As the year winds down, the Fordham Ohio team reflects on a landmark year in the Buckeye State. At times, this year has felt long and arduous, an uphill climb that could prompt even the driest among us to want to spike the holiday eggnog. However, the state’s struggles haven’t been for naught; this year boasts some successes that would put a smile on the face of the Grinchiest of the Grinches. Here’s our take on the three worst and best events in Ohio’s education space in 2015.
Worst #1: Authorizer evaluation fiasco and its aftermath
Legislation in 2012 installed meaningful authorizer performance reviews. After three years of piloting and developing the evaluations, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) finally launched them and announced the first spate of ratings (including the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s exemplary marks). The ratings lasted all of four months. It was discovered that ODE’s school choice director had tossed out scores from online schools as part of authorizers’ academic ratings. That move was illegal, cost him his job, and resulted in all ratings being rescinded. The evaluation was sent back to the drawing board; Fordham weighed in on its hope for the evaluation to be rigorous but realistic.
The fallout has been immense. Among other things, the scandal is partly to blame for the delay in federal Charter School Program dollars—a devastating blow for top-performing charter schools that hoped to expand and replicate in 2016 (many of which have used CSP funds successfully in the past). This is unfortunate, given that the department had previously stepped up its charter school oversight considerably. Even State Auditor Dave Yost told the Dispatch that under HB 2 (see below), Ohio’s charter regulations were sufficient to ensure that the federal grant “can be spent properly and wisely.” The paper’s editorial board echoed his sentiments late last week: “Here’s hoping recent positive signs and leadership appeals can sway the feds to release the money, and that it will indeed be spent wisely.”
Best #1: Passage of landmark charter reform legislation (HB 2)
On October 7, 2015, Ohio lawmakers passed a sweeping overhaul of charter school law, and the state’s charter sector finally embarked on the “road to redemption.” It’s hard to oversell this one as the best event of the year.
Fordham has a long history of advocating for many of the reforms HB 2 ushered in, but if you asked us last year at this time, we would have been hard-pressed to predict just how bold and far-reaching the long-awaited reforms would be. Throughout the year, the road twisted and turned; there were setbacks, questions, and delays. But in the end, the Ohio General Assembly approved and Governor Kasich signed a strong bill that focuses on good governance, accountability, and quality. The reforms hold the promise of dramatically improving educational outcomes for the 120,000 students who attend some four hundred Ohio charter schools. Everyone involved deserves kudos for sticking it out during negotiations, rewrites, amendments, and committees. This particular success indeed has many parents.
As the provisions of HB 2 come to life, the devil will be in the details. Faithful implementation by all players is of paramount importance if the promise of charter reform is to be realized. We look forward to that implementation beginning in 2016.
Worst #2: Watering down of accountability
In the accountability realm, the legislature was active this year. So were we. We typed until our fingers nearly fell off, urging Ohio to stay the course on accountability, remain committed to the Common Core, leave rigorous assessments alone, resist the urge to exempt at-risk kids so that schools might look better on report cards, and not give in to the increasing level of vitriol over standardized testing. We argued that parents and taxpayers deserve to know the truth about whether students are ready for college and beyond. The level of misinformation about Common Core and PARCC assessments was staggering at times. The opt-out movement gathered steam in spite of the well-known detrimental effects on schools and students. Whew!
The consequence of this general drumbeat against accountability? For one, the death of the PARCC exams Ohio. Worse, the state set itself up to seriously stretch the truth about student achievement by using too-low cut scores for student proficiency that overstate the proportion of students who are on track. Ohio needs to battle against the proficiency illusion, not hide behind it. We should be ashamed that we stand out among peer states as one of the few not rising to that challenge.
And even basic student growth measures are under attack as the year ends, with Buckeye charter school groups pursuing a “similar-students” academic measure to complement or possibly even supplant Ohio’s current value-added framework. Ohio has nothing to gain by changing horses in midstream.
Best #2: Fewer federal mandates and a uniquely Ohio path
The reauthorization of ESEA (a.k.a. Every Student Succeeds Act) presents Ohio with an opportunity to go back to the drawing board, rethink its accountability metrics, and design a system that tosses out federal requirements (think: Annual Measurable Objectives) and replaces them with more meaningful measures. It could also result in schools and districts returning to more well-rounded curricula and better serving high-achieving students.
