Getting academic standards right in the Buckeye State

What, exactly, will Ohio use for academic content standards for its students, schools, and teachers, and how, exactly, will the state hold them to account for 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. 

Or, as the American Federation of Teachers has observed, “abundant evidence suggests that common, rigorous standards lead to more students reaching higher levels of student achievement” (see here).

In short, standards wield significant influence over what happens inside classrooms.

The issue of creating and implementing great academic standards is a nonpartisan issue and it is critical to the future of Ohio, its schools, and its children. That’s why the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has partnered with Ohio Grantmakers Forum, KidsOhio.org, Ohio Education Matters, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Ohio Business Alliance for Higher Education and the Economy to convene and host (with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) the conference “World-Class Academic Standards for Ohio.”

The time for such a conversation is now. Under recent changes to state law the State Board of Education is charged with revising and updating its statewide academic standards for K-12 in English language arts, math, science, and social studies by June 30, 2010. Further, the Buckeye State is one of 51 states and territories involved in the process to develop national education standards in math and reading “that define the knowledge and skills students should have to succeed in entry-level college courses and workforce training programs” (see here).

This partnership with other states and national groups is exciting because working in isolation most states have bungled the effort of creating anything close to “world-class” standards. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation reported in 2006 that the average grade for state standards across all subjects was a “C-minus.” Ohio’s grade was even worse at a “D-plus.”

Creating great standards is a complex, time-consuming, and costly effort. Most states have struggled to do it well because they have too often deployed armies of stakeholders rather than trusting subject-matter experts and practiced standards-writers. This process has resulted in standards that are “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Subsequently, most state standards have lacked clarity, specificity, and rigor.

In hopes of doing better, lawmakers, state and national education leaders and standards experts will gather in Columbus on October 5 to discuss national efforts to create common core standards in English language arts and mathematics for grades K-12 and to explain what these efforts might mean for Ohio and its children, its educators, and its schools. How might this national effort fit into Ohio’s new legislative mandate to improve its academic standards and assessments? What does it mean for a state to opt into these efforts? And what are the challenges/problems facing these national efforts?

To answer these questions and others, we will ask the leaders (Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers –, and Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc.) of two of the organizations that just released the first official draft of college- and career-readiness standards (see here). Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told The Washington Post when asked about this effort, “We have now a public working draft of what could be the beginnings of national standards for K through 12 education. That’s potentially a very big deal” (see here). Finn will moderate the Cohen-Wilhoit panel.

To get at state-specific questions (like, How have top-performing states created their standards and assessment systems? How do states with highly regarded standards balance traditional content, basic skills and “21st Century” Skills? And, is there a role for higher education in these efforts?), we have asked three national experts to join us (David Driscoll, former Massachusetts commissioner of education; Stan Jones, former Indiana higher education commissioner; and Sue Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork). Bruno Manno of the Annie E. Casey Foundation will lead this conversation.

Finally, what do these national and state efforts mean for Ohio as it redesigns it standards and how can we best move forward? Ohio’s top education policy makers will get at this and other related questions (like, Can “common national standards” even fly in Ohio? And what are the main challenges facing the state’s efforts to date?). State Superintendent Deborah Delisle and Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut will share their insights and views. These state leaders will be joined by Gene Harris, superintendent of Columbus City Schools, and Jim Mahoney, executive director of Battelle for Kids. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige will moderate this panel.

Throughout the event others will provide important context and commentary, including State Representative Stephen Dyer, State Senator Jon Husted, and KidsOhio.org President and CEO Mark Real.

Ohio, and indeed the country, is at a pivotal moment in the development of standards-based education. We are fortunate to have some of the best thinkers and doers on the issue visiting Ohio to discuss with the state’s policy makers how the Buckeye State can be a leader in this effort.

For more information about the conference, contact Emmy Partin at epartin@edexcellence.net or 614-223-1580.

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