THE OHIO EDUCATION GADFLY

A Bi-Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 2, Number 15. August 6, 2008

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Contents

Editorial

Capital Matters

News & Analysis

Recommended Reading

Reviews

Gadfly Readers Write...

About Us

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Editorial

A conversation with the governor

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is in the midst of a 12-city "Conversation on Education" that he says will inform his long-awaited education plan, currently expected in early 2009. I attended his invitation-only event in Dayton and the governor came across as charming, caring, even grandfatherly. He was patient with everyone and showed a real sense of humor. His political talents are awesome; he clearly likes working a crowd and the Dayton crowd clearly liked him. No wonder his name has been tossed around as a serious vice-presidential candidate.

To date, however, it's impossible to determine what Strickland's specific plans for K-12 education will look like (and by the time he unveils them he'll be half-way through his gubernatorial term.) While in Dayton, he emphasized that he was not presenting any ideas of his own or of his administration. He insisted that he wanted to hear the ideas of others, and to share ideas that others had previously shared with him.

This obviously makes it hard to pin down what he believes or where he is headed--and indeed it's possible that he doesn't yet know. What's unfortunately clear, however, is that many of the ideas being shared with him are self-interested and/or ill-conceived, at least in terms of Ohio's real 21st century education needs.

Most participants in the Dayton "conversation" were members or fellow travelers of the public-education "establishment"--and nearly every one of them wanted more of something, starting (and often ending) with more money. I counted at least 13 unique requests for more funding for items ranging from pre-K education, to the arts, to school libraries, to rising district fuel costs. These weren't pleas for overdue education reforms, for higher standards or better curricula, for kids to learn more or teachers to teach better or schools to become more effective and school systems more efficient. They were, at bottom, demands for more of the same.

The governor also shared some previously-voiced ideas and policies that he evidently thinks may have merit--and, while several of these surely have potential to do good things, almost every one of them comes with new costs, too. They include:

Where is the additional money to come from, particularly during a time of recession and in a state racked by grave economic challenges (see here and here)? In fact, it's not unrealistic to think state education spending may be cut, not expanded. Ohio already faces an estimated $700 million budget shortfall. Note, too, that over the last quarter century the Buckeye State has added an average of $760 million annually to K-12 education, meaning its real per-pupil spending has risen by more than 40 percent (see here). Even this fails to satiate the "more" crowd.

No doubt because educators make up so large a share of Strickland's "conversations" audience, lots of time-worn educator notions are also reaching the governor's ears, nearly all of them with some lineage back to John Dewey and education "progressivism" and "constructivism." But, because of his personal experience as a psychologist, he also seems sympathetic to this way of thinking about schools. Consider the rich array of muddled ideas aired at the "Institute on Creativity & Innovation in Education" that he convened a few weeks ago (see here and here).

It's no surprise when educators embrace such ideas--and it's evident that Strickland is listening mostly to educators and building on his personal experiences as a psychologist. What he may not fully grasp is that (as E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch, among others, have shown time and again) this approach to education works well enough with middle and upper-middle class kids who get plenty of structure in the rest of their lives, but it's disastrous for poor and disadvantaged kids who rely on teachers and schools for all the structure they can get. The Ohio youngsters who most urgently need to learn more are those best served by a strong core curriculum, teacher-led classes, and a coherent system of standards, assessments, and accountability. They're also well served by being furnished the kinds of school choices that middle and upper-middle class families already have--and thus being liberated from broken schools that too many are otherwise trapped in.

In recent years, Ohio has, in confused and imperfect ways, built itself the right education policy framework to address the needs of its poor and minority youngsters and its inner cities. With some considerable tweaking, that framework would also enhance the state's prospects of boosting all its young people to a higher plateau of skills and knowledge (and creativity and innovation) that would advance their own and their state's economic competitiveness in the 21st Century.

What a shame--no, what a disaster--it will be for Ohio if the governor's "conversations" lead, in response to the predilections and interests of the lopsided crowd that is currently conversing with him, to weakening rather than strengthening and improving that policy framework.

Strickland is a national figure, too, a force among Democrats, and chief executive of a key "swing" state. What an even larger shame--no, disaster--it will be if the sorts of conversations he is having and the sorts of self-interested demands and scatterbrained ideas they are eliciting turn out to influence the national agenda as well.

