Ohio’s State Board of Education: We need a high bar, not just for students, but for our leaders

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July and August might otherwise be sleepy months best reserved for recovering from Ohio’s biennial budget process, lounging beachside, and avoiding one’s smartphone and computer. The downtime also creates space to reflect. In the world of education policy, there is much to ruminate about, especially when it comes to the words and actions of our state leaders and the impact their decisions will have on Ohio students.

One such group of decisions makers is the State Board of Education, a nineteen-member board of partially elected, partially appointed leaders whose stated vision is: “For all Ohio students to graduate from the PK-12 education system with the knowledge, skills and behaviors necessary to successfully continue their education and/or be workforce ready and successfully participate in the global economy as productive citizens.”

Unfortunately, board members’ vacillations in recent months on foundational elements like testing, accountability, standards—even the basic belief that schools can make a real difference in helping students—seem to undermine that vision. The board most visibly took up the mantel of mediocrity this spring during the state’s debate over what should constitute appropriate graduation requirements. In April, members adopted recommendations (later adopted by the legislature and passed into law) that set Ohio on a pathway to essentially require nothing of its 2018 high school graduates. It’s a quintessential example of state leaders peddling low expectations for students if ever there was one.

Other recent actions and remarks from board members seem to reinforce their tendency to waver. It’s important to note that the board’s official power is fairly limited—focused primarily on oversight of the state education department, teacher licensure, and decision-making on technical matters. Yet the nineteen members do play a leadership role within Ohio’s K-12 system. They regularly engage with the media, visit classrooms, speak with superintendents, and act as the de facto public face of education leadership in our state.

So what have they been saying lately on the state’s education matters? Have a look at July’s board meeting.

Third-grade reading guarantee

In a 12-5 vote, the board moved to increase the proficiency cut score for the third-grade reading assessment that students must pass in order to move on to fourth grade. This increase was explicitly required by the Ohio Revised Code (through past legislation that put in place the state’s third-grade reading guarantee), so the board’s vote should have been perfunctory.

Meryl Johnson voted against the heightened standard, explaining herself this way (as reported by Gongwer News):

“I also understand the importance of children being able to read, having been a teacher for so many years, but I just feel we have not taken the time or done the research to really find the best way to make that happen.”

I’m not sure what’s more alarming: that a veteran teacher admits to not knowing the best way to get a child to read or that a current state board member would suggest that Ohio should spend additional time conducting research when most everyone recognizes the importance of helping children read before exiting the primary grades. That’s not to say further reflection and research are a bad idea—but the lack of urgency here is striking.

Also weighing in on this issue were board members Stephanie Dodd and Martha Manchester, troubled that the threshold rose not only for kids taking the regular third grade reading test but also for those who take alternative assessments.

As the Plain Dealer reports, Dodd said:

“We have school starting in five weeks and we have children that could be retained when they shouldn’t be. That’s not right.”

Manchester said:

“This is a really big deal. I’ve known nothing about this, and all of a sudden I hear that there’s all these children that could be affected and it tears at my heart.”

To be clear, these remarks refer to students who failed the state reading exam and also failed the alternative exam. It’s hard to see why such pupils should be promoted, given that state law requires they be retained. The State Board of Education’s role as an executive agency is to enforce the law, not find ways around it. I understand the empathy shown by Manchester, but the fact that there are nine-year-olds who can’t read is just as gut wrenching. Moreover, what’s really “not right” is that local education leaders are asking the state to give them another reprieve rather than doubling down and doing what it takes to get more students reading on grade level.

“We can’t fix schools before we fix poverty”

The board also discussed the academic distress commission model that now affects Youngstown and Lorain schools. School districts that are chronically low performing will see a series of consequences that include lessening the power of their elected board (abolishing it after four years of no improvements). Gongwer noted that members “continued to use the words ‘dismantle,’ ‘privatization,’ and ‘takeover’ to describe the policy change.”

Meryl Johnson’s remarks would seem to reflect more concern about the rights of the adults in charge of the state’s worst-performing schools than about the children trapped in those schools:

“If we’re going to talk about stepping in to other districts and taking away the power of their elected school boards… I would like to see the kind of resources and assistance that we’re offering to those districts here on out so that we really give them the help they need instead of stepping in and taking their districts away from them.”

This seems to ignore the tremendous resources that Ohio taxpayers have already invested in their lowest-performing school districts with virtually nothing to show for it.

Linda Haycock obfuscated the issue at hand with her remarks, though she at least mentioned children:

“I wanted to express some of my skepticism for any system, any governance anything that is put in place to educate children if the socio-economic culture of the community isn’t addressed. It’s not going to surprise me at all if we get down the road and wait and see… the schools, the educational indicators still aren’t happening because the real issue is the financial security, the mobility of the children.”

Such comments aren’t atypical from our state’s leaders, unfortunately. But they are largely unhelpful. If Ms. Haycock plans to wait until poverty is eliminated before tangible improvements can be made to schools, she has a frustrating road ahead. And if she doesn’t believe that schools can make a real difference for poor kids, then why is she serving on the state board of education?

Ohio’s ESSA Plan

The board’s July meeting brought approval of Ohio’s draft ESSA plan (which now awaits the governor’s sign-off). That plan reduces from 30 to 15 the minimum number of students in a given subgroup (e.g., students with disabilities, students of different races, etc.) required for reporting and accountability purposes. Linda Haycock put forth an amendment to ax that change, citing a common but unsubstantiated refrain about student privacy:

“When you have such a small subgroup in a school district, it’s easy to identify the people who are included in that subgroup.”

Kudos to the members who defeated the amendment and who spoke in support of reducing Ohio’s subgroup size. Meryl Johnson noted that she would:

 “hate to see groups being left out… It’s very easy to ignore students some times.” 

This is essentially the premise of standards and accountability-based reforms in a nutshell—the public deserves to know how well schools are serving all students. ESSA’s requirements around annual testing and reporting information on student sub-groups is a key part of ensuring that schools are on the hook for it.

Meanwhile, Laura Kohler shared real-life experience from her term as a local school board member, noting that her district “learned valuable information about whether it was closing achievement gaps for students in subgroups.”

Live streaming

Finally, Nick Owens deserves credit for proposing that state board meetings be live-streamed, not only to inform “everyday Ohioans” but also so new members could get up to speed on past meetings. On that issue, Board President Tess Elshoff had this to say to Gongwer News:

"I've tried to work really hard this year on encouraging everyone to speak up and state concerns or issues and things of that form and I guess I'm a little hesitant because sometimes when cameras are on, people get shy and I don't want someone to not object to something that they disagree with because cameras are rolling… I guess my biggest concern is just that it may possibly change the direction of dialogue from board members, be it good or bad.”

Here’s hoping that our state board members can get over feeling hesitant, shy, or equivocal and act boldly on behalf of the 1.7 million kids they were elected and appointed to serve.

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is former Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.