Eric Hanushek to Ohio lawmakers: Education policies must incentivize achievement

Last week, economist and education policy expert Eric Hanushek testified in a joint meeting of the Ohio House and Senate education committees. His testimony – which focused on the importance of ensuring that all education policies, including school finance policy, create incentives for achievement – came less than one week before Gov. Kasich’s budget was introduced.

The most debated education-related policy changes here in Ohio over the last month have been about Senate Bill 5, the Buckeye State’s controversial attempt to weaken public sector collective bargaining in the state. (Terry testified in support of the aims of the teacher personnel provisions in the bill, not expressly on rolling back collective bargaining rights.)

Hanushek’s presentation helped reframe the debate in a necessary way: undoing LIFO, or changing teacher salary schedules, or including value-added data in teachers’ and principals’ evaluations is not about weakening unions but about incentivizing performance, driving student achievement, and ultimately improving the quality of Ohio’s future labor force.

Given the highly politicized environment surrounding the capitol lately, it was good to hear an outside expert explain the research and remind lawmakers that the need to move toward achievement-focused policies predates the Midwest’s turmoil over collective bargaining and will certainly go on long after. Hanushek explained:

As important as the fiscal issues that motivate current discussions are – they are actually secondary in my mind to other policy concerns about our schools, although we shall see that there is also overlap. The current fiscal situation is pushing us to make a variety of responses. We should first respond to these pressures in ways that improve the system. But, second, we need to recognize that – even if the fiscal situation of Ohio improves – there are fundamental reforms that are needed.

His testimony included several policy recommendations:

  • Maintain a strong system of standards, assessment, and accountability. This is one area that Ohio especially needs to pay attention to. Hanushek called for more data and transparency, and noted the importance of looking at value-added as well as absolute achievement data (both are valuable).
  • Empower local decision making. Hanushek noted that it’s “insane” to think that Columbus can run all of Ohio’s 600+ school districts and 300+ charter schools. What works well in one setting doesn’t always translate to another, and he was even hesitant to identify a “state or district doing it well” (asked by one lawmaker) – though he alluded to Washington, DC, and Florida.
  • Reward success. Many current policies don’t reward success and so we shouldn’t be surprised when the variable we reward drives people’s behavior (attaining master’s degrees and credentials, rather than pursuing improvements to classroom effectiveness). Policies at all levels of the K-12 system need to be overhauled to incentivize the right things.
  • Create meaningful evaluations. Hanushek praised Washington, DC, for its IMPACT evaluation system. Ohio lawmakers have yet to introduce details pertaining to a new teacher evaluation system that would adequately distinguish varying levels of effectiveness. Getting rid of LIFO is a good first step but Ohio has a ways to go toward creating a rigorous, fair, multi-tiered evaluation system that measures and rewards effectiveness.
  • Fund schools rationally and equitably. If we are to hold schools accountable, of course we need to fund them sufficiently, Hanushek argued. But “if the discussion starts and stops with discussions of the proper weight for this or that, you will have lost.”

Read his full testimony here.

Eric Hanushek’s visit to Ohio was made possible by the generous support of the Cleveland Foundation, Diggs Family Foundation, Farmer Family Foundation, Fordham Institute, George Gund Foundation,  Mathile Family Foundation, Nord Family Foundation, and the Lovett and Ruth Peters Foundation.

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.