House Bill 176 goes nuclear on education

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In politics as of late, there’s been a lot of talk about “going nuclear” in order to accomplish a goal. Ohio now has its own version of scorched earth policy in the form of House Bill 176, a wide-ranging education proposal that, if enacted, would do away with standards and accountability as we know it.

Many of its provisions—namely ditching Ohio’s Learning Standards for Massachusetts’ pre-2010 standards and ditching Ohio’s assessments for Iowa’s pre-2010 assessments—appeared in House Bill 212 back in 2015. That legislation did not move through the General Assembly, but one of its key proponents is at it again. Unfortunately, the new version is an even bigger nightmare than its predecessor.

In a separate piece, I’ll take a deeper look at why using Massachusetts standards and Iowa assessments are two steps in the wrong direction. But for now, let’s take a look at a few of the other changes HB 176 is trying to make and why they’re not in Ohio’s best interest.

Eliminating graduation requirements

Ohio has been abuzz with talk about graduation requirements and how to ensure that students are being held to high—but not ridiculously high—expectations. HB 176 has a solution, and that solution is to pull an Oprah and just give everyone a diploma. According to the revised bill language in section 3313.61, diplomas will be granted to anybody who “has successfully completed the curriculum in any high school or the individualized education program developed for that person by any high school.”  

For most folks, this seems reasonable—if a student has passed her classes, she’s earned a diploma. But grade inflation and a general lack of academic rigor makes “passing classes” a pretty low bar. That’s why Ohio instituted graduation assessments to begin with. The specific assessments may have changed over the years, but their purpose—to ensure that kids have actually mastered the basic reading and math skills their transcripts claim they have—remains the same. If HB 176 becomes law, the state will be moving away from decades of requiring students to demonstrate their content mastery in multiple ways. What will happen to these students when they get to a college campus or out in the real world and realize that they have a diploma but not the academic skills needed to be successful? Who will hire them or pay for their remedial classes?

Getting the state out of educator evaluations

Within the bill, the state requirement that each district have evaluation procedures for assistant superintendents, principals, assistant principals, and other administrators has been completely removed. Teacher evaluations, however, would still exist—but only through policies adopted by local school districts.

Putting aside the fact that it’s unfair to evaluate teachers but not principals and administrators, the biggest problem with this change is that Ohio’s Educator Standards Board—which is largely made up of Ohio teachers—just released six recommendations for revising the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System. These proposed changes aren’t just a step in the right direction, they’ve also already been approved by the State Board and supported by lawmakers. Obviously Ohio’s evaluation system has significant problems. But fixing these problems based on solid recommendations from those who are most impacted by the system is a far better solution than doing away with the system completely.

Extending safe harbor

HB 176 would extend safe harbor through the 2019-20 school year. Safe harbor was originally put in place to protect students, teachers, and schools from sanctions brought about by the state accountability system during Ohio’s transition to new and more rigorous state assessments. Presumably, this new safe harbor extension is to give teachers and students time to adjust to yet another set of standards and assessments. But it also means that the state will end up having been in safe harbor for almost a decade.

Ditching district supports

Under HB 176, districts that choose to implement the bill’s proposed Massachusetts pre-2010 standards would be stuck with limited academic support. This is because the bill eliminates the requirement in current law for the state board to create a model curriculum. A model curriculum is based on the state’s academic standards and is designed to give schools an exemplar for how to design curricula aligned to state standards and assessments. Ohio law already leaves it up to districts as to whether to “to utilize all or any part” of the model curriculum, so doing away with it altogether can’t possibly be related to local control or flexibility. It’s just another casualty of the bill’s demolition of high expectations.

Then again, the lack of support from ODE probably doesn’t matter, since the bill’s proposed state assessments are from Iowa (pre-2010, of course) and aren’t aligned to any up-to-date standards or curriculum that Ohio schools could feasibly use. Without aligned standards, lawmakers are setting schools up to spend all their time teaching to a low-level test—and last I checked, that’s not what anyone wants.

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Believe it or not, these aren’t even all of HB 176’s troublesome provisions—the bill contains plenty more repeal actions and additions that are questionable and even downright irresponsible. When examined in its entirety, it’s clear that this bill has one underlying objective: To completely dismantle every aspect of accountability not required by federal law. It doesn’t seem to matter that accountability works or that these changes would ignore years of work to raise standards. HB 176 would transform Ohio into a state where academic expectations don’t officially exist and where we’re not quite sure what—if anything—students have learned before we deem them ready for the world. Our graduates, armed with substandard academic preparation and a given, rather than earned, diploma would suffer the consequences. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.