It's deja vu for Bob Taft

Ohio's budget problems and efforts to reformulate education policy reminded former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft of his days as the state's chief executive from 1999 to 2007. Like Gov. Ted Strickland, Taft had his own economic and education pains that included disagreements with members of the Ohio General Assembly. As governor, he led efforts to reform standards and accountability in Ohio schools and to direct more state money to the neediest classrooms. He also launched a massive school building effort. As he points out in the following interview with the Ohio Education Gadfly's Mike Lafferty, Gov. Taft learned a lot about education in the process. Since leaving office, Taft has been on the faculty of the University of Dayton, where he has continued a close interest in state and national education issues.

Are you glad you're not governor right now? Do you have some sympathy for Gov. Strickland?

I miss some of the action -- not all of it -- and I miss the people I worked with. But 30 years in elective office is plenty. I'm glad not to have to campaign and raise money. It's no fun to close institutions and cut budgets. We went through some very tough times. We did that temporary tax increase. Those are painful decisions.

Was Gov. Strickland staking his governorship on education a smart move?

I don't want to comment on that but I do commend Gov. Strickland for putting education high on his agenda, overall, and coming out with proposals that focus on more than just funding....We focused very hard in making sure there were enough resources for every school in Ohio. EdTrust cited Ohio as one of the best in closing the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.... No matter where you lived, there were enough resources to provide a good education, not that some [wealthy] districts weren't spending more than adequate funding might require.... There was enough money to provide a good education for all kids....When I came in, the school-funding lawsuit was still unresolved. Between the additional funds for operations (forced, in part, by the DeRolph lawsuit), especially for the poorest districts, and the school-building effort, there was a lot of improvement.... Notwithstanding our efforts to improve school funding, my goal was to create a higher priority on student achievement and learning than on funding. We were focused on creating a system of clear, understandable academic standards, aligned assessments and an aligned accountability system.

What's your reaction to the education plans in the new state budget?

I don't want to cast blame anywhere. The Republican senators deserve significant credit for preserving the state's charter-school program, which was under heavy threat. Some of the positive parts of the governor's proposal made it through, including the changes in teacher tenure and standards for teacher removal, and also the move toward a new graduation standard, which includes statewide ACT testing and end-of-course exams. That's a step in the right direction toward aligning high-school standards with what it takes to succeed in college and get a good job.

It was disappointing that the budget does not fund [college-readiness] schools like DECA [the Dayton Early College Academy]. These schools have already shown great promise for meeting Gov. Strickland's and Chancellor Eric Fingerhut's goals of increasing college attendance and success rates, especially among "first-generation" college students. The effort to water down the core academic standards with new criteria that are almost impossible to measure was also disappointing, but it is encouraging that Ohio is participating with 45 other states to craft national standards for reading and math.

It was also disappointing that the budget terminated the Partnership for Continued Learning, which was created to align elementary and secondary standards to college and beyond. I continue to believe there is a need for a formal statewide pre-K-to-16 coordinating body if Ohio is going to make real progress in creating an aligned system of education. Finally, it was unfortunate that the language in the Senate version tying teacher standards and evaluation to classroom performance through value-added data was not included in the final bill. Ohio is ahead of the nation in collecting value-added information, but that progress is wasted if we cannot push the data down to the classroom and teacher level.

Is there any state we should emulate?

Indiana is doing a better job on expanding college access by encouraging all students to take a rigorous core curriculum and also in guaranteeing college funding (through a 21st century scholars program) for low-income, academically performing students.... They also have a strong pre-K-to-16 coordinating body. Kentucky is ahead of us in promoting college access by requiring and funding the ACT test for all Kentucky students. They also require the ACT high-school readiness and tenth-grade tests which are aligned with the ACT college-admission test. This enables schools to address student-learning deficits early on and get more students prepared for college success. That's part of the governor's plan here and makes a lot of sense. Other states are ahead of us in implementing end-of-course exams although Ohio started a pilot end-of-course project this year.

Unfortunately, there is a gap in aligning what's happening in the high schools to the standards in colleges and universities. Working through the Board of Regents, the colleges and universities have defined clearly what is required for college readiness in math and English language arts and have equated that to ACT scores. Unfortunately, our high-school graduation standards haven't caught up with these college-readiness criteria..... This is why the Partnership for Continued Learning was created - to get all the players working together under the governor's leadership to create a pre-K- to-college graduation system that is aligned and integrated.

