A Bi-Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 4, Number 6. March 10, 2010

Gadfly On the Web





From the Front Lines

Capital Matters

Editor's Extras


About Us



Buckeye State holding charter school sponsors accountable

The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) is seeking to close a troubled charter school sponsor (aka authorizer), blazing new territory for the nation's charter school program. While there have been many charter school closures over the years, this is the first time a state education agency has stepped in to close a sponsor -- the entities responsible for birthing charter schools, holding them accountable for results, and ultimately making life or death decisions about them based on their performance.

In fact, Ohio, Minnesota, and Missouri are the only states that give the state department of education authority to revoke a charter school sponsor's right to authorize schools. In most other states, authorizers are brought into being via statute, and they can only be decommissioned by the legislature. Ohio's General Assembly, for example, fired the State Board of Education as a charter school sponsor in 2003.

Ohio currently has more than 70 charter school sponsors and under recent changes to state law each is held accountable for their performance through a contract with ODE. (The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation currently sponsors six charter schools in Ohio and has had a sponsorship contract with ODE since 2004; read more about our sponsorship efforts here.)

Per the case at hand, ODE is seeking to revoke the sponsorship authority of the Cleveland-based Ashe Culture Center, Inc. According to press accounts, the department wants to close Ashe for "not properly overseeing the spending of taxpayer money."

Specifically, Ashe has sponsored two schools that the state auditor has deemed "unauditable." Further, according to an investigation by the state auditor, Ashe's CEO received payments from a school, and his wife -- a member of the school's governing board -- approved said payments. Considering that the sponsor is supposed to represent the interests of the state -- including ensuring tax dollars are actually spent on the educational needs of children -- this seems an obvious conflict of interest.

Most charter schools that close for financial reasons also struggle academically, and this is true for Ashe as most of its sponsored schools have woeful academic performance. Chart I shows that Ashe-sponsored schools are far more likely to be rated Academic Emergency ("F") by the state than similar district and charter schools. Chart II shows that students in Ashe-sponsored schools are making fewer academic gains, according to the state's value-added metric, than students in the state's other charter schools. Finally, Chart III shows that Ashe-sponsored schools haven't improve much over time. Since 2005-06, two-thirds of Ashe sponsored schools have languished in the state's lowest academic rating of Academic Emergency.

The state is sure to face criticism from many in the charter school community for seeking to revoke the sponsorship authority of the Ashe Culture Center. But, based on publicly available academic and fiscal data, it appears to this observer that Ashe deserves to lose its right to sponsor schools. ODE should be supported in its efforts to take on charter sponsors as a way to ensure a basic standard of quality for Ohio's charter schools.

by Terry Ryan


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Finn on Ravitch: A review of The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Diane Ravitch's important new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, has already stirred controversy, exactly as she intended. For it embodies and expresses--with her characteristic confidence, style, and verve--a fundamental change in her views about where U.S. K-12 education should be heading. Simply stated, she believes it should recapture the strengths of the traditional public-school system, incorporate a vigorous common curriculum, and renounce many of the theories, practices, policies, and programs that have comprised America's major education-reform emphases in recent years. More than a few of those are reforms that she had herself promoted in her writings, board memberships, speeches, media comments, and government service.

She admits that she's changed her mind.

Diane and I go back a very long way--three decades, give or take--and in addition to personal friendship we have, during that period, shared a basic diagnosis of what's awry in U.S. education. It boils down to this: Most kids aren't learning nearly enough of the important stuff that they ought to be learning.

That was true in 1981 when we jointly launched the Educational Excellence Network and it's still true today. Our view of the central problem needing to be solved has, I believe, remained constant and there is no daylight between us on that score.

We also share a number of disappointments and frustrations arising from reform efforts that have been mounted to solve that problem. Standards, in many places, have proven nebulous and low. "Accountability" has turned to test-cramming and bean-counting, often limited to basic reading and math skills. That emphasis, in turn, has diverted what was already weak-kneed attention to history, literature, art, etc. Efforts to rectify the "basic skills" problem have led to the folly of "21st Century skills" rather than a solid liberal arts curriculum. Textbooks, by and large, suck.

