How to make Ohio education even worse

The recent furor over the many flaws and unrealities in Gov. Ted Strickland's (and the Ohio House of Representatives') plan to alter Ohio's school-finance system has diverted attention from other grave mistakes in the education portion of the state's biennial budget bill (see here).

Foremost among these are the misguided changes it would make in Ohio's academic standards, assessments, and accountability system.

Nobody says the present arrangement is perfect. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and others have repeatedly conferred mediocre grades on it. But H.B. 1 would take it from fair to poor.

Dutifully following one of the hottest fads in American education, the measure gives dramatically more attention to so-called "21st Century" skills than to the 3 Rs and actual knowledge. It ignores some key reasons we send kids to school in the first place. It sets lofty goals for which there are no practical gauges of progress or performance. And by changing the assessment system, the bill would make it far more difficult to compare the future performance of Ohio's schools and students with their past performance.

Strickland opened the 21st Century skills door (known in the education field as "P-21" (see here) when he urged in January that Ohio schools do far more to develop "critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, media literacy, leadership and productivity, cultural awareness, adaptability, and accountability." This theme made it through the House and now awaits Senate attention. It was-predictably-endorsed at a hearing the other day by P-21 majordomo Ken Kay, who admonished the committee that "content-based" learning is "old-fashioned".

This is a path to educational perdition. Nobody says kids should only memorize facts and everybody agrees that they also need to be able to "think critically"-just as they have always needed to do, just as readers of this newspaper do, just as voters do. But as every good educational psychologist attests, one cannot think critically unless one has something to think about. You need the core skills and knowledge at least as much as you need "cultural awareness."

Moreover, schools are far more adept at imparting the former than the latter. And no known assessment scheme can measure one's acquisition of such skills as "leadership" and "collaboration." Once these replace computation, grammar, vocabulary, and the causes of the Civil War as goals of schooling, we can bid farewell to results-based accountability. Unfortunately, that's one reason so many educators have climbed onto the P-21 bandwagon. They know this is a way to evade being held to account for the educational outcomes that they do or don't produce.

Yet of the six criteria that H.B.1 would lay upon the State Board of Education for the new academic standards it is charged with developing over the next year, just one deals with "core content and skills." The rest are P-21-style dreams that cannot be reliably assessed.

Nor is that the end of the problem. H.B.1's criteria for Ohio's future school standards are entirely oriented to college and workplace preparation. Surely an important thing to do. But what about public education's obligation also to prepare young people for citizenship, for knowing their country's history, geography, and literature, for acquiring decent values and behavior patterns, for becoming good neighbors and competent parents? We don't send kids to school solely to ready them for college and work. Yet if the governor and House have their way, that's all the State Board of Education will be tasked with doing.

As for the mandate to develop new assessments to replace Ohio's current testing regimen, it, too, is well intended. But besides all the cost and bother, the delay and complexity involved, this move will almost certainly mean that future performance reports cannot be compared with past evaluations. Ohioans will have no way to know whether their schools and children are doing better or worse. District and school ratings (e.g. "effective," "academic emergency") that educators, parents, and taxpayers are only just now getting accustomed to will no longer have meaning. And the state's pioneering efforts to gauge the "value added" by schools to their pupils, based on the present testing system, will have to be scrapped.

The Senate should surely pause before assenting to such changes. As Senator Jon Husted remarked the other day, "We haven't even adjusted to the last reform yet and now we're being asked to implement another reform."

A version of this op-ed appeared originally in the Columbus Dispatch (see here).

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