Ohio’s school improvement plan underwhelms

Ohio just released its draft ESSA plan. While there’s much to applaud, the state’s proposals for improving the most chronically underperforming schools are underwhelming—serving to further remind us that sixteen years after the federal government began pushing states to turn around failing schools, our ideas for doing so are still scattershot.

Compared to past federal requirements for school improvement, ESSA is turnaround-lite—intentionally backing away from prescriptive solutions regarding school turnarounds embedded in NCLB and the School Improvement Grant program (SIG). Schools failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under NCLB faced a series of consequences including replacement of school staff, new curriculum, decreased authority of school administration, help from outside turnaround specialists, or restructuring of the school. Restructuring (similar to the more rigorous options that SIG put in place) included alternative school governance, reopening the school as a public charter school, replacement of most or all of school staff and leadership, takeover by an outside entity, or state takeover.

In Ohio, hundreds of millions in SIG dollars were spent with little to show for it. Low-performing schools were allowed to choose from a slate of turnaround options in exchange for funds; unsurprisingly, the majority of Ohio schools selected the least disruptive school improvement option—a professional development plan, an extra hour of learning time, and other supports that tinkered at the edges of change.

ESSA doesn’t require even these minimal efforts at turnaround; it merely mandates that states make districts do something, anything to address their worst schools—and step in if they fail to do so.

The nine pages of Ohio’s draft ESSA plan dedicated to describing its plans to improve low-performing schools (identified thusly) are unremarkable. That’s because Ohio’s ESSA draft contains many of the same elements as school improvement plans of the past that didn’t work, often reading like a SIG application: districts will “build capacity of school principals,” provide “targeted professional development,” and “work collaboratively with their community and stakeholders to determine… specific, evidence-based strategies.” It’s not that any of these concepts are bad, just that if chosen and applied at random they most definitely don’t result in systemic, long-term positive change. Under ESSA, low-performing districts and schools are often the arbiters of their own improvement plans. There exists a certain degree of madness in hoping that low-performing schools/districts will wake up one day and figure out how to fix themselves. Rather than push back against this premise, Ohio’s plan mostly appears to focus on simply complying with the (limited) federal requirements.

And there are few high-stakes repercussions for chronic failure, at least at the school level. Schools that languish in priority or focus status (see Table 1 for how these are to be categorized) will be subject to “additional Department [ODE] oversight on federal expenditures,” subject to more reviews, more paperwork, and more improvement plans (unless of course they are charter schools—then they are likely to close).

Table 1: Quick overview of Priority, Focus, and Watch Status

Ohio should also be cautious before creating a plan that defers too much to the “community” or ignores that school improvement is largely about changing what happens within a school in the way of teaching and learning. While the inclusion of mental health services in Ohio’s plan seems like a good one (this acknowledges the role that trauma and mental health play in truancy and academic performance), and there indeed may be a need for “a more coherent focus on addressing the needs of students, families and communities in struggling schools,” the plan’s lack of emphasis on changing what actually occurs within the four walls of a school on a given day is disconcerting. In fact, the section describing how Ohio will support low-performing schools in their quest to improve includes more references to community groups and organizations (e.g., “Community groups… want more of a voice in developing those local plans”) than it does to teaching and learning. This seems problematic.

There are some positive aspects of Ohio’s school improvement plans: the creation of an online evidence-based clearinghouse to provide resources to schools and districts as they go about selecting improvement plans; the department’s plans to “build its research capacity” and conduct performance monitoring in addition to compliance monitoring; the creation of a peer-to-peer network for districts to engage directly with one another; and incentives for districts to participate in random control trials and other research (important for building the evidence based referenced frequently in ESSA).

So what can Ohio do to strengthen its school improvement plans given that much of its blasé nature stems from an intentionally open-ended federal law? The state could consider two vestiges from the NCLB era that preserve parent agency. Under NCLB, parents whose children attended low-performing schools had more power than under current law. Children in a languishing school were given the option to transfer to a better performing school within their district and were also eligible for supplemental educational services such as tutoring. Despite historically low uptake rates for these options, they provided a safety valve for families.

Ohio’s draft plan lists “direct student services” as one possible intervention that might be required in instances where schools fail to make significant progress. The plan outlines expansion of Advanced Placement, “transitional coursework,” and early literacy initiatives among direct services. (ESSA also allows for high-quality academic tutoring—which Ohio should include in its list.) Ohio’s current wording for direct services is too wishy-washy: the state should commit to providing these services as a clear and consistent option for families when their students attend chronically failing schools. Ohio should also consider reinstating the student transfer option, perhaps even looking into incentives for higher performing districts that take on students from outside their borders.

As Ohio collects public comment over the next month, it should consider strengthening parent choice, guaranteeing the provision of direct services for students in chronically failing schools, and consider reinstating the “transfer out” student option. Improving chronically low performing schools is a monumentally difficult task requiring immense leadership and innovation. While Ohio districts take a crack at it themselves, the state should at least guarantee stronger options for parents and students who lack the ability to exercise choice by moving elsewhere.

Stay tuned for another look at how Ohio can improve its ESSA school accountability plan—specifically by walking back key portions that appear to go beyond what federal law requires.  

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.