NCLB has brought as many problems as solutions. Technology has wrought no miracles. Teacher education, with rare exceptions, is still appalling. Charter schools are uneven at best.

I could go on. A lot of innovations and reforms, meant to solve the underlying achievement problem, have failed to do so--hence our essentially-flat test scores and graduation rates these past three decades--and some have had malign side effects. That's what Diane reports and in many areas I agree.

Yet when it comes to the future, we mostly disagree about what course America should follow. She has become more conservative while I have become more radical.

She would undo most if not all of the "structural" reforms that have been put in place in recent years--mayoral control, performance-based pay, charter laws and other choice schemes, reliance on entrepreneurship and market incentives, federal efforts to incentivize and prod the system to change in constructive directions, testing and results-based accountability, and more. She would, instead, look to the "great American school system" and a (somehow) renewed culture and family structure to do right by our children. Yes, she would augment that system with better-educated (and compensated) teachers, a strong core curriculum, a different (curriculum-based) approach to assessment, greater emphasis on behavior and attitudes, and a number of collateral "social" changes such as better families and home environments. At the end of the day, however, she has concluded that, after all the policy fumblings of the past couple of decades, the public-school system and its custodians and employees are best suited to make education decisions that will benefit the nation and its next generation.

I agree about the curriculum part but not much else. The failures of recent years have left me angrier than ever with that system, its adults-first priorities, its obduracy, inertia, and greed, as well as its capacity to throw sand into the gears of every effort to set it right. Unlike Diane, I don't trust teacher unions to do right by children (or to do right by great teachers, for that matter); I don't expect locally-elected school boards to put kids' interests first; I see "neighborhood schools" as education death-traps for America's neediest youngsters; and I think the "Broader, Bolder" social-reform agenda is on the one hand naive (most of these things just aren't going to happen on their own and can't be made to happen) and, on the other hand, deeply mischievous (because it lifts responsibility from schools for all that they could and sometimes do accomplish pretty much single-handedly).

Where I come out--you can read more in National Affairs' "The End of the Education Debate"--is that America needs not less education reform but far more fundamental and radical reform. I want every child to have quality school choices, I want stronger (and broader) external standards, I want more open paths to becoming an educator, I want empowered school leaders (really empowered, in ways that would also break the union stranglehold) who are compensated like CEOs, I want super pay for great instructors and no pay for incompetents, and I want a complete makeover of "local control." The system needs a shakeup from top to bottom, not a restoration.

Diane thinks my prescription is guided by wishful thinking and unproven theories and would destroy an honorable and needed institution. I think that, while her analyses of past failures are often spot-on and frequently aligned with my own, her prescription for the future is guided by wishful thinking, nostalgia, and unwarranted faith in an antiquated institutional arrangement that was already demonstrating its failure when we founded the Educational Excellence Network and has done nothing since to renew itself.

For all that, Diane and I still like and respect one another. We adore each other's families. We agree about a thousand things outside of K-12 education. And we agree about what a good education consists of and why it's crucial for everybody's children. It's the next fork in the road to that destination where we now head in different directions.

This piece originally appeared on

by Chester E. Finn, Jr.


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From the Front Lines

STEM push experiencing success, growing pains

None of the more than 500 people attending last week's statewide STEM meeting in Columbus needed to be convinced of the importance of science-and-math education, although many might wonder exactly what it really means for their schools.

Many questioned how STEM knowledge and techniques will be transferred from high-flying STEM academies to the state's vin ordinaire classrooms, where far better science and math education is needed.

Kim Horvath, from Akron, the mother of a fourth grader, spoke for many attending the conference at the Center for Science and Industry when she asked a panel of state education and business leaders, including State Superintendent Deborah Delisle, how STEM was going to actually make it into classrooms.

Members from the day's first panel, which included officials from the National Governors Association and the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation, highlighted the need for "public-private partnerships" and ways to "scale current strategy" to improve teaching.

"The MC-squared (MC2 STEM High School) in Cleveland needs to be a pipeline," to share knowledge with Cleveland-area schools, said David J. Ferrero, of the Gates Foundation, citing an example.

