National education leaders speak to the Ohio Senate Finance Committee

Last week, Indiana State
Superintendent Tony Bennett and former Commissioner of Education for the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts (and the Fordham Institute’s Ohio committee chair)
David Driscoll spoke to the Ohio Senate Finance Committee about education
reforms in their respective states.

The Buckeye State is in the midst of
its biennial budget debate, and with the budget bill now on the Senate table,
state senators were eager to hear from two leading education practitioners
who’ve traveled the road to reform before. And that road is a rough one;
neither Bennett nor Driscoll minced words about Ohio’s financial challenges,
the pushback lawmakers and policymakers will receive along the way, and the
difficulty of achieving and sustaining comprehensive, statewide reform.

The good news for Ohio is that we’re
not alone in pursuing bold reforms such as those embedded in HB 153. Bennett’s
and Driscoll’s testimonies reaffirmed that the state is on the right track when
it comes to school reform.

Bennett conveyed a sense of urgency
around his agenda in Indiana, and much of what he described about the Hoosier
State’s comprehensive education reform package sounds very similar to what has
been proposed or is already in place in Ohio:

  • a value-added growth model, and A-F
    letter grades for schools;
  • plans to revamp the lowest one percent
    of district schools (though Ohio is proposing reconstituting or closing
    the lowest five percent);
  • a move toward lifting caps on charter
    schools and expanding choice through a tax credit scholarship;
  • a move away from LIFO and automatic
    salary increases and toward performance-based decision making (informed by
    rigorous teacher evaluations);
  • collective bargaining reform (focuses
    contract negotiations primarily on salaries and benefits).

Bennett challenged Ohio lawmakers to
learn from Indiana’s experience. As the Hannah
Report
wrote:

[Bennett] said reform starts by "acknowledging the mess" of disparate
school data that doesn't add up, offering Indiana as an example: 42 cents
of every education dollar does not go to classroom instruction; 25,000 students
attend underperforming schools; only 75 percent of students graduate; and 99 percent of all
teachers are rated "effective" by their principals. "I think
that's a statistical impossibility," he said of the 99 percent figure. I
think there are teachers who need to be removed from the classroom. I think there are good teachers who can get
better.... If you find a similar study, you will find a similar mess
here in Ohio.

Indeed, there are several themes from
Bennett’s description of efforts in Indiana that Ohio would do well to borrow:

  • A performance-based compensation system
    that goes beyond the traditional definition of “merit.”
    Ohio’s proposed system would allow
    districts to pay more for teachers in shortage areas or subjects and for
    taking on larger class sizes, and also aims to pay $50 per student making
    more than a year’s worth of growth. Indiana will reward teachers in
    similar fashion but also for mentorship and leadership roles, which builds
    professionalism and a sense of mobility and opportunity in the profession.
    Indiana also will leave seniority and credentials in place (as 33 percent
    of the sum) which is reasonable, at least in the interim before
    more performance data are available.
  • Strong accountability for
    voucher-receiving schools.
    These
    private schools must test all students and be rated on the same A-F school
    as public district and charter schools, and will lose vouchers if they’re
    consistently rated poorly.
  • A clear vision to communicate reforms to
    educators, achieve buy-in, and dispel myths from the outset
    . Bennett described the need to cut
    misinformation off at the pass. He and his team met with more than 38,000
    teachers statewide, communicated via email and social networking sites
    weekly as reforms were being shaped, and formed an “education reform
    cabinet” made up of teachers through which to vet ideas.

David Driscoll’s testimony was
equally powerful, in part because he sits on the opposite side of the political
aisle yet agreed with Bennett on most matters, and in part because
Massachusetts has experienced wild success (compared to other states) in terms
of ensuring a rising student achievement tide for all students.

As the Hannah Report contrasted the two in its coverage:

Bennett…  is a Republican and Driscoll, from the Boston
area, is a Democrat, but both called for high performance standards for students, teachers and school administrators
alike, with clear professional rewards based on merit rather than seniority or continuing education at teacher
colleges. They also agreed
on the need for educational options and said outside committee that the profit
motive is not a valid argument against private school operators, as long as they produce
academic results.

Driscoll, who was the commissioner of
education for eight years (1999-2007), pointed to Massachusetts’ Education
Reform Act of 1993 as the key impetus for change. That legislation lifted
expectations for students (in the form of more rigorous academic standards, cut
scores for proficiency, and graduation requirements); educators (in the form of
content-area testing and accountability); and schools/districts (requiring a
disaggregation of student data and transparent reporting).

Perhaps his most compelling argument
came in the form of a response to Democratic Sen. Smith, who asked a question
about non-school circumstances affecting learning (“social issues,” “family
issues,” “learning disabilities”), and how these play into the education
reforms Driscoll and Bennett were proposing.

Driscoll’s response was kind but
unyielding. As Gongwer News Service
captured:

Mr. Driscoll
said one can compare schools with similar demographics and some will get better
results than others. "Therefore, I think people who talk about these
issues shouldn't stop with those issues.”

"That's
the first set of facts. The second set of facts is what are we going to do
about it?" he said. "The attitude of, well look at what we face, that
is not the way professional educators should go about it."

You can see Tony Bennett’s full
presentation here. David Driscoll did not provide written
remarks.

Tony Bennett’s and David Driscoll’s visit
to Ohio was made possible by the generous support of the Cleveland Foundation,
Diggs Family Foundation, Farmer Family Foundation, Fordham Institute, George
Gund Foundation, Mathile Family Foundation, Nord Family Foundation, and
the Lovett and Ruth Peters Foundation.

This article was published in a
slightly different
version in Flypaper, Fordham’s
blog.

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