Beware of fake policy solutions

Image credit: Getty Images/Cn0ra

When I was growing up, “fake news” was the black-and-white photograph of the infamous bat child. Staring back at me in the supermarket check-out line, it was easy to spot—the line demarcating fiction from reality was as recognizable as the red and yellow tabloid headlines. Nowadays, fake news, defined by Wikipedia as “written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention,” is rampant, flourishing in social media like algae in warm lake water. It’s also harder to pinpoint, having taken on so many esoteric forms beyond the blatantly untrue or “good-old fashioned viral emails” of years past. (You know it’s bad when the ignorance of yesteryear brings on nostalgia.)

Today’s fake news is insidious and creeping—like an invasive weed posing as a hearty, colorful garden plant before wilting and seeding itself in the wind to multiply its damage. The most dangerous form isn’t the outright lie. It’s the distortion of fact, the misrepresentation, the half-truth. News isn’t all that’s “fake” nowadays. Too many public policy proposals also deserve this moniker—solutions that purport to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist, or that mislead as to what the problem actually is; ideas that score easy political points regardless of real-life impact or that offer unworkable solutions to genuine problems.

One such fake policy proposal now floating around Columbus, Ohio is House Bill 181, also known as the “Student and Teacher Liberty Act.” A press release issued by one of its sponsors promises that the measure will “liberate teachers and students from an unproven and excessively scripted system of testing and evaluations,” and will retrieve the “creativity and learning” that were allegedly decimated by the Common Core and its “affiliated tests.”

If you’re thinking that such language reads like a foreign policy scheme to restore peace after the toppling of an oppressive dictator, indeed more like that than a plan to improve the state’s testing and teacher evaluation systems, you’re not alone.

HB 181 is chockablock with troublesome provisions (as is another Common Core repeal bill, HB 176). Here are a few standouts:

  • Bans Common Core or any academic content standards developed nationally or by a multistate consortium. Ohio evidently must become a remote education island unto itself.
  • Eliminates the state’s current standards review committees for each subject, though by all accounts these seem to be thorough, teacher-inclusive, and working well.
  • Prohibits the State Board of Education from adopting model curricula.
  • Requires that the state use new tests starting in 2018-19. This gives Ohio a single year to develop yet another set of new exams—the fourth in six years—which are to be aligned to a yet-to-be-created set of standards.
  • Defangs the state’s third-grade reading guarantee by lowering the passing score needed as well as the bar for retention, and removes the autumn diagnostic test used to identify and provide interventions to struggling readers.
  • Removes a current incentive in law for districts to encourage all students to take exams—which could lead to increased opting out. This could jeopardize Ohio’s 95 percent participation rate requirement and place the state afoul of federal law.
  • Extends “safe harbor” for districts until 2020, furthering delaying meaningful accountability. (Safe harbor protects districts and charters from a variety of consequences, including closure, restructuring, designation on the scholarship eligibility list, and more.)
  • Voids the academic ratings of charter sponsors until 2019 and delays until 2020 the consequences faced by sponsors rated ineffective or poor. Rigorous new evaluations for sponsors were a critical part of Ohio’s landmark charter reforms passed in 2015.
  • Eliminates statewide frameworks for teacher and principal evaluation systems and allows each district or school to go it alone (in coordination with their teachers’ union)—overlooking the solid recommendations recently offered by Ohio teachers and the state’s educator standards board.

It’s unclear how a further delay in the state’s accountability system for traditional public schools as well as charter schools and their overseers will liberate students, especially those whose schools aren’t delivering an acceptable education. Nor is it obvious how yet another round of standards and exams will bring liberty to teachers, who have overwhelmingly expressed fatigue and frustration at the myriad changes Ohio has undergone in the last several years. Also hard to parse is the notion that a ban on model curricula would be empowering, when many teachers welcome curricular resources at their fingertips that spare them from having to rely on Google or Pinterest.

Walking back a decade and a half of accountability measures, thrusting Ohio back to the drawing board on standards and tests (again!), dumping the third-grade reading guarantee, and letting schools and districts off the hook for several more years is nothing more than throwing in the towel on nearly all of Ohio’s modern-day education reforms. Indeed, the bill sponsors admit as much when they declare that “Ohio needs to go “back to what we know works”—a sentiment that seems based more on cranky nostalgia and a desire to be left alone than on actual evidence regarding how best to lift achievement for all students.

Poorly thought out policy ideas aimed at blowing up the system (like 181 and its cousin, 176) are easier to sell when cloaked in compelling language—even when the guise is thin. This bill does nothing to liberate teachers or students. Some may genuinely believe Ohio would be better off rewinding the clock on education, but the bill’s provisions are “fake” inasmuch as they set out to solve problems that don’t truly exist. Ohioans have already rejected the much maligned PARCC exams; the state has developed its own set of standards; Ohio’s charter reforms were long overdue, bipartisan, and much lauded; and no one—at least as far I can tell—is clamoring to do away with model curricula or teacher evaluations entirely. But try telling that to people who’ve reserved lifetime echo chamber seats, fueled by confirmation bias, whose virulent opposition to standards and accountability-based reforms would have them believe just about anything. 

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.