But that wasn't enough for Horvath, who believes No Child Left Behind, as it is carried out in Ohio at least, is forcing curriculum into a straitjacket and that schools are eliminating worthwhile extracurricular activities to meet its mandates.

"I can teach more in my backyard to my son than STEM can," said Horvath, who is studying geology at the University of Akron.

Relevant to Horvath's question -- but much later in the day -- Ohio Governor Ted Strickland announced that the University of Akron, the University of Cincinnati, John Carroll University, and Ohio State University will partner with the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to each educate 20 STEM fellows enrolled in master's degree programs. Each fellow will receive a $30,000-a-year stipend in exchange for a commitment to work for three years in a struggling school.

Other programs are attempting to spread the STEM gospel, particularly the Ohio STEM Learning Network, which represents 10 STEM schools and 26 individual programs. In the Dayton area, a regional STEM initiative is promoting STEM learning ideas to teachers and enlisting local businesses to open labs to STEM students. In Columbus, teachers can learn the basics of STEM in the Columbus Metro School before returning to their home schools.

But the job is huge -- there are more than 4,200 public schools in the state -- and such programs seem to amount to a trickle. They take time to pay dividends for the tens of thousands of teachers and 1.8 million students in the state.

"I don't hear a lot about how we're going to take these great ideas and integrate them under No Child Left Behind," Horvath said. "They haven't answered the question. My son doesn't have access to a STEM school."

In fact, Horvath removed her son from his public school, despite assurances from teachers he was doing well. She was concerned that teachers were teaching to the state test and her son was being short-changed.

"It was worksheet after worksheet after worksheet coming home," she said.

Teachers certainly don't have to teach to the state exams to have their students score well, said Michael Miller, during a break in the meeting. But Miller, a technology teacher at Kilbourne Middle School in Worthington, said educators have to be smart about it. To illustrate, he said, an intensive, hands on science-math curriculum flopped when it was first introduced at Kilbourne.

When new teaching ideas were introduced in lower grades, however, students began to show improvement. Kindergarteners were exposed to basic ideas in engineering and other technology subjects. When they entered Kilbourne the STEM-oriented program began to produce results.

"Not only do our kids answer the questions correctly, they can say why," Miller said.

Kilbourne students, for example, might design a survival shelter for a particular environment -- a desert or snowy mountains -- from material in the environment.

"It's difficult to write this kind of curriculum but it's more rewarding for them and a blast for us," Miller said.

Such change can't come too fast for Gordon Aubrecht, a physics teacher at Ohio State University's Marion campus. Too many Ohio schools are stuck in what he called an educational system designed to train docile workers. "It's well over a century out of date and we're still doing it," he said. "I have students who say, 'Just tell me what to memorize.' But it doesn't work that way in my class."

STEM philosophy, however, is not new. Teresa Harris, a science teacher at Upper Sandusky High School in Wyandot County, said basic STEM teaching ideas go back at least to the 1970s but teachers and teacher-training schools have fallen flat in adopting them.

"After 40 years we're still not doing it," she said.

This institutional attitude may hamper STEM. In fact, she said, administrators, at least in some schools, don't understand what STEM is all about. "Administrators still like to look into classrooms and see kids sitting in rows....Administrators still like to see order," she said.

It's ironic, then, that Ohio is considered a leader in STEM education.

"Ohio doesn't lead in a lot of things but we do in technology-based education and clearly in STEM," Richard Stoff, president of the Ohio Business Roundtable, told the conference.

Industry has signed on. General Electric, for example, is so concerned about having a trained workforce in the future the company established a STEM school at its lighting division in Cincinnati.

"We're looking for some of these kids to come back and work at GE," said Michael Petras, president of GE Lighting.

Ohio Development Director Lisa Patt-McDaniel echoed GE's concerns. "We hear from companies in Ohio that they're pleased with the workforce but they are looking toward the future," she said. Demand is high for workers with math and communication skills who can work in teams, analyze a problem and create a solution.

