Ohio approaches a do-or-die watershed in education

Top-notch academic standards will fail without good teachers, academically oriented administrators, and citizens who hold education dear, according to experts who headlined a conference on world-class academic standards in Columbus last week (see video of the conference here).

That last one may be particularly troubling. “We are so busy worrying about the adult comfort level of House Bill 1 [which spells out the state’s new, revamped education program], we’ve got to worry about what this means to kids,” State Superintendent Deborah Delisle told conference attendees. “I have yet to see a sense of urgency across the state about the importance of education.’’

The implication: Better testing, more challenging career- and college-oriented academic standards, better teacher quality and training, and even more money may, in the end, be inadequate if Ohioans don’t care enough about the education of their children.

The conference, “World-Class Academic Standards for Ohio,” was sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, KidsOhio.org, the Ohio Business Alliance for Higher Education and the Economy, Ohio Education Matters, and the Ohio Association for Public Charter Schools, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The conference was aimed, in part, at helping the Ohio State Board of Education complete revisions to its K-12 education standards by June 2010. Clearly the state must improve dramatically on its current standards according to panelists, and it appears from recent comments that both the state board and the state superintendent are committed to the task (see here).

“The Ohio Core [the coursework required for graduation in Ohio] is a good intermediate step toward world-class standards,” Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, Inc., told the conference. The state’s new standards must, at a minimum, align school curricula 1) with the needs of employers looking for productive workers, and 2) with the academic needs of colleges tired of wasting their time and student dollars teaching first-year students  remedial math, science, and reading.

But that’s just the minimum. The higher the state sets its bar, the better for all Ohio students, said David Driscoll, former Massachusetts education commissioner and Fordham board member. “I suggest you set high standards because you will get that many more students improving,” he said. After revamping standards, pushing teachers to higher achievement, transforming principals into educational leaders in their schools, and spending an extra $2 billion on education, Massachusetts vaulted from so-so to the top tier on national and international achievement tests.

What the state school board, however, ought not to do is use the new standards to “order” improvement. “We too often tell (school) districts what to do on a daily basis,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Once school districts understand what the standards expect, they should be given freedom to get the results, he said.

The state’s plan to vastly expand the number of Ohioans attending college could be in trouble if high school graduates are not actually college ready, said Stan Jones, former Indiana commissioner for higher education. That was Indiana’s experience a few years ago when the state initiated a high-school-to-college push similar to one underway now in Ohio. “The colleges found the high school graduates needed remediation,” he said. Adopting high standards isn’t enough. The state needs standards to define what a graduate needs to know, he said, and it needs assessment testing to ensure that graduates actually know it.

Toward that end, Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut said it is vital for Ohio’s teacher education programs to deliver better teachers. “We need to recruit the best possible teachers,” he said. “Ohio schools have an obligation to produce graduates who can deliver in the classroom.”

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