As 2013 draws to a close, let us turn our attention to the five top education issues that will make waves in Ohio in 2014.

Before we begin the countdown, it’s worth noting that many of these topics are going to look familiar to education-policy wonks for two reasons. First, 2014 is an election year. Historically, there has been less legislative activity during election years, so we probably won’t see a lot of new initiatives. Second, while 2013 was a busy policy year chock full of significant changes, there are still important initiatives that can be best described as unfinished business. Ohio leaders are likely to go back and try to finish what they started.

Without further ado, here are the top five education topics that will hit your radar in the new year.

5. Student data privacy

Concerns about student data privacy have taken center stage as an issue related to the Common Core State Standards. This concern has generated standalone legislation to strengthen Ohio’s data-privacy laws. House Education Vice Chair Andy Brenner has led this effort by sponsoring House Bill 181. The bill prevents the State Board of Education or the Department of Education from releasing or requiring the release of a student’s personally identifiable information to the federal government or to a multi-state test consortium, puts forth specific guidelines for and limitations upon the release of student information, and requires the annual disclosure of any approved student information releases made the prior year. Rep. Brenner shepherded the bill through the committee process and on December 11 secured the overwhelming support (87 to 6) of the Ohio House. The legislation will now move to the Senate for its consideration.

Our view: While student data protections already in place are likely sufficient, legislators have taken the prudent step of strengthening those measures. However, policymakers need to make sure that the language adopted would not unintentionally prohibit the high-quality research on student learning often conducted by universities.

4. The Constitutional-Modernization Commission

House Bill 188 created the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission (OCMC). The commission, composed of twelve members of the General Assembly and twenty members of the public, is tasked with studying the Ohio Constitution, promoting an exchange of ideas about desired changes, and making any recommended changes to the legislature. Because the work of the commission will be ongoing through 2021, it wouldn’t typically draw a lot of attention in any one year. Recently, however, the OCMC has begun to seek input on education provisions. The Ohio Constitution doesn’t say a lot about education, but it has generated significant litigation (i.e., the DeRolph school-funding case) and debate on whether the Constitution’s provisions match up with today’s educational system.

Our view: Policy makers and the public should pay close attention to the hearings and recommendations generated by this commission. Recent testimony has explored how and whether the Constitution should address early learning, charter schools, and adequacy in school funding. These alone are important enough issues to show that the OCMC could have a significant impact in reshaping our education system.

3. Gifted Education

Ohio issued a new school report card this year. One of the new components was the awarding of an A to F grade based upon the progress of a school’s gifted students. This represents a significant shift from the past, when the unspoken assumption was that gifted students would be just fine. The results across the state were very uneven, and it’s clear even in some high-performing districts that gifted students might not be seeing the kind of academic progress one might expect from Ohio’s top students.

Around the same time, the State Board of Education’s rules related to the provision of services for gifted students were also up for their five-year review. The debate during that review regarding the rules and how prescriptive they should be has been heated. (For a thorough synopsis of the rule deliberations from the perspective of gifted-student advocates, visit the website of the Ohio Association for Gifted Children). While many factors have influenced the course of the debate, the most significant difference really is whether gifted rules should be focused more on system inputs or student outputs.

Our view: The rather mediocre progress of Ohio’s top students should give us all pause. We have consistently called for an increased attention on the learning needs of gifted students, so it’s heartening to see significant attention being paid to the issue. That being said, it’s not entirely clear that we are arriving at a solution that will truly help gifted students and their parents. Policymakers would do well to consider less traditional methods to improve gifted services, like creating exam schools or specialized charter schools, arming parents of gifted students with more transparent and complete information upon which to advocate for their student’s needs and providing an escape for gifted students through expanded school choice when the school district refuses to provide the necessary services.

2. Teacher Evaluations

In 2011, Ohio passed legislation changing the way teacher evaluations are conducted. For the first time, the state requires annual evaluations of virtually every teacher and specifies that half of a teacher’s evaluation be determined by value added or by the learning gains made by his or her students. Realizing the significance of these changes, districts were tasked with having the evaluation systems in place for the 2013–14 school year. With the evaluations now upon us, Senator Randy Gardner recently introduced Senate Bill 229 which would, at the discretion of the local school district, reduce the weight given in teacher evaluations to value added measures from 50 percent to 35 percent and allow districts to find other measures (including student surveys) for the remaining 15 percent of the evaluation. The bill would also permit school districts to evaluate higher-performing teachers every second or third year instead of annually. While teacher-evaluation systems are typically controversial, Senator Gardner’s bill was not, as he guided it from introduction to unanimous passage by the Senate in less than a month (gaining media support in the process). The bill is now moving to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Our view: Ohio has made progress over the last few years in reshaping its teacher-evaluation system. Before that, an evaluation in Ohio was little more than a rubber-stamp review that would be inappropriate anywhere outside of Lake Wobegon. Yet despite the increased rigor in the state’s evaluation system, it isn’t perfect. There isn’t anything magical or scientific about 50 percent of an evaluation being based upon student achievement. What’s more, we should keep a watchful eye on legislators, lest they hedge and regress to the days when student achievement simply didn’t matter. As for decreasing the frequency of evaluations for the highest-performing teachers, this could be a prudent change if it is applied only to the top teachers (not to 70 or 80 percent of the state’s teachers) and doesn’t detract from the newly created dynamic whereby the principal is actively and regularly engaged in the evaluative process of teachers.

1. Common Core State Standards

The top education story for the last half of 2013, the Common Core will likely dominate headlines in the coming year, as well. Representative Andy Thompson’s House Bill 237, which would prevent Ohio from participating in the Common Core State Standards, has already had two bill hearings in the House Education Committee (it’s unclear whether it will receive any additional hearings). However, Senate Bill 237—a similar measure recently filed by Senator Jordan—could garner some attention as well. With or without additional legislative activity, the Common Core will continue to be a major topic because school districts across the state will be working on its implementation, new tests aligned with the standards will be field tested this spring, and the standards debate itself has created a relatively small but vocal opposition group.

Our view: Fordham has advocated for a very long time that all states, including Ohio, need to have high academic standards. While we believe that the Common Core State Standards are a rigorous and demanding set of academic expectations, we appreciatee how Ohio’s leaders are willing to hold hearings and make sure that the public’s voice has been heard. It’s critical now that Ohio continues aggressively implementing the new learning standards without delay.

Given the importance and complexity of some of the issues that made this list, it’s hard to believe that 2014 will be a slow year in education reform. This serves as proof positive of the incredible pace of reforms that the Buckeye State has embarked upon over the last few years. While we hope this list is a helpful primer for what’s to come, another campaign season upon us suggests that it would be wise to expect the unexpected.

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