In fact, Akron saved its tire business when rubber companies threatened to pull out, in part, because the community guaranteed that the area would supply enough trained workers, said Rep. Brian Williams, chairman of the Ohio House education committee and former superintendent of Akron Public Schools. STEM figures in this kind of effort. Other fading industrial communities, like Dayton and Toledo, also face the issue of providing a trained workforce to retain and attract business.

Despite this importance, STEM programs will be scrutinized as never before in the next state budget as Ohio lawmakers will need to trim at least $4 billion in spending. "Next year, I don't know how we're going to get through the budget cycle," said Sen. Gary Cates, chairman of the Ohio Senate education committee. Legislative scrutiny will pit education against other government spending. STEM programs will have to butt heads with other education programs, like providing money to increase high-school graduation rates.

Cates looks at STEM as a job creation program crucial to Ohio's future, especially given an analysis last week listing Ohio second to last of all states and the District of Columbia in prospects for post-recession job creation. "This is a program that works. It's got to work," he said.

by Mike Lafferty


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Capital Matters

Collaboration could save small districts big bucks

A Thomas B. Fordham Institute analysis indicates consolidating just a few administrative roles in Ohio school districts with fewer than 1,700 students might save as much as $40 million a year.

The analysis uses savings that the Rittman Exempted Village School District and the Orrville City School District, in Wayne County, realized when the two districts consolidated their administrative staffs in January 2008.

The Fordham analysis looked at 297 districts with 1,700 or fewer students, 49 percent of Ohio's 611 districts.

The Rittman and Orrville decision seemed promising two years ago but it has turned out to be a no-brainer. This year, the arrangement has produced a savings of about $270,000 -- $170,000 for Orrville and $100,000 for Rittman, according to Superintendent John Ritchie.

In addition to Ritchie, the districts share an assistant superintendent, treasurer, director of operations, special education director, EMIS coordinator, and a transportation support team. The districts also share the time of a French teacher and special services for emotionally disturbed and multi-handicapped students.

Even if the 297 districts in the Fordham analysis did not combine administratively to the extent of Rittman and Orville, just combining the superintendent and treasurer would save an estimated $25.9 million, assuming a superintendent earns $100,000 annually and a treasurer $75,000.

Ritchie, originally Orrville's superintendent, proposed the idea as a way to save money for both districts when Rittman's superintendent retired. Ritchie, 42, is a 1986 graduate of Rittman.

"So far so good; it's going real well. The efficiencies continue to grow," Ritchie told the Ohio Education Gadfly Monday. "We're well into our second year. It's actually got to the point where people don't talk about it anymore."

The two towns are not only in the same county but are only about 10 miles apart so Ritchie can make it between district offices in about 15 minutes. To divide the shared costs, the Rittman-Orrville compact uses the percentage of student population of the two districts. Orville has about 1,750 students and four schools while Rittman serves about 1,100 students and three schools.

Ritchie stressed that the agreement is collaboration, and not a consolidation. The two districts maintain separate school boards, separate budgets, test scores, athletic teams, and clubs. Ritchie alternates football game night, going to Orville one week and Rittman the next.

The deal's early success has caused lawmakers to notice and the state could promote the idea as an option for increasingly cash-strapped districts. Ritchie spoke before the Ohio Senate education committee yesterday, reiterating that support from school communities is central to making cost-saving collaboration work. "We could expand this model in the right community with the right mindset," he said.

Ritchie named at least one change the legislature could enact to remove impediments to similar consolidations -- make the law more explicit so as to permit districts to share superintendents and other administrators, and not just treasurers.

Some districts might find administrative consolidation more palatable than the recent recommendation by the Greater Ohio Policy Center and Brookings Institution that the number of school districts in the state be trimmed by one-third. The study pointed out that Ohio districts have high administrative costs (ninth highest in the nation) and low elementary and secondary education spending (47th).

Support for local control remains strong in Ohio and any move to trim districts, no matter how logical in the view of Columbus, will be fought. Forging economies of scale among districts, such as the one pioneered by Orrville and Rittman, offers a logical alternative. Also promising are efforts by districts like Springboro to save money by outsourcing services to county Educational Service Centers. As Warren County ESC Associate Superintendent Tom Isaacs told the Dayton Daily News, "That's the nature of our business model. We have to be able to do it for less than they can do it themselves or they will do it themselves."

by Mike Lafferty and Tim Hoffine


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Will being a first-round finalist hurt Ohio's chances in the Race to the Top?

