Governor's education plan: great politics/mixed policies

Gov. Ted Strickland's hot-off-the-presses education-reform plan is nothing if not audacious. Gutsy, even, in its way, and wider-ranging than most people expected, it tackles a multitude of topics-sometimes in incompatible and contradictory ways-and picks up on dozens of ideas, some of them sound. It is also sure to be expensive, as others have already pointed out (see here).

Some of the promising ideas include moving away from the current statewide high-school graduation test toward the ACT and some combination of end-of-course exams; improving teacher quality (in part by shifting tenure decisions from three to nine years); lengthening the school year; making funding more transparent; and encouraging innovations such as STEM programs and "early college" academies.

Strickland certainly deserves credit for raising education high on Ohio's policy agenda. On balance, though, his plan raises at least three serious concerns that legislators and others should ponder long and hard.

First, what exactly will Ohio use for academic standards for its students, schools, and teachers, and how exactly will the state hold them to account for their results? Getting the standards right-specifying the knowledge and skills that teachers should teach and children should learn-is at the heart of just about everything else that matters in K-12 education, at least in terms of state policy. Here, unfortunately, the governor seems to have thrown into the hopper just about every trendy education notion that he and his advisers have ever encountered. He yearns for standards that incorporate both solid academic content and the development of trendy skills (e.g., media savvy and interpersonal skills) that are essentially devoid of content. According to the D.C.-based Common Core, "No one who knows a lick about curriculum would put these two ideas together," (see here).

This mishmash will make it harder for teachers who are already struggling to help children master the basic skills and knowledge they need for a shot at success, and will perplex them as to where, exactly, to focus their instructional energies. Not a good thing for kids-or for Ohio's future. In 2007, only 36 percent of Buckeye eighth graders were rated "proficient" in reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress. The math results were similar. That means thousands of young Ohioans, reaching the threshold of high school, haven't yet mastered the ability to read critically or do basic computations, let alone grasp the essentials of science, history, civics, etc. And the data are far bleaker for poor and minority youngsters. Is this really a good time for Ohio to turn its schools and educators away from a single-minded focus on developing a solid educational foundation for all? Are 18 year olds with great interpersonal skills who can barely read what 21st Century universities and employers really seek? 

Second, the so-called "Evidence-Based Model" that is central to Strickland's school funding plan is based on questionable evidence and dubious theory, derived from the work of two school finance "experts" who have grown prosperous by helping litigators talk judges into ordering more money for public education. They claim to present with scientific certainty exactly what needs to be done to raise every child in a state to academic proficiency and how much this will cost. Unfortunately, other experts-with equal or stronger credentials-say that such models rest on sand. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, for example, writes that they're "not just inaccurate. They are generally unscientific. They do not provide reliable and unbiased estimates of the necessary costs. In a variety of cases, they cannot be replicated by others. And they obfuscate the fact that they are unlikely to provide a path to the desired outcome results.... Pity the poor states," he warns, "that actually implement [such plans]. They are sure to be disappointed by the results, and most taxpayers (those who do not work for the schools) will be noticeably poorer" (see here).

Third, Ohio's charter schools certainly need attention and the governor has a good idea or two here-making all charter "sponsors" accountable, for example-but while purporting to cure this patient he would actually deprive it of vital limbs and organs. His budget would severely worsen the funding inequities between charter and district schools. And he would heavily increase the regulatory burden on all charters, good, bad, and indifferent. In barring "for profit" school operators, he again fails to distinguish between shady managers of squalid schools and outstanding providers of quality education. That both may be profit-seeking is beside the point.

Put it all together and it's hard to picture any high-octane charter operator wanting to work in Ohio. They will instead go to states that welcome and support them. This would be a blow for needy children and families. For example, the top-performing elementary school in Dayton in 2008, the Pathway School of Discovery, is a charter school operated by the National Heritage Academies. Does it make sense to toss 570 children out of an "Effective" rated school (the only elementary school in Dayton so designated) solely because it is operated by a for-profit company?

That Gov. Strickland is serious about investing in the state's human capital, while also expecting more from the state's schools, its teachers, and its children, is a fine thing. But his good ideas are matched if not outnumbered by flabby notions, shaky evidence, and sometimes downright harmful nostrums. The former deserve bipartisan support. The latter demand close scrutiny and serious reconsideration. 

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