12 years; 12 lessons
After twelve productive and happy years of working for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Ohio, I am moving with my family to Boise, Idaho to lead that state’s charter school network. I have loved working for Fordham in Ohio and am confident that the Institute is well positioned to thrive in the months and years ahead, both nationally and in the Buckeye State. I have also enjoyed the many friendships that I’ve developed in Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland and elsewhere around the state. Ohio is blessed with some fantastic educators and committed school reformers. These people do what they do for the sake of their communities and their kids, not for personal gain. It has been a privilege to live and work with so many dedicated leaders from across the political spectrum. Education reform in Ohio is too important—and too challenging— to be just a Republican or Democrat thing, and it has worked best when it has enjoyed bipartisan support. This is just one of the things I have learned during my dozen years in Ohio.
Here are twelve more personal lessons and conclusions, offered in no particular order that others might want to consider:
1) Ideas matter over the long haul, but campaign cash and raw interests carry the day in the near term. I’ve participated in policy debates around education in Ohio under three governors, four House Speakers and five state superintendents. These leaders have all struggled to balance ideas with realpolitik. Ohio has pushed some important initiatives over the last decade (school choice, higher academic standards, STEM education, Third-Grade Reading Guarantee, alternative pathways for educators, etc.), but most of these reforms have been tempered or even disfigured by moneyed interests. This has been true of both Republicans (pro-business) and Democrats (pro-labor). Examples include bizarre accountability rules for charter schools, efforts to keep groups like Teach for America out of Ohio, and funding guarantees for districts that are shrinking and serving fewer and fewer students.
2) No one welcomes accountability. Fordham has been an accountability hawk in Ohio and it has been by far the most thankless work we’ve undertaken here. Many school choice advocates, for example, declare that parent choice is all the accountability that schools need. Akron Industrialist David Brennan, arguably Ohio’s patron saint of school choice, vividly expressed this view when he told the Columbus Dispatch in 2005: “I trust parents. I’ve learned to trust the unemployed, prostitute, minority mother more than any educrat I’ve ever met in my life.”[i] People who run schools don’t like accountability for fear it will diminish or even eliminate their livelihood, not to mention their reputation. Educators don’t like accountability because they feel it is used to “attack them,” especially when it comes to policies like the 3rd grade reading guarantee and teacher evaluations.
3) Yet accountability is really important. Sadly, experience has taught me that too many families, particularly those in the poorest neighborhoods, simply aren’t – or don’t know how to be – very picky about academic matters when it comes to choosing schools. They often settle for such (admittedly important) basics such as safety, convenience and friendliness and pay little attention to math scores, graduation rates and college-going data. As Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev per nuclear arms reduction efforts, “Trust, but verify.” This maxim is as appropriate for education—and educators—as for arms control. Everyone does better work (and behaves better) when someone is looking over their shoulder. Another way of saying it is that every firm needs an independent auditor and everyone needs to know that praise and reward come with results and that embarrassment and intervention come with failure.
4) School choice empowers parents. Middle class parents decide where to buy homes based in large part on the quality of schools. When posting home listings, realtors list the neighborhood schools and organizations like Greatschools.org help parents navigate their options. But less wealthy parents deserve to have choices and school options as well. Parents who make a proactive decision around where to send their kids to school have more skin in the game than those who simply take what they get. Choice, accompanied by rigorous accountability, gives parents a voice in their kids’ schooling—and a fighting chance of getting their child into a good school that will work well for that particular student. It is important to remember that school choice takes many forms – charter schools, magnet schools, vouchers, STEM schools, tech prep schools, open enrollment, and increasing forms of intra-district choice. This expanding choice market will benefit students and taxpayers most if it is matched by rigorous forms of accountability for performance.
5) The state budget is a terrible venue for revamping education policies. For more than a decade, under both Republicans and Democrats, major reforms to Ohio’s education policies (e.g. school funding rewrites, school choice policies, academic standards, accountability, teacher qualifications , etc.) have been embedded in the state’s massive biennial budget document. Doing education reform this way ensures that really big changes to schools are made without the robust and focused debate that is nearly always essential for wise policy-making. Indeed, this policy circus is why so many education changes in recent years have had to be repaired just a few months later. Important details are missed because lawmakers and their staffs are swamped with so many different issues across so many different topics.
6) Education governance in Ohio is broken. Politics plays a disproportionate role in Ohio’s education debates in part because the governance structures for education in this state are multi-layered, fractured, and leaderless. No one is really in charge. The buck stops nowhere. Ohio has a state superintendent but his/her policy influence is tempered by a 19 member board of education, the members of which are seated via two totally separate procedures. The Governor and General Assembly set policies that the state department of education has scant capacity to implement, then lawmakers grow frustrated when the department fails to implement something well. This leads to the legislature micromanaging education by putting into law what really should be done by capable professionals and specialized decision-makers. It’s a vicious cycle where education policymaking becomes a blunt instrument that evokes bitterness and frustration from practitioners in the field.