By Terry Ryan

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Capital Matters

The next president will matter to education in Ohio

What will be the impact of the next president on public education in Ohio? We'll know a lot more about their different plans a month from now after both parties have held their nominating conventions and unveiled their formal platforms. But details emerging in recent speeches (McCain's to the NAACP, here, and Obama's to the American Federation of Teachers, here) offer a glimpse at the candidates' positions on education and what they might mean for Ohio.

Both candidates call for rethinking the entry process for new teachers, an increasingly important issue in Ohio. In 2005, 36 percent of Ohio public school teachers were age 50 or older. Because of incentives in the state's teacher-pension system (see here), this means that more than one-third of the teaching force is likely to retire by 2015.

Sen. McCain calls for expanding alternative licensure pathways that allow mid-career professionals and those educated outside traditional colleges of education to teach. McCain also would offer financial incentives to get the top 25 percent of college graduates into teaching and to keep alums of programs like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project in the classroom. Sen. Obama favors the traditional route to the classroom but would bolster it with residency programs and intensive mentoring for new teachers in high-need schools and scholarships to people who make teaching a career.

Both senators want to pay teachers more. Obama promotes a career-ladder-type plan under which "districts will be able to give teachers who mentor, or teach in underserved areas, or take on added responsibilities, or learn new skills to serve students better, or consistently excel in the classroom, the salary increase they deserve."

McCain wants to give bonuses to teachers in hard-to-staff schools and to high-achieving teachers but would give authority for doling out these bonuses to building principals, relying on their "good judgment and first-hand knowledge" of the teachers in their schools. McCain would also measure a teacher's achievement by the success of his or her students, and this would be informed at least in part by test scores.

Despite the academic gains Ohio has made over the past decade, troublesome achievement gaps still exist between economically disadvantaged children and their affluent peers and between children of color and white students. Sen. Obama proposes to address the achievement gap by finding federal money for expanding afternoon and summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged kids. He calls for earlier intervention with kids at risk of dropping out, too.

The candidates' positions are most divergent on school choice, especially the voucher variety. This year, Ohio's Education Choice scholarship program has awarded tuition vouchers to more than 10,000 youngsters in troubled schools--the program is capped at 14,000 scholarships annually. McCain supports such programs as important options when the traditional public-school system fails children. Sen. Obama, however, remains steadfastly opposed to spending public-school dollars on vouchers for children to attend private schools. Instead, Obama wants to "focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them."

Charter schools, it seems, fall into both candidates' definitions of the public-school system. Sen. Obama has supported charter-school legislation in the past in Illinois and says that "well-designed public charter schools have a lot to offer." How much he would embrace charters as president is less clear. His support of late has been tepid in contrast with McCain's unabashed support. Sen. McCain also proposes competitive federal funding for expanded online learning opportunities, including new virtual charter schools. Currently a quarter of Ohio's charter-school students (about 20,000 students) attend virtual schools.

By Emmy L. Partin

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News & Analysis

Black males still far behind whites in high-school graduation

Black males trail white males in high-school graduation by an average of 28 percent nationally and in Ohio by 30 percent, according to a new report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

Over the past 25 years, the social, educational, and economic outcomes for black males have been devastating, and the new report from the Schott Foundation, Given Half a Chance: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males (see here), reveals a national graduation rate of a shocking 47 percent. Frankly, it's bad enough that only 75 percent of white males graduate, but that less than half of black males receive diplomas is deeply troubling. In Ohio, it's 49 percent vs. 79 percent.

The report notes that, in 10 states and the District of Columbia, there is a graduation gap of at least 30 percent between black males and white males. Oddly, the state with one of the highest graduation rate for white males--Wisconsin, at 87 percent--has one of the lowest graduation rate for blacks, at 36 percent. The report also found graduation problems for blacks tended to be concentrated in a few large urban areas, where graduation rates are low for both races.

It's not a uniformly bleak picture, however. In some states black males actually graduate at higher rates than white males--Vermont, for example, where 88 percent of blacks graduate compared with 75 percent of whites, and Maine (85 percent vs. 75 percent). The report credits this to more support, including larger numbers of talented teachers and supportive administrators. These states have challenging curricula and high expectations for all students. They also lack large black populations, so black males are more likely to go to school in a diverse educational environment.

