realities rather than serving
as a true yardstick of how our schools and children are doing. According to
Heffner, student performance in Ohio is middling because academic expectations
for students are set too low. Ohio’s education system focuses on getting
students over a threshold of “minimum competence” instead of expecting
excellence. As a result student performance (and teachers’) languishes once
that bar has been cleared. (For example, once a student passes the Ohio
Graduation Test in 10th or 11th grade, it’s smooth
sailing from there.) Compounding this reality is the fact that our statewide
accountability system lacks rigor, and masks hard-to-swallow truths from
parents, taxpayers, educators, and the students themselves.

Lest this sound exaggerated or alarmist, Heffner presented
staggering facts illustrating that Ohio’s expectations for (and
characterization of) student performance are falling short, no matter which way
you slice it:

  • Two
    words: grade inflation.
    Last year, 57 percent of Ohio’s school district
    earned Excellent or Excellent with Distinction (A or A+). The number of
    districts earning that grade has more than doubled in five years.
  • Students
    aren’t college-ready.
    Of those districts rated A or A+, 41 percent of their
    graduating students (attending Ohio colleges) require remediation in reading
    and/or math. Only 28 percent of students in the class of 2010 who took the ACT
    were college-ready (scoring 22 or higher) in all four content areas.
  • Proficiency
    on our state exams has all but lost its meaning.
    A sixth grader can earn
    proficiency on the state reading exam by answering just 35 percent of questions
    correctly. To be proficient in seventh-grade math, a student needs to answer
    just 32 percent correctly. Even among advanced proficiency (the highest of five
    levels) there is a staggering degree of inflation: to be advanced on the Ohio
    Graduation Test (OGT) a student must answer 79 percent of questions right in reading
    and just 77 percent in math. And the OGT really isn’t a gatekeeper for college,
    either; it’s based on an eighth or ninth-grade reading level and according to
    Heffner has not a single “algebra-two level question” on it.
  • Comparisons
    with other tests confirm that Ohio’s is watered down.
    Fordham has long argued
    that NCLB’s high-stakes environment has led to a
    dumbing down
    of academic standards – a race to the bottom that’s easily
    exposed when you compare NAEP scores to a state’s results. How else might you
    explain the fact that while 43 percent of Ohio’s fourth graders scored
    “advanced” in reading on the Ohio Achievement Assessment, but just nine percent
    achieved advanced on NAEP? Similar gaps persist when you compare Ohio’s
    achievement scores against international tests (PISA, TIMSS).

With gainful employment increasingly dependent on having post-secondary
education, the old model of minimum competence won’t cut it if Ohio hopes to prepare
its young people for the jobs and opportunities of the future.

Ohio is smart to adopt the Common Core standards in English Language
Arts and mathematics, and in revisiting it social studies and science
standards. Those standards will be fully implemented by the 2014-15 school
year, but there’s no sense in waiting until then to start raising the academic
bar. Raising expectations (and increasing proficiency cut-offs some each year
until 2014-15) will condition students and educators to the higher academic
demands and mean higher rates of passage on state exams after the new standards
go live in 2014-15. In the interim, this could mean that passage rates drop.
Unsurprisingly, this conversation elicited frustration and defensiveness from
some local school board members in the crowd, who feared having to admit that
their Excellent with Distinction-rated schools aren’t delivering a gold-star
education to students, and who theorized that it’d be difficult to meet higher
demands without more state dollars.

Heffner’s only misstep during the speech was perhaps not pushing
back enough on this complaint. First and foremost, Ohio’s accountability system
must serve as an accurate gauge of how students, teachers, schools, and
districts are performing against real world expectations. This is true even if
that makes schools  look worse off in the
short term. To do anything less is to mislead our educators, our communities,
and our children.

and foremost, Ohio's accountability system must serve as an accurate
gauge of how students, teachers, schools, and districts are performing
against real world expectations. This is true even if that makes schools
look worse off in the short term.

Heffner deserves credit for spurring this honest
conversation and he will surely need support and encouragement from the
Governor’s office, state board members, lawmakers, and educators out in the
field when the going gets tough. Instead of making excuses for the state’s
schools – that times are tough, that federal dollars have withered, that more
and more students are coming to school with painful personal and academic challenges
(all of which are true but don’t pardon us from our responsibility to
students)–  Heffner insists that Ohio’s
educators have got to do better regardless
of these difficulties and deficiencies. This starts with an honest assessment
of where we’re falling short, and what we need to do to get better.

It seems ironic that while society in general is starting to
realize that the over-coddling, self-esteem pushing mentality doesn't
always serve kids very well
, and that qualities like grit, perseverance in
the face of obstacles,
and learning how
to handle failure
are attributes worth cultivating in young people, we’ve
yet to apply to that concept to the adults that work with children every day.

Kudos to Heffner for stepping up to the plate on this, and
for supporting statewide rankings for all districts and school buildings
according to Performance
Index score
; more accurate data on teacher
that reveals great variations in quality instead of lumping all
teachers together as “satisfactory” (note, Heffner acknowledges that Ohio’s
value-added calculation might still need
some work
); and the need for higher expectations and more rigorous ways to
measure how schools are delivering on those expectations. As Steve Jobs said,
“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where
excellence is expected.”Heffner has done a fine job of setting the bar for Ohio
and now the state’s educators need to meet it.

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