Special analysis of House Bill 1

Substitute House Bill 1, the legislative vehicle for Gov. Strickland's biennial budget proposal, was introduced last week. At more than 3,100 pages, the bill is massive, and its education section alone numbers more than 700 pages. It is a tall, but necessary, task to quickly analyze the budget bill and understand what its many education-related provisions mean for Ohio's schools and students. We have pulled out the sections of the bill that we think are most important to improving public education in the Buckeye State and offer our analysis for Gadfly readers (see full analysis here).

Following are some of the highlights of the bill and our analysis of these provisions:

Academic Standards: No one doubts that Ohio's mediocre academic standards could use a makeover. Sub. H.B. 1 is tackling a necessary challenge when it seeks to upgrade Ohio's academic standards. It is clear, however, that Sub. H.B. 1 seeks to modify significantly Ohio's standards and its aligned accountability system by focusing less on knowledge and academic content and more on nebulous and hard-to-define 21st century skills.

Specifically, the bill calls for revising the state's academic standards every five years so as to develop not only core academic content (reading, math, science, etc.) but also:

  • skill sets as they relate to creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration; and
  • skill sets that promote flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, and leadership and responsibility.

Trying to marry core content and 21st century skills-a concept that is ill-defined in its own right, see the following piece by educational historian Diane Ravitch-risks creating a mishmash that will be hard for teachers to understand, let alone teach to, and is sure to confuse teachers about what is important. Indeed, Sub. H.B. 1 makes no specific mention of history, geography, civics, literature, or technology. Additionally, redesigning a state's academic standards is a complex, time-consuming, and costly effort, and the state should seriously consider whether or not it wants to mandate revisiting the standards every five years-and take the associated risk of having also to remake its assessment system, alter its curricula and instructional materials, and, potentially, break the "trend line" by which school and school-system progress is monitored. Working in isolation, most states have bungled the effort of creating anything close to "world-class" standards because they deploy armies of stakeholders rather than trusting subject-matter experts and practiced standards-writers.

K-8 Assessment/Testing: Sub. H.B. 1 seeks to redesign that state's testing system. The legislation would replace current state achievement tests with "achievement assessments." As with changing a state's standards, changing a state's assessment and accountability system is an enormously complex and time-consuming project that must also conform to the exacting mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. For example, NCLB mandates testing in reading, so Ohio's move toward "English Language Arts" exams could put Ohio in conflict with federal law. Additionally, Ohio is also required by NCLB to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests reading, not English Language Arts. Ohio has spent millions of dollars in professional development efforts over the last decade to help districts, schools, and teachers understand the state's current standards and testing system. When a move away from the current testing system is undertaken, it will require supports and resources to connect the old systems to the new systems and to help teachers understand these changes and adjust their professional practices to meet these changes.

New High School Assessments: Sub. H.B. 1 proposes to replace the Ohio Graduation Tests with a multi-factored assessment system as a requirement for receiving a high school diploma. Specifically, the multi-factored assessment system shall consist of a:

  • nationally standardized assessment (possibly the ACT);
  • series of end-of-course examinations;
  • senior project completed individually or by a group of students; and
  • community service learning project.

The extant Ohio Graduation Tests employ an eighth- to tenth-grade standard and should be replaced, but the proposed new measures may or may not drive stronger performance and foster true results-based accountability. Moving to the ACT as the nationally standardized assessment has merit as higher education values the test. Chancellor Eric Fingerhut has issued an ambitious strategic plan indicating that the state's public university system will rely heavily on ACT tests for purposes of placing students in college-level courses. Several other states have adopted it as their universal high-school test. End-of-course exams is an idea with merit but if done on a statewide basis enormous time, effort, and expense must be devoted to developing, piloting, and validating such tests.

It's also questionable whether it's sensible in 2009 for Ohio to develop its own unique end-of-course exams considering a) that there are multi-state efforts of this kind already underway, b) many people expect additional multi-state or national projects pointed toward internationally benchmarked "common standards", and c) demographic and career mobility (as well as students flowing in and out of Ohio for higher education) may argue for Ohio policymakers to join with the rest of the nation rather than work in isolation.

New Regulation and Compliance Mandates: Sub. H.B. 1 is chock full of new regulations and mandates for public schools (district, STEM, and charter) and for school districts. Many of these are presented under the guise of "accountability." A few have merit-for example creating standards of financial reporting for all schools and holding them accountable for this reporting, but many of the proposals raise a number of questions and concerns as they relate to cost and effectiveness. At a minimum, the proposed legislation would require a dramatically bulked up Ohio Department of Education to take on a number of new responsibilities including conducting school inspections of each of the state's 3,700 schools at least once every five years.

Charter Schools: There is much in Sub. H.B. 1 when it comes to charter schools, and frankly if all portions of the bill became law it would kill charters in two ways. First, it would starve them by cutting funding by 20 percent or more. Not even the finest schools can succeed without sufficient resources. To legitimately be held to account for their results, and to be fairly compared to district-operated schools, charters need per-pupil funding and facilities equivalent to what is provided to district schools.

Second, Sub. H.B. 1 would strangle charters and their sponsors through myriad new and costly regulations including requiring charter schools to comply with the same teacher certification burdens that plague traditional district schools. And if killing off charters weren't enough, the proposed legislation would effectively result in the Ohio Department of Education taking over the rights and responsibilities of both charter school sponsors and the governing boards responsible for their operations.

This is unfortunate, because the idea that all sponsors should be held accountable for their performance by the Ohio Department of Education has merit-but only if charters are funded fairly, their operational freedoms protected and if there is a nonpartisan watchdog put in place to monitor and report on ODE's performance as the regulator of charter school sponsors. Sub. H.B. 1 recommends the creation of several study groups, commissions, and the like, including one to study the effectiveness of the 50-plus county educational service centers. Surely it makes sense to have a Charter School Quality Advisory Council that could report fairly on Ohio's charter school program and make recommendations for its improvement.

Teacher Licensure & Employment: Sub. H.B. 1 includes several promising proposals around teacher licensure and employment, including:

  • moving tenure decisions from the third year of a teacher's career to the ninth year,
  • making it easier for schools to dismiss bad teachers,
  • instituting a residency program for new teachers,
  • creating a career ladder for educators so that teachers can grow professionally without necessarily leaving the classroom, and
  • using measures of student growth to inform decisions about teacher and principal licensure.

Other provisions in the bill are worrisome. The bill calls for all alternatively licensed teachers to go through a common, state-determined summer institute before entering the classroom. This would leave no space in Ohio for successful efforts like Teach for America, which conducts, as an integral part of its program, its own "boot camp" to prepare new teachers for the classroom.

The bill admirably calls for incorporating student academic progress into decisions about granting teacher and principal licenses, but it is unclear how this will be possible across all grades and subjects. The state's valued-added measure is a good starting point and can provide classroom-level data, but it is only available in reading and math in grades four through eight. It would require a massive boost in state testing to have such data for all teachers. Any decisions about how to measure teacher effectiveness should be informed by the work of Battelle for Kids to provide value-added data across more grades and subjects, including high school.

This is just a taste of what's in Sub. H.B. 1 as it relates to education. To get deeper into all of this, check out our full analysis here.