Unfortunately, a lack of educational achievement is only the tip of the iceberg for black males, who, statistically, suffer more chronic unemployment, more health problems, have lower life expectancies, and are more likely to spend long periods in prison. Gov. Ted Strickland recognizes the magnitude of this problem and early in his term appointed former State Sen. C.J. Prentiss as his special representative for closing the achievement gap and raising the graduation rate for black males in Ohio (see here).

By Mike Lafferty

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Study says fairer accountability system means more tests

An Ohio State University sociology professor says the state's new value-added method for measuring student academic progress is an improvement to the accountability system but still doesn't go far enough.

Sociology professor Doug Downey told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Ohio's new approach is "substantially better" than the old method but he still doesn't think it goes far enough. He believes the accountability system would be better if, instead of one test, students are administered two tests (one in the autumn and one in the spring). Downey argues that one test does not measure how much students retain from the preceding year and a test should be administered in the autumn after students return to school to gauge that knowledge.

Further, in the current issue of Sociology of Education (see here) Downey and researcher Paul von Hippel argue that the common method many states use for evaluating schools, called the status model, is biased and unfairly labels schools that serve predominantly disadvantaged children as "failing."

The researchers believe the "status" model, which measures student achievement at a single point in time--as required by No Child Left Behind--fails in comparison to an "impact" model . An impact model attempts to measure how children build on what they have previously learned year to year. Impact models attempt to account for learning lost over the summer months but disadvantaged children are more likely to lose ground during that break (see here).

While Ohio's achievement tests can and should be improved, the problem isn't the tests. The real problem is that we have such huge disparities in test results and that not enough is being done to intervene with underachieving students as identified by the tests. For example, why are we still telling children who are academically behind to take the summer off? Ohio's standardized assessments remain the best indicator we have for telling whether children are proficient in basic subjects like math and reading.

Downey is correct, though, that achievement tests should be supplemented with other factors, like growth over time. The Ohio General Assembly, State Board of Education, and Ohio Department of Education are to be commended for bringing value-added indicators on-line and including them in the state's accountability system. Even under our current assessment system, there are schools that succeed in helping disadvantaged youngsters reach high levels of achievement. Perhaps, instead of adding tests and revamping the accountability system, the state should put that money and effort toward following the lead of KIPP and others by offering longer school days and an extended school year.

By Emmy L. Partin

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Districts already working to discredit pending state report cards

The state's new round of local report cards detailing last year's performance for Ohio public schools won't be made public until the last week of August, but district school officials are already scrambling to discredit the reports.

Representatives of the "Ohio Eight" urban districts met with the Ohio Department of Education last month to express concerns over the accuracy of last year's Ohio Achievement Tests (see here), and a Cincinnati Public Schools official expressed concerns over the validity of tests at particular grade levels and subjects (see here).

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, half of Cincinnati's fourth-graders passed the math test in the 2006-2007 school year, but, as fifth graders, just 35 percent passed. Elizabeth Holtzapple, the district's student achievement data expert, told the Enquirer, "we think the testing scores should not fluctuate as much from year to year."

Last fall's Fordham report The Proficiency Illusion supports Holtzapple's concerns. The report found that Ohio's math exam isn't well-calibrated across grade levels, meaning that it is tougher to pass at some grade levels than others. In fact, the report found that Ohio's math test peaks in difficulty at the fifth grade (see here).

Such imperfections in the state's assessments, however, should not become an excuse for scrapping the system entirely. But they should remind the State Board of Education and Ohio Department of Education of the importance of continually refining and improving the tests, including reviewing cut scores and ensuring calibration across grades.

By Emmy L. Partin

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Recommended Reading

New report provides hints on how to improve a school district's staff

Far too often, educational policymakers have high demands and expectations for students but roll the dice on the skills and competence of instructors and school administrators. While we might like to believe that charter schools rarely, if ever, sin like this, the fact of the matter is that they falter the most, according to a new report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The report, entitled Closing the Skill Gap: New Options for Charter School Leadership Development, surveyed principals and superintendents and recorded their observations and complaints, particularly that they were unprepared for a whole host of modern problems such as educating with wide variations in grade readiness, dealing with disgruntled parents--or with seemingly impenetrable bureaucracies--or adapting to increased testing and accountability in schools.

