From straight A’s to STEMs: Four great things happening in Ohio education

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In our recent writings at the Ohio Gadfly, we’ve expressed dismay—sometimes outrage—at the education goings-on in the Buckeye State. To be sure, there’s a lot to be concerned about: The State Board of Education has gone soft on graduation requirements, and policymakers are talking about dismantling transparent school ratings and replacing them with opaque “data dashboards” that display a blizzard of statistics only technocrats can comprehend. On top of this is the reality—reinforced once again by the 2017–18 state exam data—that many thousands of Ohio’s children remain academically off track.

But amid this glum picture, there are terrific accomplishments and initiatives well worth highlighting. Consider just four that recently caught my attention (and feel free to send along others).

Ohio’s Straight-A schools

Let’s first give credit where credit is due—to the cream of the crop in terms of earning top marks on school report cards. The table below shows five schools that received A’s on the overall rating—a composite of Ohio’s various components—and on five critical measures of achievement and growth on state assessments: the performance index (PI), overall value added (VA), and three subgroup value-added indicators that are based on growth results for gifted students, students with disabilities, and students in the lowest 20 percent in statewide achievement. (Click here for a map showing the schools’ locations.) On average, pupils in these schools are achieving at very high levels on state tests, as indicated by A’s on the performance index. In addition, students across all parts of the achievement spectrum—low and high achievers alike—are making gains, as evidenced by the A’s on the value-added growth measures. Clearly, earning A’s in all these areas is challenging and especially so for high-poverty schools that typically score lower on the PI. But hopefully in the coming years, we’ll begin to see more schools break into this exclusive club. As for the fantastic five below: Job well done—and hope to see you again next year.

Table 1: Ohio’s Straight A schools based on 2017–18 report card ratings

Cleveland’s school quality guides

Led by Governor Kasich and Cleveland’s civic and educational leaders, the Cleveland Plan has been one of the state’s highest-profile school reform efforts. Among the plan’s central initiatives was the creation of a nonprofit group, the Cleveland Transformation Alliance (CTA), which among a few other things is tasked with “communicat[ing] to parents about quality school choices.” For several years running, the CTA has published a superb School Quality Guide that aims to provide independent information that can assist Cleveland families in their search for a quality public school. With 170 public schools, both district and charter, there is a wide range of options in Cleveland, though not all have consistently delivered an excellent education. That is why CTA’s user-friendly guide (and website too), including the most recent one released just this week, are so indispensable. This year’s version contains one-page profiles of every public school that contain key academic results—including their performance-index and value-added ratings—and importantly for Cleveland parents, information about how each school ranks in comparison to other city schools on these metrics. If they’re not already publishing parent-friendly materials like this, city leaders in other locales (ahem, Columbus and Cincinnati) should consider using the CTA’s work as a starting point. And the next big step: creating a common enrollment system for all district and public charter schools in a given city.

An evidence-based clearinghouse

Following trends in medicine and management, one of the catchphrases in education is “evidence-based” practices. It’s specifically referred to in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which requires districts to deploy evidence-based interventions if any of their schools are deemed low performing and in need of improvement. (Whether or how states will enforce this requirement is less certain, as Mark Dynarski of the Brookings Institution has written.) Whatever the case, evidence-based practices are on educators’ radars—and that’s a good thing, as research has often been ignored in K–12 education. While the U.S. Department of Education has long hosted the What Works Clearinghouse, which provides reviews on a slew of program evaluations, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) recently launched a new website intending to reach educators across Ohio. ODE’s webpage helpfully organizes studies into evidence tiers, based on the strength of the research design (from experimental to less rigorous methods), as well by type of intervention (e.g., curriculum or school climate), grade span, or content area. With any luck, ODE will continue to invest in and develop this online tool—there is, for example, only one study on “human capital management.” Lastly, one suggestion from the cheap seats: It would be great to be able to search for rigorous studies from Ohio. That way, local educators could more easily locate and learn from nearby schools or service providers—maybe even one down the street—that implemented a program that worked.

A growing network of STEM schools

With much fanfare, LeBron James’s new school in Akron opened its doors this fall. One of the lesser-known aspects of the school is that it’s part of Ohio’s growing network of STEM schools (science, technology, engineering, and math). As a relatively new innovation—the Ohio STEM Learning Network (OSLN) was formed in 2008 with the support of Battelle and the Ohio Business Roundtable—many Ohioans may not be familiar with the model. A recent OSLN publication provides a useful look at the growth in STEM schools across the state, which now include fifty-five schools, serving more than 25,000 students. As the report states, such schools must have open admissions; create partnerships with local businesses, colleges, and districts; use teaching methods “based on real-world problems”; and spread innovative practices through the network. Schools must apply to a STEM committee established by state law to receive such a designation. The network also spans “sectors”: It includes district-operated schools (like LeBron’s I Promise school), public charter schools (such as Dayton Early College Academy), a dozen or so private schools, and seven independently governed STEM schools. While a hard-nosed STEM curriculum may not be suited for all, Ohio needs to foster talent in the STEM fields to meet demands in technical careers. Kudos to these schools that are opening STEM opportunities to more young people.

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As Jim Collins writes in his classic book, Good to Great, we must acknowledge and confront head-on the difficulties of the present. But at the same time, we need always to maintain an unwavering optimism about the future. In the case of education in Ohio, there’s much hard work in the here and now to safeguard rigorous expectations for all students—and ensure that every child has opportunities to succeed in school and in life. At the same time, successful and innovative schools, along with important initiatives that empower families and educators, give us hope for the future of education.  

 
 
Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.