Conversing with Ted Strickland

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland is in the midst of a 12-city "Conversation on Education" that he says will inform his long-awaited education plan, currently expected in early 2009. I attended his invitation-only event in Dayton, and the governor came across as charming, caring, even grandfatherly. He was patient with everyone and showed a real sense of humor. His political talents are tremendous; he clearly likes working a crowd and the Dayton bunch obviously liked him. No wonder his name has been tossed around as a serious veep candidate (a job he says he doesn't want).

He's an obvious up-and-comer in the Democratic party and he currently presides over an important swing state. What he thinks and does about education in that state could be a portent of things to come far beyond its borders--besides being super-important to Buckeyes.

To date, however, it's impossible to determine what Strickland's own specific plans for K-12 education will look like (and by the time he unveils them he'll be halfway through his gubernatorial term). While in Dayton, he emphasized that he was not presenting any ideas of his own or of his administration. He insisted that he wanted to hear the ideas of others, and to share ideas that others had previously voiced to him.

This obviously makes it hard to pin down what he believes or where he is headed--and indeed it's possible that he doesn't yet know. What's unfortunately clear, however, is that many of the ideas being shared with him are self-interested and/or ill-conceived, at least in terms of Ohio's real 21st-Century education needs, which are mighty similar to those of the country as a whole.

Most participants in the Dayton "conversation" were members or fellow travelers of the public-education "establishment"--and nearly every one of them wanted more of something, starting (and often ending) with more money. I counted at least 13 unique requests for more money for items ranging from pre-K education to the arts to school libraries to rising district fuel costs and so forth. These weren't pleas for overdue education reforms, for higher standards or better curricula, for kids to learn more or teachers to teach better, for parents to have more high-quality education options or for existing schools to become more effective and school systems more efficient. They were, at bottom, demands for more of the same.

The governor also shared some previously voiced ideas and policies that he evidently thinks have merit--and, while several of these surely have potential to do good things, almost every one of them comes with new costs, too. They include:

  • A longer school day and/or year
  • Compensating teachers for improving student achievement
  • Universal pre-K and all-day kindergarten
  • Replacing the Ohio Graduation Test with other measures of performance

Where is the additional money to come from, particularly in a state racked by grave economic challenges (see here and here)? Ohio already faces an estimated $700 million budget shortfall, a problem shared by many states today. (Note, too, that over the last quarter century the Buckeye State has added an average of $760 million annually to K-12 education, meaning its real per-pupil spending has risen by more than 40 percent [see here]. Even this fails to satiate the "more" crowd.)

No doubt because educators make up so large a share of Strickland's "conversations" audience, lots of time-worn educator notions are also reaching the governor's ears, nearly all of them with some lineage back to John Dewey and education "progressivism" and "constructivism." Perhaps because of his personal experience as a psychologist, he seems sympathetic to this way of thinking about schools. Consider the rich array of muddled ideas aired at the "Institute on Creativity & Innovation in Education" that he hosted a few weeks back (see here and here).

What he may not fully grasp is that (as E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch, among others, have shown time and again) this approach to education works well enough with middle- and upper-middle-class kids who get plenty of structure in the rest of their lives, but it's disastrous for poor and disadvantaged kids who rely on teachers and schools for all the structure they can get. The Ohio youngsters who most urgently need to learn more are best served by a strong core curriculum, teacher-led classes and a coherent system of standards, assessments and accountability. They're also well served by being furnished the kinds of school choices that middle- and upper-middle-class families already have--and thus being liberated from broken schools that too many are otherwise trapped in.

In recent years, Ohio has, in sometimes confused and imperfect ways, built itself the right education policy framework (centered on standards, assessments, accountability, and lots more school choice) to address the needs of its poor and minority youngsters and its inner cities. With some considerable tweaking, that framework would also enhance the state's prospects of boosting all its young people to a higher plateau of skills and knowledge (and creativity and innovation) that would advance their own and their state's and nation's economic competitiveness in the 21st Century.

What a shame--no, what a disaster--it will be for the Buckeye State if the governor's "conversations" lead to weakening rather than strengthening and improving that policy framework in response to the predilections and interests of the lopsided crowd with which he is chatting.

What an even larger shame--no, disaster again--it will be if the sorts of conversations Strickland is having and the sorts of self-interested demands and scatterbrained ideas they are eliciting turn out to influence the national agenda as well.

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