7) Today, city-based school reform is the most exciting development in Ohio education. Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati are embracing education reform in different but equally bold ways. These cities and their civic, business, and philanthropic leaders are making it clear through recent actions that education and the needs of children are far too important to be left to traditional school bureaucracies to meet. Other Ohio cities should pay close attention to efforts in the three Big C cities, and not shy away from crafting bold reforms of their own.
8) Really good schools can make a huge difference in the lives of kids. In reporting on Needle-in-Haystack schools across Ohio (schools that do really well at educating high-need youngsters), it has become clear to me that all children, no matter how disadvantaged, can learn if they attend schools that focus relentlessly on educational success, hire and retain strong teachers, and are run by leaders who know how to build and protect school cultures that nurture and reward learning. Such schools exist in parts of Ohio and the goal of all public policy in this realm should be to create and support more of them.
9) Risk taking should be rewarded and encouraged. The most exciting and potentially most impactful part of Ohio’s recently passed budget is the Straight A Fund that provides $250 million for school innovation. With fewer than 40 percent of the state’s eighth graders proficient in math and reading according to national assessments, staggering achievement gaps that persist among racial and socioeconomic groups, and dropout rates in cities that cause an immense waste of human potential, risks need to be taken. The status quo is totally unacceptable for too many kids and families across the state.
10) Teachers need to be recruited, nurtured and rewarded. Effective teachers are the most valuable education asset that any state has. Given how powerfully they can alter children’s life trajectories, Ohio’s policy makers, district and school leaders should persist with the tough work of effectively evaluating teachers, providing feedback to teachers to make them better, rewarding and acknowledging the very best teachers, and recruiting into the profession the best talent available without making able people jump through silly regulatory hoops. The state’s most effective teachers should make real money; $100,000 or more for the very best would draw more and better talent into Buckeye K-12 classrooms.
11) Ohio needs to rewrite its charter school law. Ohio’s charter school law is broken. It is a mess of contradictory rules and expectations accumulated over multiple budget cycles. The current law doesn’t even make clear the roles and responsibilities of the key players in the charter school accountability chain – the Ohio Department of Education, authorizers, governing boards, and operators. Worse, it makes the state department of education both the overseer of authorizers and an authorizer itself, which leads to conflicts of interests and stretches the department staff even thinner. The law gives too much influence and power to operators (well-heeled for-profit ones in particular) at the oversight expense of the department of education and authorizers. Further, quality charter schools actually receive less per pupil funding than other public schools and no support for facilities. And, the law is riddled with compliance requirements that do nothing to protect kids, help students learn or teachers teach, but take up a lot of staff time at individual schools, authorizers (of which Ohio has too many) and the Ohio Department of Education to track and meet.
12) Ratcheting back the rhetoric around school reform could do some good. The political discourse around education has gotten nastier. The current debate around the Common Core is an example of that, and I admit that I have sometimes thrown out quotes and comments that I later regretted. Yet few worthwhile reforms can endure in a hostile environment. Would-be reformers would be wise to focus less on the moral case for their favored reforms, and more on explaining the practical benefits of necessary changes and how they will benefit not only families and kids but also taxpayers and voters.
Twelve lessons over a dozen years feels just about right. I hope some of them can help others, as education reform in Ohio is likely to be a constant companion for at least the next twelve years!
One final thing, Ohio absolutely has its fair share of education heroes. I’ve been inspired by some fantastic educators, lawmakers, school reformers, and families that I’ve met and learned from over the last decade. I won’t name names but I have spent time with superintendents who focus squarely on redesigning their districts to better meet the needs of all their pupils even when that means confronting great resistance and frustration. I’ve supported charter school leaders who worked 75 to 80 hour weeks to keep their doors open and their kids moving forward academically. I’ve cried with community leaders who had to close a school they loved but that no longer worked. I’ve met hardworking and diligent politicians who stood in front of critics and argued for policies they knew few adults wanted but persisted because they knew the policies were right for kids. I’ve met business people who have generously donated their money and time to support great schools and the kids in them. But it is the parents (many of them single moms or even grand moms) who make sacrifices every day to give their sons and daughters a better future that are the greatest heroes of all.
All the best to those working to improve their family circumstances, individual schools, school districts and cities, and to those scrambling to improve public policy in Columbus.
[i] Joe Hallett. “Self-appointed Superintendent Industrialist Builds Ninth-largest School District Using Political Clout.” The Columbus Dispatch. (10-23-2005).