Ohio goes squishy

One might think that leaders of the Buckeye State who have at least one eye focused on education would be struggling to prepare tens of thousands more kids with the skills and knowledge that global competitiveness demands in the 21st century: math, science, engineering, history, languages, and writing as well as prowess in "creative" applications of such skills and knowledge. No state is in greater economic peril than Ohio in 2008.

One might also think those leaders would be struggling a la the No Child Left Behind act to narrow the achievement gaps that separate Ohio's more fortunate young people from its growing numbers of poor, minority, and immigrant youngsters, and to prepare far more of the latter to complete high school and go on to succeed in college.

And one might think they'd be preoccupied with boosting school productivity, creating more strong schools, and fostering the ability of families to move among them to tailor the right fit between a child's educational needs and the school best able to supply them-not to mention liberating kids from dreadful schools and getting them easier access to good ones.

To be sure, some of all that is going on. One thinks of the STEM initiative and some of Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut's bolder moves. But it's not nearly enough. And that's not where the energy is.

No, at a time when Ohio's leaders should be more hard-nosed than ever about education, they're going squishy.

While former Florida governor Jeb Bush hosts a superb gathering of hard-nosed education analysts and policy makers from across the nation in Orlando these next two days, Ohio's Ted Strickland has invited several hundred Ohioans to a fiesta of education psychobabble, full of every loopy idea ever encountered in this field and as lacking in teeth as a three-month old. The "Governor's Institute on Creativity and Innovation in Education" (see here and here) will have plenty of facilitators, tons of background reading-get ready for such notions as "learner as center (finding their sweet spot)," "positive deviance," and more diagrams with circles and arrows than you can shake a stick at. Sorry, that martial imagery doesn't accord with the therapeutic feel-goodism that will infuse these hours-with continuing education credit available, of course!

Alas, it isn't just the governor. Monday the Plain Dealer reported a $1.3 million grant by the Gates and Hewlett Foundations (see here and here) to the Ohio Department of Education to explore "alternatives to assessment"-such as portfolios, projects, and the like.

It could be a good idea, provided that one is supplementing objective assessments with such valuable add-ons as essays, art projects, history reports, and so on. There are plenty of things one wants to know about kids' learning that cannot satisfactorily be appraised through multiple-choice test items. But alternatives to assessment is another matter altogether. Every state that has previously trod this path (famously including Vermont) has found that the unevenness and subjectivity involved in evaluating portfolios makes them costly, slow, and unable to withstand expert scrutiny and legal challenge.

Why is a state with so many urgent education needs and challenges moving toward soft-headed romanticism?

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