After dumping PARCC—which was, in our opinion, a rigorous test that held tremendous promise (despite its logistical problems)—Ohio moved to develop its own tests with the American Institute for Research (AIR). The new assessments will be shorter, administered less often, and contain items approved by Ohio educators. While less time spent on testing is a good thing, the quality of Ohio’s new assessment will determine whether this is a “best” or “worst” move. At minimum, however, the Buckeye State remains committed to Common Core standards and will create exam designed to align with those standards. We hope this will restore faith among educators that annual testing is worthwhile.
In addition, teacher evaluations are no longer mandated by the feds. Ohio has an opportunity to make them more meaningful while reducing the overall testing load (though we don’t recommend tossing them altogether).
Worst #3: Defense of the status quo
This is a broad category with a number of dubious examples: folks defending the Survivor-like Cincinnati magnet school campouts, school districts “billing” the state for funds that legally follow students to charter schools, and complaints by districts about inter-district open enrollment based mainly on money rather than student success.
But one story rises above all others to claim the ignominious title of “worst defense of the status quo,” and that is the sad saga of Youngstown City Schools. For months, editors of the Vindicator (the city’s venerable newspaper) begged the state to intervene and save the children in the district from a school system that had failed them for decades. The editors went so far as to extract a promise of help from Governor Kasich when he sat down with them in September 2014. All this despite the fact that the district had been under the control of an Academic Distress Commission (ADC) —the state’s highest level of intervention for failing districts—for nearly five years with nary a blip of improvement. What happened when the governor and the legislature put this promise into action (in the form of amendments to HB 70 that significantly sharpened the ADC rules in Ohio)? We refer the gentle reader to the title of this section for the answer.
Community groups sprang up to oppose the imposition of the new Academic Distress Commission; state lawmakers initiated a flurry of activities and legislation designed to override the strongest impacts of the so-called “Youngstown Plan.” Legal action was threatened and initiated on topics concerning the legislative process, the timing of various aspects of the plan, the impaneling of a committee appointee, and even the holding of meetings.
As of this publication, everything is on hold again because the school board’s appointee did not meet the court-mandated definition of “teacher” and the board president plans an appeal. This is proof positive that adult interests are still at the forefront of business “the Youngstown way”.
The defense of the status quo must end in our state in 2016. The clear losers are thousands of school-age children and their families; the “winners” are calcified adult interests (personal reputation, money, and fiefdoms). We at Fordham will continue to urge schools and districts to investigate new ways of bringing high-quality education to all students.
Best #3: Cleveland: The beginnings of a turnaround success story
Cleveland—like many urban districts—has struggled academically. But the city has stood out from the pack this year in ways worth noting. It posted gains on the 2015 NAEP exams, bucking the national downward trend for cities and serving as one of Ohio’s only bright spots on the most recent round of testing. It was named among the best cities for charter-district collaboration by Fordham in a national report, and its designation as one of seven “compact” cities by the Gates Foundation late last year signals broader faith in local education reform efforts.
Though not without its warts, Cleveland has laid out a strong reform plan and has many of the right variables in place for long-term success: buy-in from and engagement with parents and the community, a strong public-private partnership organization (the Cleveland Transformation Alliance), and bold district leadership. Taking a cue from Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus have created local public-private partnerships of their own.
Outside of education, Cleveland has earned top spots as a city to build wealth, find good eats, be a baseball fan, drink microbrews, and visit as a tourist. Some would say that Cleveland’s place among the list craze is pretty meaningless; but when human capital is arguably the most important component of schools’ success, being perceived as a cool place to work and live can go a long way toward recruiting and retaining talented teachers and principals.
On balance, education policy in Ohio crept forward in 2015. Important course corrections were undertaken in the charter school realm, and recent reforms like Common Core and the Cleveland Plan continue to be implemented at scale. But all was not rosy—a scandal led to loss of public goodwill toward charter schools, and the testing tumult led to another switch in the state assessments. Early indications are that 2016 will be no less challenging. It’s critical that rigorous accountability systems be maintained, even in the face of pressure to weaken them. School funding must be fixed. Teacher policies and practices need a reboot. When the punch bowl is empty and we’re looking clear-eyed at 2016, it’s our sincere hope that we’ll see more of the best and fewer of the worst types of events that defined 2015.