For the better part of three decades, states have been implementing all manner of school reforms, ranging from academic standards to district report cards, from statewide graduation tests to new technologies, from teacher evaluations to alternative certification, from charter schools to vouchers. Ohio is fairly typical in this regard. It’s been struggling with all of these and many more, mostly sent forth from the state capitol.

How do district leaders feel about education reform?
Real gains to student performance depend mainly on hard work by district leaders, principals, and teachers.
Photo by michibanban

As the reform load has grown weightier, however, we at Fordham have come to understand more clearly that while lawmakers can help set the conditions for improvement (or get in the way of needed changes!), any real and sustainable gains to school and student performance depend mainly on hard work by district leaders, school principals, and teachers. Along with students and families, they fuel the engines of improvement, even as state officials may turn the key. 

In the commercial world, Ohio has long been known as the country’s “test market” because if something sells in the Buckeye State, it is apt to sell nationwide. (Ben Wattenberg and the late Richard Scammon once wrote that the most typical American was a forty-seven-year-old suburban housewife in Dayton.) What we learn in Ohio is surely applicable in other places.

And we’ve just learned a few new and important things about education reform as refracted through the lenses of local superintendents—including both some heartening information and some that we wish were otherwise. In a new survey, we asked the state’s 613 district superintendents how they view seven big reforms: 1) Common Core academic standards; 2) teacher evaluations; 3) Ohio’s new third-grade reading guarantee; 4) the state’s new A–F school rating system; 5) open enrollment; 6) blended-learning opportunities; and 7) school choice (both in charter and voucher form).

More than half of them responded (a remarkable rate), and our able colleagues at the FDR Group did a fine job of analyzing the data they supplied.

What we learned is that district leaders tend to support reforms that they can control, including implementation of new Common Core standards, but have serious misgivings about those that they see as sapping their authority and/or budgets (e.g., vouchers, charter schools, and external rating systems). Okay, you’re not too surprised, at least by the latter point. But it’s important information nonetheless.

Specifically, we learned that the following feelings are prevalent among district leaders in Ohio:

1)    Strong support for the Common Core

  • 68 percent consider implementation of these new standards to be an initiative that will lead to “fundamental improvement” to Ohio’s education system
  • 81 percent believe that, five years hence, the Common Core State Standards “will be widely and routinely” in use in Ohio
  • Almost two in three (64 percent) indicate that virtually all of their teachers have participated in professional development and are now prepared to teach to the Common Core

2)    Moderate support for teacher evaluations, open enrollment and blended learning opportunities

  • 42 percent say “teacher evaluations that integrate value-added assessments” are an initiative that will lead to fundamental improvement in Ohio education
  • 65 percent view open enrollment (i.e., free student transfers between districts) a serious option worth pursuing rather than something to be avoided
  • 59 percent think blended learning will fundamentally improve K–12 education

3)    Disdain for the third-grade reading guarantee, letter-grade ratings for schools, and school choice

  • Only 20 percent of superintendents believe that Ohio’s new Third Grade Reading Guarantee is an initiative that will bring fundamental improvement to K–12 education in the state
  • Just 8 percent think A-to-F grades for schools will fundamentally improve education
  • More than half (53 percent) think charter schools have hurt traditional school districts and worsened education for students
  • Just two percent think vouchers will fundamentally improve education

It’s a classic case of a big glass that’s either half empty or half full, depending on one’s school-reform disposition. We also uncovered some paradoxical findings. For example, about 70 percent of Ohio superintendents think the state’s public schools as a whole are “keeping up with a changing world” and giving most kids a good education. Yet 44 percent of them said that all districts could be doing “a lot better” than they are.

The best news in these data is the strong support for Common Core standards from district leaders, especially at a time when so many attacks on those standards are coming from both the left and the right. Yes, they have misgivings—and rightfully so—about various implementation challenges, but they don’t want it to go away. They think it can and will make a large and positive difference. Hurray for them and pooh on the doubters, critics, and political advantage-takers who are trying to weaken or kill it. On this front, the superintendents have it right.

It’s also a fact, however, that education reformers with more than one arrow in their quiver will be frustrated to see, once again, that many front-line education leaders are negative about changes to empower parents with more education choices for their children. That’s a pity because Ohio, like other states, needs both: systemic reforms that districts can make and those that give parents more ways to ensure that their kids get a solid education.

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