A conversation with the governor

Ohio Gov. 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 awesome; he clearly likes working a crowd and the Dayton crowd clearly liked him. No wonder his name has been tossed around as a serious vice-presidential candidate.

To date, however, it's impossible to determine what Strickland's specific plans for K-12 education will look like (and by the time he unveils them he'll be half-way 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 shared with 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.

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 funding for items ranging from pre-K education, to the arts, to school libraries, to rising district fuel costs. These weren't pleas for overdue education reforms, for higher standards or better curricula, for kids to learn more or teachers to teach better or 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 may 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;
  • giving principals more authority to set budget and staffing plans;
  • universal pre-K and all-day kindergarten; and,
  • replacing the Ohio Graduation Test with other measures of performance.

Where is the additional money to come from, particularly during a time of recession and in a state racked by grave economic challenges (see here and here)? In fact, it's not unrealistic to think state education spending may be cut, not expanded. Ohio already faces an estimated $700 million budget shortfall. 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." But, because of his personal experience as a psychologist, he also 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 convened a few weeks ago (see here and here).

It's no surprise when educators embrace such ideas-and it's evident that Strickland is listening mostly to educators and building on his personal experiences as a psychologist. 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 those 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 confused and imperfect ways, built itself the right education policy framework 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 economic competitiveness in the 21st Century.

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

Strickland is a national figure, too, a force among Democrats, and chief executive of a key "swing" state. What an even larger shame-no, disaster-it will be if the sorts of conversations he 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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