Tony Bennett and David Driscoll speak to Ohio Senate Finance Committee

This morning Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett and former Commissioner of Education for the state of Massachusetts (and Fordham board member) David Driscoll spoke to the Ohio Senate Finance Committee about education reforms in their respective states.

The Buckeye State is in the midst of its biennial budget debate, and with the budget bill ? mangled in some areas yet also improved in a few ways by the Ohio House ? now on the Senate table, state senators were eager to hear from two leading education practitioners who have been down the road before. And the road to reform is rough; neither Bennett nor Driscoll minced words about Ohio's financial challenges, the pushback lawmakers and policymakers will receive along the way, and the difficulty in achieving comprehensive, statewide reform.

The good news for Ohio is that we're not alone in pursuing the reforms embedded in HB 153 (or even in SB 5) and Bennett's and Driscoll's testimonies reaffirmed that the state is on the right track.

Bennett ? whose past career as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and sports coach became apparent through the countless sports metaphors in his testimony (titles for his slides included ?staying on the offense? and ?hitting the grand slam?) ? depicted a sense of urgency around lifting student achievement. With his team putting in place high goals for student performance and growth ? 90 percent of students will pass ELA and math; 25 percent of graduates will pass an AP exam or earn college credit, etc. ? this sense of urgency is warranted. Bennett said there is a ?scoreboard? as well as a time clock (literally) in the Statehouse illustrating student achievement data and Indiana's rankings compared to peer states, so it's no wonder that ?competition? is one of Bennett's guiding principles. Much of what he described about Indiana's comprehensive education reform package sounds very similar to what has been proposed or is already in place in Ohio:

  • a value-added growth model, and A-F letter grades;
  • plans to revamp the lowest one percent of district schools (though Ohio is proposing reconstituting the lowest five percent);
  • a move toward lifting caps on charter schools, and expanding choice through a tax credit scholarship;
  • a move away from LIFO and automatic salary increases and toward performance-based decision making (informed by rigorous teacher evaluations);
  • collective bargaining reform (focuses contract negotiations primarily on salaries and benefits).

However, there are several takeaways from Bennett's description of the Hoosier State that Ohio would do well to borrow:

  • A performance-based compensation system that goes beyond the traditional definition of ?merit.? Ohio's proposed system would allow districts to pay more for teachers in shortage areas or subjects and for taking on larger class sizes, and also aims to pay $50 per student making more than a year's worth of growth. Indiana will reward teachers in similar fashion but also for mentorship and leadership roles, which builds professionalism and a sense of mobility and opportunity in the profession. Indiana also will leave seniority and credentials in place (as 33 percent of the sum) which seems to make sense at least in the interim before more performance data is available.
  • Strong accountability for voucher-receiving schools. These private schools must test all students and be rated on the same A-F school as other public district schools, and will lose vouchers if they're consistently rated poorly.
  • A clear vision to communicate reforms to educators, achieve buy-in, and dispel myths from the outset. Bennett described the need to cut misinformation off at the pass. He and his team met with more than 38,000 teachers statewide, communicated via email and social networking sites weekly as reforms were being shaped, and formed an ?education reform cabinet? made up of teachers through which to vet ideas.

David Driscoll's testimony was equally powerful, in part because he sits on the opposite side of the political aisle yet agreed with Bennett, and in part because Massachusetts has experienced wild success (compared to other states) in terms of ensuring a rising student achievement tide for all students.? Driscoll, who was the commissioner of education for eight years (1999-2007), pointed to Massachusett's Education Reform Act of 1993 as the key impetus for change.? That legislation lifted expectations for students (in the form of more rigorous academic standards, cut scores for proficiency, and graduation requirements); educators (in the form of content-area testing and accountability); and schools/districts (requiring a disaggregation of student data and transparent reporting).

Perhaps his most compelling argument came in the form of a response to a peer Democrat, Ohio Sen. Smith, who asked a question about non-school circumstances affecting learning (?social issues,? ?family issues,? ?learning disabilities?) and how these play into the education reforms Driscoll and Bennett were proposing.

Driscoll's response was equally kind but unyielding (this is a paraphrase): ?There are two sets of facts. You are describing the first set of facts, and that's a given (poverty, non-school factors, etc.). But there's also a second set of facts that we can't ignore ? and that's that some schools do a better job educating kids of the same background than other schools. What will we do with that first set of facts ? just stop and do nothing? (I think the exact wording was something like ?we can cry in our beer,? which, with a Boston accent, sounded more like ?beeh? and was a pretty cool way of describing the pervasive culture of low expectations for poor kids.) We've got to do better than that.?

You can see Tony Bennett's full presentation here. David Driscoll did not provide written remarks.

Tony Bennett's and David Driscoll's visit to Ohio was made possible by the generous support of the Cleveland Foundation, Diggs Family Foundation, Farmer Family Foundation, Fordham Institute, George Gund Foundation,?Mathile Family Foundation, Nord Family Foundation, and the Lovett and Ruth Peters Foundation.

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