When federal education Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled the finalists for his $4.35 billion Race to the Top sweepstakes last week, surprise was a common reaction -- surprise both at how many (16 out of 41 applicants) and who made the cut.

Reform-minded states like Tennessee, Florida, and Louisiana made it. Their applications proposed major education innovations, supported by national partners and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and have been considered top contenders since applications were submitted in January. But Kentucky, which has no charter school law, also was named a finalist. So was New York, where student test results are prohibited from informing teacher tenure decisions and where charter school growth is capped.

Ohio made the finalist list, too. The Buckeye State's surely is one of the top 16 applications submitted. Still, most fair-minded observers don't think Ohio should win in the first round despite making the preliminary cut, unless Secretary Duncan goes back on his word and awards the dollars to most of the finalists or doles out grants based on political pressure.

Even if Duncan raises the bar for winning Race to the Top dollars, making the easy decision and inviting nearly two-fifths of the applicants to continue in the competition could have a negative impact on the round-two hopes of the less-stellar finalists like Ohio.

While Ohio is preparing to make the pitch for its application in Washington, D.C., next Tuesday, the states that didn't make the "sweet 16" are re-crafting their applications and considering legislation to make their second proposals more appealing. If Ohio loses the race in April, we will have lost a valuable month or more that could have been spent improving our proposal and our legislative landscape. Given the state's legislative schedule and the slow pace of our legislature this session, there will be little to no opportunity to make changes in state law to aid our second-round proposal.

Ohio could also use an extra month to build broader support for its application. The current application was crafted mainly behind closed doors with no real input from outsiders (other than the teachers unions). In fact, Republican lawmakers were not allowed to see the application prior to its public release and now are voicing their concerns with it. The reforms it should take to win the Race to the Top will be tough to enact here and will require support that extends across ideologies and from the Statehouse to the classrooms.

Instead, Ohio will spend the next month hoping for a win and sitting on its hands. If that win doesn't materialize, we'll head into round two with little time or space to do much differently beyond reworking our text.

by Emmy L. Partin


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Editor's Extras

What do and Pell have in common?

This week we'd like to start of Editor's Extras by giving a warm welcome to our newest intern, Dan Woolf, who will be working on reviews, research and creating these wonderful Editor's Extras. Dan is a graduate from Miami University, where he double-majored in philosophy and American studies. Welcome to TBFI!

by Tim Hoffine and Dan Woolf

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One gutsy guy

Former U.S. Secretary of Education and Fordham trustee Rod Paige's courageous new book examines the disparity in educational achievement between black and white students and explores why American civil rights leaders have long-neglected this persistent problem. In The Black-White Achievement Gap, Paige and co-author, Elaine Witty, make the case that closing the achievement gap is the greatest civil rights issue of our time. Read Chester E. Finn, Jr.'s review of the book here, watch video of a recent event to discuss the book here, and buy the book here.

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Caprice Young joins Fordham board of trustees

Caprice Young, CEO of Distance Learning, has been elected to the board of trustees of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Foundation. Young has been CEO of the California Charter Schools Association and president of the Los Angeles Board of Education. She has also served as strategy consulting group manager of IBM's West Coast e-Business Innovations Design Center and assistant deputy mayor of Los Angeles. Read more here.

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Lifting up charter-district partnerships

Do you have a great example of charter schools and traditional district schools working together? Then the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools wants to hear from you! Fifty Best Cooperative Practices between Charter and Traditional Public Schools will be selected for publication and wide dissemination throughout the education community and to national and state opinion leaders and policymakers. A National Conference -- presented in partnership with the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,, and the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation -- to showcase these best practices will be held September 27&28, 2010, in Columbus, Ohio. For more information, contact Amy Black at [email protected].

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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 [email protected]. Would you like to be spared from the Gadfly? Email [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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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