Five policy recommendations for strengthening Ohio's public schools

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute today released its newest report, Accelerating Student Learning in Ohio: Five Policy Recommendations for Strengthening Public Education in the Buckeye State (see here).

The report comes as Gov. Ted Strickland concludes his 12-city "Conversation on Education" tour in Mansfield (see here); although, nearly two years into his administration, he has yet to tell Ohioans what his education plan will be. It also comes in the midst of a hard-fought presidential campaign in which both candidates are traversing the Buckeye State pitching their brands of education reform.

Barack Obama surprised many when, speaking in Dayton a few days ago, he called for doubling federal spending for charter schools as well as such innovations as performance pay for teachers-and doing something about bad teachers (see here). These ideas certainly accord with Fordham's recommendations for Ohio.

In contrast to the governor and long-cherished Democratic positions in Ohio, Sen. Obama is now calling for important changes that Ohio reformers and outside analysts have been urging for years. Some of his ideas, such as supporting quality charters while holding them accountable for results, no doubt come from his experience representing a Chicago-area constituency in the Illinois legislature. Chicago has been a leader in creating quality charter schools as part of the district's "Renaissance 2010" efforts (see here). Obama surely is also influenced by the charter efforts of Democratic mayors like Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C., Corey Booker in Newark, N.J., and former mayor Bart Peterson in Indianapolis. These mayors have embraced charters as a way to inject innovation and hope into long-struggling urban districts.

The Fordham recommendations, such as a new way to streamline school funding and another to recruit top college graduates to teaching, are designed to keep improvements in the state's public schools on track toward three critical goals: 1) maximizing the talents of every child; 2) producing graduates as good as any in the world; and 3) closing the persistent academic gaps that continue between rich and poor, and black and white and brown.

To its credit, Ohio has been moving down a coherent, school-reform path. The state has made promising strides toward creating a viable and competent policy framework for revitalizing and strengthening its K-12 system. But Ohio and its children now stand at a crossroads. It would be tragic, as well as costly, to jettison that framework and its assets as evidence begins to show that the changes instituted over the last decade are starting to pay dividends (see here and here).

The report offers relevant examples of the best practices and thinking from across the nation and world as well as within Ohio. It is mindful of the economic challenges facing policymakers and lawmakers, and its recommendations seek to maximize the return on state education dollars by building on infrastructure and investments already in place.

The five recommendations include:                           

  1. Creating world-class standards and stronger accountability mechanisms. Successful education systems hold schools, educators, and students accountable for their academic performance. The best systems in the world challenge their children with high standards and rigorous, equitable assessments. Ohio needs to build on its progress by aligning its K-12 standards with the knowledge and skills needed for success in post-secondary education and today's global economy and by benchmarking its standards against high-performing states and nations.
  2. Ensuring that funding is fairly allocated among all children and schools. To ensure that monies are allocated fairly, efficiently, and accountably, and are targeted at the differing needs of children, the current system should be replaced by a weighted-funding plan wherein per-pupil amounts "weighted" according to the specific needs of individual youngsters follow them to the public schools they choose to attend. 
  3. Recruiting the best and brightest to lead schools and empowering them to succeed. Ohio should recruit school leaders from many different professions and backgrounds. School districts should be encouraged to look for proven leadership talent rather than paper credentials. These leaders should be fully empowered to lead their schools to new levels of performance. They should receive substantial bonuses for improving student achievement and their job tenure should be directly linked to school performance.
  4. Improving teacher quality. The evidence is overwhelming that quality teachers are the prime drivers of student success. To improve Ohio's teaching force, we need to:
         - Open the doors to talented college graduates and mid-careerists.
    Help good teachers become great.
    Create a competitive compensation system and sustainable retirement systems.
    Empower school leaders to engage, deploy, compensate, develop, and retain top instructional talent.
  5. Expanding the quality of, and access to, a range of high-performing school options. One-size-fits-all education doesn't work. Students and parents need the ability to choose the best school options based on calendar, academic emphasis, pedagogy, philosophy, and technology. Public-education alternatives also provide needed competition to traditional schools so that all schools can improve. The state also needs to strengthen its capacity to overhaul and close schools that persistently fail to deliver results. Ohio's children will prove the beneficiaries.

These recommendations draw heavily on work done over the past decade by many other organizations, including Achieve, McKinsey & Co. (see here), the Ohio Grantmakers Forum (see here), the National Governors Association (see here), the Council of Chief State School Officers (see here), the National Center on Education and the Economy (see here), and Ohio's State Board of Education and Department of Education (see here).

The national election already shows signs of renewed bipartisan convergence around such key education-reform principles as results-based accountability, better teachers, and more quality choices among schools. Ohioans would benefit mightily if the state's policy makers follow that lead. Fordham's recommendations for improving education in the Buckeye State are shared in that spirit and hope.

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