Ohio is currently one of America’s 23 all-Republican states—Republican House, Republican Senate, Republican Governor. It even has an elected state supreme court that is dominated by Republicans. Although all the seats on Ohio’s 19-member state board of education are formally designated as non-partisan, 8 seats are held by appointees of the governor, and only 7 seats are currently held by members who identify themselves as Democrats. If you are a Democrat in such a situation, you need to be creative about getting your voice heard.
A.J. Wagner keeps figuring out how to make people listen. Wagner was, early in his career, an elementary school teacher, then later a Dayton attorney, and later still a Dayton Municipal Court judge, and the Montgomery County Auditor. Finally, before retiring from the bench in 2010, Wagner was elected to serve as a judge in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court.
Last summer when the Cleveland Plain Dealer exposed that the Ohio Department of Education had mysteriously omitted the ratings from Ohio’s notorious online charter schools and dropout recovery charters from a new state rating system for authorizers of charter schools, Wagner pressed the State Board of Education to insist on bringing in an outside investigator. The state board tabled his request, though the press across the state and most notably the Plain Dealer continued to press for transparency. David Hansen, who ran the Department of Education’s charter school office, subsequently resigned. Eventually Dick Ross, then Ohio’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, retired at the end of 2015.
Now, according to the Columbus, Ohio blog, Plunderbund, Wagner has taken to his Facebook page to publish a personal letter to Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Education, to protest the letter she sent recently to all chief state school officers to remind them that No Child Left Behind’s accountability standards will remain in place during 2016. Plunderbund publishes both Whalen’s letter and Wagner’s response. Whalen’s letter warns state school leaders that they must not let up, despite that No Child Left Behind has now formally been left behind. Many of the old law’s regulations will, according to Whalen, continue to insert the U.S. Department of Education into regulating education across the states for the rest of this year.
Wagner raises serious concerns with federal education policy—first: “I find some of your language and some of the federal legal requirements conflicting. For instance, you demand adherence to the rule that 95% of students be tested for English and math from grades 3 to 12. Yet, the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states the authority to affirm parents’ right to opt their children out of tests.”
Then Wagner examines the U.S. Department of Education’s Testing Action Plan—the Department’s administrative rules that Whalen warns will remain in place this year. Wagner explains that the long-running, U.S. Department of Education-approved, standardized testing program in Ohio has, in his estimation violated the Department’s own rules for some time. First there is the rule that the tests should be “worth taking”—that test results will be provided in a timely way and “present useful information and questions that push students’ critical thinking skills.” He responds: “In Ohio we administered the PARCC assessments last year. We still don’t have the final results of those exams… Even if the results had been provided in a timely manner, there has been no preparation to instruct schools and teachers in how to interpret the results so as to implement changes in areas where they fall short. The tests are, therefore, useless.” He adds that, “the tests in question have not been validated. Further, the standards being tested have not been validated by any scientific measurement that would show their effectiveness and ability to improve education.”
Wagner adds, “The tests for which you require 95% participation and high quality have been used, in Ohio, almost exclusively to measure the success of teachers, principals, and school districts. At every step of this process, careers are on the line with the outcome of these tests. To suggest a cap on test preparation (as the U.S. Department of Education has asked states to do)… is sound advice unless you’re the teacher, principal, or superintendent who will be evaluated by the result.”
Then Wagner examines fairness—covered in the Department’s Rule 4 in the context of children with physical disabilities and language barriers. Wagner inquires about the role of poverty: “Poverty brings its own barriers to the classroom. Stress, hunger, poor health, emotional trauma, and lack of intellectual stimulation in the early years handicap most of our poorest children… You only require standards they cannot meet while unvalidated tests discourage them from even trying.”
Wagner wonders how Ohio can comply with a requirement that states effectively communicate the meaning of test scores to parents: “As it is, we give them the scores (which we do with our own nomenclature so as to hide the true meaning of them), give teachers the scores, and do so in an extremely untimely manner.”
He concludes: “Because your threats to school chiefs were widely distributed, I will post this letter on social media as a response. Please do not interpret this as a lack of sincerity on my part. These are serious and important concerns and I hope to obtain answers that reflect the importance of our shared interest in our children.”
You may scoff at Wagner’s letter as though it is a mere stunt. I think it is significant that a person of his experience and stature—a former teacher, an attorney, a county auditor, and a judge—is raising such questions about test-and-punish school accountability. I admire elected officials who persistently confront the narrative about test-and-punish accountability that is usually accepted unquestioned—as received wisdom. A lot of people, including the Congress that kept the test-and-punish philosophy while devolving its enforcement to the states in the new law, can’t remember any other way to think about education.