The biggest education stories of 2016 according to you, our Ohio Gadfly readers

At the end of November, we asked you—our loyal Ohio Gadfly readers—to tell us what you thought were the top education stories for 2016. The choices were numerous and we appreciate all of the responses. In the spirit of “ringing out the old,” we give you the Top 5:

  1. House Bill 2 (HB 2): It is difficult to overstate the importance of this wide-ranging reform of Ohio’s charter school policies, which went into effect in February of this year. Almost immediately, we observed “HB2 effects” rippling throughout the sector, particularly in terms of sponsor decision-making around school closures. Additionally, “sponsor hopping” (in which schools seek out the sponsor of least resistance when anticipating a contract non-renewal) disappeared virtually overnight. Completion of the new, rigorous sponsor evaluations that were strengthened by HB 2 occurred in October (more on these later). Befitting the top placement for this story in 2016, there is much more to say. Stay tuned to the Ohio Education Gadfly for our detailed analysis of the early implementation of HB 2, expected in the New Year.
  2. ECOT vs. ODE: Ohio’s largest online charter school was embroiled in a lawsuit with the Ohio Department of Education for much of 2016. In simplest terms, the dispute centers around the manner in which e-schools track student attendance and scaled-up requirements from the state to more precisely document not just student “learning opportunities” but actual participation in class as measured by hours logged in. The department’s attendance audit of ECOT found that just 6,312 pupils could be documented as full-time students, even as the school received funding for over 15,000 students. ECOT may have to return 60 million dollars in state funding. In response, the school has fought the audit findings in court and in the court of public opinion. Expect to hear more about this issue in 2017.
  3. School report cards: Ohio released not one but two school report cards in 2016. Due to the delays in receiving the 2014-15 PARCC scores, the state released that year’s data in late February, roughly six months in arrears. In September, Ohio published school report cards again—this time on its usual schedule—for the 2015-16 school year. The upshot from both years’ data: Ohio’s more challenging standards meant that fewer students were deemed “proficient” on state exams. For some, this bitter pill has not been easy to digest, but it has been a necessary shift. For far too long Ohio created the false impression that the overwhelming majority of students was proficient on state tests—“doing just fine”—even as one in three college freshmen fell into remedial education. A more honest appraisal of student achievement is now coming into view, and we offer our kudos to policy makers for holding the line on higher proficiency standards.
  4. Charter sponsor evaluations: HB 2 puts sponsors (aka authorizers) at the front and center of Ohio’s charter reform efforts. As many know, sponsors are the entities tasked with overseeing the financial, academic, and operational performance of charter schools and holding them accountable when necessary. Sponsors underwent a new and rigorous evaluation, the results of which came out in October. Five sponsors were rated Effective; thirty-nine were Ineffective; and twenty-one sponsors in the state were ranked Poor, the very bottom category.  No sponsors received the state’s top rating, Exemplary. Sponsors rated Poor are no longer allowed to sponsor schools, while Ineffective sponsors face consequences as well, albeit less severe. The sponsor evaluation system is not perfect and needs some tweaks—among them, making compliance less burdensome and ensuring that student growth comprises a larger portion of the academic grade. But given Ohio’s historic problems with loose vetting of schools, sponsor hopping, and an overall poor track record, the new evaluations for sponsors—and sanctions tied to ratings—are a necessary step on Ohio’s road to charter improvement.
  5. High school graduation debate: Ohio is phasing in tougher graduation standards in the form of more challenging end of course exams starting with the Class of 2018. (Goodbye OGT!) An analysis by the Ohio Department of Education indicates that as many as one third of current high school juniors are not on track to meet those requirements and may not receive a diploma at the end of their senior year. This realization triggered an outcry among school officials clamoring for a lowering of the new requirements. It fell to the State Board of Education in its final meeting of the year to listen to testimony, discuss, and decide whether any changes would be made. In the end, the board decided to authorize a workgroup to study the issue and report back in four months’ time. Speaking of testimony, we have an idea that could ease some of the tensions: Check it out here.

If there is a theme to this year’s top education stories, it has to be increased expectations and accountability among all actors in Ohio’s K-12 education sector. We believe this is good news for Buckeye students and parents. State policymakers must stay the course and keep student success—genuine success that signals true college or career readiness—as the goal, even though holding firm will inevitably cause short-term angst. If high expectations remain, 2016 could well be the year which future analysts remember as the start of Ohio’s education renaissance.

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,