The solution, the authors argue, is to make a strategic change in recruitment and to really go after high-caliber people to become educators and administrators. Just as important are high-quality training and support. Underlying all this is communication. Top officials and trainers need to be aware of the needs of charter-school leaders and be willing to adapt and respond to those needs.

Ultimately, authors Christine Campbell and Brock J. Grubb allow readers a clear understanding of the processes in which educators become prepared to enter America's schools, but also serve up a sobering evaluation of just how much more work needs to be done to ensure success for all students. Read the full report here.

By Zach Heck

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Reviews

Measuring Up: What Education Testing Really Tells Us
Daniel Koretz
Harvard University Press
2008

Measuring Up is an excellent primer on the basics of academic testing. In a pleasant, jargon-lite manner, author and Harvard professor Daniel Koretz provides a brief history of American education testing along with real-world examples illustrating the strengths and weaknesses of it. He also provides lay-friendly definitions of buzzwords like criterion-referenced, measurement error, and validity.

Koretz doesn't pretend to be a fan of the educational testing brought on by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and works to discount much of the assessment-based accountability aspects of the law. But most of this book is an acknowledgement that education testing isn't a black-or-white issue, and Koretz does a good job of telling both sides of the story. Here are a few points are worth lifting for Gadfly readers, given the current testing debate in Ohio.

- On standardized testing, he cautions that the goals of education are diverse and that only some of these goals are amenable to standardized testing. But he equally acknowledges that standardized tests "avoid irrelevant factors that might distort comparisons between individuals" and are useful in shedding light on achievement gaps.

- On achievement as the sole measure of academic success, Koretz promotes the use of a growth or progress measure, in addition to an achievement measure. But the two must go hand-in-hand. Schools showing large gains but failing to meet the proficiency bar shouldn't be excused for lousy test scores just as schools posting outstanding test scores should also be accountable for helping kids make adequate progress year to year.

- For all the impersonality of standardized tests, their scoring--often done off-site and by a computer or impartial, trained rater--is rarely questioned. Portfolio assessments are a different story. Koretz cites the teacher-scoring of writing portfolios in Kentucky in the 1990s. The test scores were important enough that teachers had an incentive to score leniently and so, "when samples of portfolios were rescored by other raters in a state audit of scoring, it was discovered that the scores assigned by many classroom teachers to their own students were substantially too high."

By Emmy L. Partin

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Gadfly Readers Write...

State Board of Education member Colleen Grady comments on Emmy L. Partin's recent piece concerning a board recommendation that school districts be allowed to create so-called innovation schools. Essentially, these would be copies of charter schools, which districts are already allowed to sponsor.

You rightly point out the reason why the recommendation regarding innovation schools is puzzling. During discussions in committee, it was pointed out more than once (by more than one board member) that the recommendation is redundant at best. In addition to sponsoring a community school, districts also have two other mechanisms open to them to spur innovation or release from regulation. Excellent and effective schools already have the ability to be excused from a number of rules and regulations should they request such release. There is also a waiver process in place for school districts who wish to implement "innovative programs."

Colleen Grady
State Board of Education

If you have something to say about The Ohio Education Gadfly, say it in an e-mail to an article author or to the editor, Mike Lafferty, at mlafferty@edexcellence.net. Correspondence may be edited for clarity and length.

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About Us

The Ohio Education Gadfly is published bi-weekly (ordinarily on Wednesdays, with occasional breaks, and in special editions) by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Have something to say? Email the editor at mlafferty@edexcellence.net. Would you like to be spared from the Gadfly? Email education.buzz@edexcellence.net with "unsubscribe gadfly" in the text of your message. You are welcome to forward the Gadfly to others, and from our website you can even email individual articles. If you have been forwarded a copy of Gadfly and would like to subscribe, you may email education.buzz@edexcellence.net with "subscribe gadfly" in the text of the message. To read archived issues, go to our website and click on the Ohio Education Gadfly link. Aching for still more education news and analysis? Check out the original Education Gadfly.

Nationally and in Ohio, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, along with its sister organization the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, strives to close America's vexing achievement gaps by raising standards, strengthening accountability, and expanding high-quality education options for parents and families. As a charter-school sponsor in Ohio, the Foundation joins with schools to affirm a relentless commitment to high expectations for all children, accountability for academic results and transparency and organizational integrity, while freeing the schools to operate with minimal red tape. The Foundation and Institute are neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.

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