Is a good education a matter of money?          

Overall, funding is not the biggest obstacle to school improvement in Ohio. It's how we can best use the time and talent of educators to improve education for all kids, particularly for kids in urban areas.... Resources are important but more important is how the dollars are used at the school level to change what is happening in the classrooms.

Is it time for a tax increase?

It's nice not to be governor right now and worry about those decisions....The temporary one-cent sales tax increase was not popular, but I believed it was necessary after all the cuts we had already made. Today, I'm not close enough to the details of the budget to answer that question.... I do believe, however, that it is important to continue the income-tax reductions underway because Ohio's rates are too high from a competitive standpoint when you put the state income tax together with our city income taxes. You don't want to be one of the highest income-tax states.... It's hard to compete with Texas and Florida [and other states without income taxes] but now we're not even competing with surrounding states.

What are we doing right in schools?

Some districts are doing extraordinarily well without spending a lot of money. This year I visited Canaan Middle School in the Jonathan Alder Local School District [in parts of Madison and Union counties] and the Fort Recovery Local School District [in Mercer County]. They were both rated excellent with distinction yet their per-pupil spending is below average. They take the standards seriously and work with teachers to develop formative assessments. In Canaan Middle School, every six weeks they do student assessments...and immediately after each short-term assessment they schedule a teacher day to allow teachers to analyze the data. There is a great deal of positive change going on in many districts across Ohio. There's a lot of innovation based on the data being gathered from our assessment systems.... That's why we're seeing improvement in many schools, even though some are lagging.

Value-added measurement has been a very important step. It allows you to see if schools and teachers are achieving expected growth.... We need to take greater advantage of value-added by pushing the data down to the classroom level as is already being done in some districts through the Battelle for Kids' T-CAP. Hopefully, teachers achieving outstanding value-added results can mentor and share their best practices. That's tremendously powerful....

And we're beginning to develop a strategy for good charter schools to recruit good operators and make sure poor schools either improve or go out of existence. But we also need to do a better job of dealing with poorly performing public district schools.... U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan [when he was school superintendent in Chicago] didn't tolerate poorly performing district schools. Urban education leaders need to address these issues. It will take greater flexibility with union contracts and collaboration with union leaders but we have to do a better job than we're doing. The urban results are simply unacceptable.

One criticism of education today is that teachers may know about teaching but too many are not expert enough in their academic fields to teach. True?

The issue goes to teacher-seniority provisions and contracts, and also to the available talent pool. Sadly, in a number of these urban districts there are teachers in math and science, particularly at the middle levels, who are not sufficiently knowledgeable in those subjects.... That's something the leadership in the district shouldn't be tolerating. How we recruit and retain good teachers in big-city districts, especially for the lowest-performing schools, is one of our greatest challenges.

What do you think of Chancellor Fingerhut's plan to boost college enrollment?

A four-year degree is important in our world today. Even more important is getting more students attending and being successful in getting a two-year associate degree. They can go on for a four-year degree but they can also go right out and get a good job. Community colleges are really tied into the marketplace.... There aren't many, if any, good jobs you can get right out of high school. College must continue to be affordable and state efforts to keep it so are important.

Beyond that, we need to focus on preparation before students get to college.... Sinclair Community College [in Dayton] has academic resource centers in nine schools around the Dayton area to provide courses in language arts and math. Then they test the students to see if they're ready. I'd like to see more efforts like that. We've got to address the reality that four out of 10 students entering Ohio's public two-year campuses have not earned a degree and are no longer enrolled three years later and three out of 10 students at four-year public universities have not earned a degree and are no longer enrolled six years later.

What did you learn about education as governor?

I didn't realize until shortly after I became governor that Ohio lacked clear, specific academic standards by subject and grade level. That was one of the first tasks we addressed.... Also, I wasn't fully aware of the potential for value-added analysis. I hadn't thought enough about how an accountability system based solely on student achievement doesn't tell you all you need to know, specifically whether schools and teachers are enabling growth in student learning. I have become a strong advocate for value-added measurement.... Another thing I learned after visiting many schools is that school leadership really matters and that you are not going to find a high-performing school without an exceptional principal.

The tools are out there for all schools in the state to do a superb job with all students. The incentives have to be right and school leaders must learn how to use their educators' time most efficiently and give teachers the data and the time to reflect on the data and learn from each other.

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