Beyond Tinkering

A frank and at times sobering discussion about the future of Ohio's education system drew a host of concerned educators, philanthropists and policymakers to Columbus last week. "Beyond Tinkering: A Conversation about Education and Ohio's Economic Future" was hosted by the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, the Ohio Business Roundtable and the Policy Innovation in Education Network (PIE Net), of which Fordham is a part.

The day-long seminar featured remarks by the governor and a panel of legislative leaders--including Speaker Jon Husted and Senate President Bill Harris. And while each had his/her priorities (extended school day/calendar for Governor Strickland, STEM for Husted, and fewer charters for minority leaders Teresa Fedor and Joyce Beatty), there was unanimity in their message: The state's education system, while improving, is in need of serious reform if Ohio's citizens and its economy are to compete and prosper in the global marketplace.

How drastic a reform? The most radical vision belonged to Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). Citing the report Tough Choices or Tough Times by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, Tucker rendered a compelling argument for top-to-bottom reconstruction of the schooling enterprise.

In lieu of the current system, he and the New Commission envision a more efficient, streamlined replacement--one that would, among other things, 

  • "graduate" students at age sixteen so they can enter college-credit course programs such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, attend classes at community/technical colleges, or pursue other academic options; 
  • eliminate district-level bureaucratic control and create loose networks of "contract" schools open to all students and run by independent operators; 
  • raise teacher quality by recruiting top-notch college graduates and paying them as much as $110,000 per year for top-notch performance; and
  • provide high-quality early childhood education.

To offer a more Ohio-specific--but almost equally radical--version of system redesign, Andrew Moffit of McKinsey & Co. discussed Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio (see our analysis here), commissioned by Achieve, Inc. In it, the McKinsey team calls for such reforms as  

  • empowering principals to be instructional--and autonomous--leaders;
  • improving the quality of state content standards and assessments;
  • ratcheting up levels of accountability for both schools and teachers, while providing them additional and meaningful support;
  • offering a host of high-quality schooling options to all parents; and
  • raising the level of transparency and equity in the state's troubled education funding system.

Last week's discussion was not confined to "mega-reforms." Breakout sessions explored sundry other strategies ranging from revamping teacher preparation programs and accelerating innovation in education systems, to establishing a seamless P-16 education program in Ohio. The cast of presenters was equally far-reaching, including Arthur Levine, former president of the Teachers College at Columbia University; Cynthia Brown, Director of Education Policy at the Center for American Progress; Columbus Public Schools superintendent Gene Harris; and Fordham's own Checker Finn.

With so many reform options (and experts) on deck, the big question is whether policymakers and educators can summon both the sound judgment to plot the right course (the internationally-benchmarked approach from Achieve/McKinsey remains our preference), and the steady hand to navigate it, rough seas and all, to a more effective and efficient education system in Ohio. Beyond tinkering, indeed.

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July 11, 2006
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