Strickland's long-time advisor says the guv has jump-started debate

First Lady Frances Strickland is one of Governor Ted Strickland's closest education advisors. The Ohio Education Gadfly interviewed Mrs. Strickland in the wake of her husband's State of the State address, in which he proposed revamping the state's educational bureaucracy. The "over-emphasis" on standardized testing is harming public education, she argues. On the other hand, good charters have a place in Ohio and bad ones don't. For the wide-ranging, 4,000-word interview, see here. And for Mrs. Strickland's website see here. Following is a summary of some of the First Lady's key points from the interview:

While Republicans are unlikely to trust a Democratic governor's attempt to appoint an education czar answerable directly to the governor, Frances Strickland believes her husband's State of the State address has pushed Ohioans to at least consider change. 

"Regardless of how it comes out, there is a conversation going on about K-12 education that has not been going on before," she said. "There is a fight over education, over who should have accountability for it. And it raises the whole view of education. I think that's a positive thing." 

Many pundits saw meaning in Strickland's appointment of Eric Fingerhut to head the Ohio Board of Regents and, Mrs. Strickland said, that was prescient. 

"Ted had to find some way to be personally accountable," she said. "This was a signal he really means it when he says education is the key to our economic future. Now he's sending the same signal about K-12." 

Mrs. Strickland grew up in Simpsonville, a Kentucky community of about 250 people. She earned a bachelor's degree from Murray State University, a master's in guidance and counseling from the University of Colorado, and a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in educational psychology.

Governor Strickland is also an educational psychologist and the professional background of both husband and wife heavily influences some of the ideas they will explain to Ohioans in a series of forums beginning this autumn.

"We'll be looking for push back but we'll also be seeing whether we're hitting on something that feels right to people," she said. Explaining their educational vision is also the first step to changing how education dollars are spent, especially in resolving what she said is the continuing inequity in school funding. 

"If you look at the state's ranking with the rest of the country. It's not so low," Mrs. Strickland said. "But in terms of equity the spending that goes on with the children and what they need in Jackson and Vinton counties (Appalachian counties) are far less than what is available to the children in other areas. For example, I was down in (Athens) County, at the Trimble school and they had just had to close their library because they couldn't afford the librarian." 

In his State of the State address, the governor proposed minimizing the influence of the State Board of Education and making the state superintendent of public instruction directly answerable to a director of public education appointed by the governor and approved by the Ohio Senate. The governor also outlined a vision of classrooms as places that foster and nurture innovation, creativity, and competency and that substantially reduce the achievement gap between inner city and suburban students. But for that to happen, the Stricklands believe, the state's accountability and testing system must be substantially modified. 

"We have to rethink education and rethink what we want in the way of outcomes. Right now in this country everything is about accountability...with the goal to reduce that achievement gap," Mrs. Strickland said. "If reducing the achievement gap does not help lead to students who are more creative and innovative we've had our eye on the wrong thing." 

The current emphasis on standardized test scores is anathema to the Stricklands.

"I'm an educational psychologist so my professional life has been all about assessment...We couldn't place a child on the basis of just one test. That's just a rule of thumb. You don't get a full knowledge of what a child knows or what it takes to learn on the basis of one test. I...have known...children who just don't do well on these pencil-and-paper tests and there should be other ways for children to show how they know things. So this high-stakes testing on the basis of one test goes against everything I've ever known about assessment," she said. 

It's also affecting teachers. "We do have a bunch of good teachers whose hands are tied because of the restrictiveness of this testing accountability focus," she said. 

"We have to have accountability in the basics, but we can't let that drive our curriculum like it is. We have to keep an eye on what kind of a talent base do we need for the jobs of tomorrow. And if we just look at the fact that we're competing against (others) on the basis of reading, writing, and arithmetic scores and not looking for nurturing the strengths and the talents of kids, we're missing the long view for the threat of the short view." 

In fact, employers, she said, have been complaining that too many Ohio graduates lack the ability to work in groups, solve problems, and communicate well with others. They show up for work wanting someone to tell them what to do. 

"You can't get to creativity and innovation without that basic and procedural knowledge," Mrs. Strickland said. "But we have to push it to the next level. That's what we're rethinking right now....I've been looking more and more into the role of poverty on the achievement gap and the inner city schools; although poverty is just as much a problem in the rural areas as in the inner city." 

Educators, she said, don't fully realize how much the culture of poverty competes with schooling. Creeping poverty threatens all attempts at education reform, no matter their political or philosophic underpinnings, she argues. Many Ohioans have failed to benefit from the economic rebound of the last several years. They're particularly vulnerable now that the nation is facing recession. The continued demise of manufacturing jobs, catastrophic expenses resulting from the lack of health insurance, and the loss of homes to the on-going mortgage crisis, Mrs. Strickland believes, threaten to increase poverty and permanently trap the children of the newly unemployed in generational poverty.

So where do charters fit in? They're fine as long as they produce results, Mrs. Strickland said. 

"The presumption was the charter was going to be better than the public school and in many cases they find the public school is better," she said. "Certainly the achievement scores have been higher in the public schools than in a lot of the charter schools. We're not talking about across the board. We're talking about the accountability of charter schools and the fact that public monies were going into schools that were not functioning at the level the public schools were...." 

"Any school that is able to do a successful job of teaching students should not be eliminated and Ted feels that way," Mrs. Strickland said. "We're not talking about good charter schools here." 

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