I have been reading a May 7, 2019 draft Ohio School Transformation Plan. This is the Ohio Senate’s proposal to replace the current Ohio HB 70 state takeovers of Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland and state takeovers scheduled for ten more school districts in the next two years. Currently Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland are operating under state appointed Academic Distress Commissions. In Youngstown and Lorain, now completing their fourth year under Academic Distress Commissions, the dysfunction, chaos and ill-will are unsustainable.
The Senate’s just proposed Ohio School Transformation Plan plan was designed by an Academic Distress Working Group that includes representatives of the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, Warrensville Heights and Mansfield school districts; Ohio’s state superintendent, Paolo deMaria; Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of the Ohio Senate Education Committee; and representatives of several advocacy groups including the Thomas Fordham Foundation, Ohio Excels, Capital Partners, Education First, and Learn to Earn Dayton. The Ohio School Transformation Plan is being prepared for inclusion in the Senate’s proposed FY 2020-2121 Ohio biennial budget.
Here is how the Working Group describes the plan: “The group recommends that in the budget, action be taken to incubate a new approach to turning around low performing schools and districts in Ohio… In the budget language for the Senate, the Working Group recommends establishing the Ohio School Transformation Plan. This is to be accomplished through a phased implementation—addressing the needs of districts currently within the Academic Distress Commission in Phase I—and working over the next six months to develop a Phase 2 detailed framework.”
Make no mistake, the Ohio School Transformation Plan is still a state takeover.
Having considered the ongoing catastrophe of the current Youngstown and Lorain state takeovers under HB 70, however, the members of the Working Group claim to have learned some lessons and made adjustments: “For a district in Substantial and Intensive Support status, allow a local superintendent to continue to serve with support, especially if the superintendent is relatively new to the school district’s leadership team… If change is necessary or the position becomes vacant, allow the district board of education to hire a new superintendent with the approval of the state… Union leadership should be at the table from the beginning to help build the transformation plan. It is critical that district and union leadership work together to set a transformation plan in place to ensure shared commitment to plan implementation.”
While there is no evidence in Ohio or nationally that collective bargaining impedes school improvement, and despite that the Senate Working Group includes the teachers’ union in any school district’s development of its local Transformation Plan, the Working Group adds a warning that the teachers union may ultimately be a barrier to be overcome: “Identify early in the process (ideally during the root cause analysis), provisions in the collective bargaining agreement that may impact successful plan implementation.”
And while the Working Group describes lessons learned, it would appear that members of the Working Group neglect to consider that residents and leaders of the districts under Transformation might notice that while the local people are still in place, their power has been replaced by total control from a new state agency. Additionally, under the Senate’s plan, local educators would be operating with the “guidance” of an outside consultant. The Working Group explains how all this will work:
“Establish the state-level Transformation for Student Success Board (TSSB) charged with reviewing, approving and monitoring progress of School and District Transformation and Implementation Plans (SDTIP)… The TSSB would replace locally based Academic Distress Commissions for each district, elevating the import of this work to a higher level to address the learning, equity, and economic issues inherent in supporting student success and talent development in the State of Ohio. The TSSB will report to the Governor and be comprised of members representing: State Superintendent for Public Instruction; Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation; (and) up to 5 members with significant direct recent experience in school/district leadership, education policy, technical assistance, and/or education research appointed by a combination of the Governor, Senate President and Speaker of the House, Minority Leaders of the House and Senate in consultation with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.”
Notice that the framers of the Ohio School Transformation Plan describe elevating the work to a higher (state) level. The assumption is that officials of the state, many of whom lack any training and experience in the field of education, know more about operating a local school district than the professional educators chosen by the struggling school district’s elected school board. This despite the long process the Working Group envisions by which the school district’s leaders and their chosen third-party consultant will create their local plan for improvement. Which must then be approved by the state Transformation for Student Success Board.
Causes for concern crop up throughout the document. The state would help to finance the transformation, but the Working Group estimates huge costs—hundreds of thousands of dollars per district for consultants during the initial school district transformation analysis and more costs later for for turnaround support, coaching of principals, and in-service education for staff on literacy instruction and intervention in classroom culture and climate. Because Ohio’s biennial budget, as proposed by the House, does not include these services and unless the Senate allocates significant additional funding, the money would have to come from somewhere else in the state education budget or the school district’s operating budget. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act allows for the diversion of 7 percent of Title I funds for school turnaround. It seems that funds being used currently for student services would now be diverted to consultants.
The plan is presented by the Working Group as though it is a guaranteed win for Youngstown and Lorain, the school districts currently in chaos because of their failed governance under Academic Distress Commissions. But consider the overall record on state takeovers across the country. Neither the Louisiana Recovery School District, the Michigan Educational Achievement Authority, The Tennessee Achievement School District, the decades’ long New Jersey state takeovers, nor the state-appointed Philadelphia School Reform Commission have managed quickly to sustain lasting school improvement in their struggling schools. All but one of these state takeover plans have been terminated by their states because they were ineffective or unaffordable or both. In 2017, Arne Duncan’s School Improvement Grants turnaround program was deemed a failure by the U.S. Department of Education’s own National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.
School improvement experts explain that school improvement is a step by step process that may take many years. There has been no evidence anywhere that schools can be quickly turned around in a year or two. But the Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan prescribes that if school districts under the Senate’s plan, “Should… fail to meet the requirements of School and District Transformation and Implementation Plans over the two-year period, they would fall into Academic Distress Commission control, as currently mandated, or would be subject to a new comprehensive and cohesive policy when such a new policy is enacted (expected in 2020).”
The Senate Working Group’s proposed Ohio School Transformation Plan’s most serious fault is what it fails to consider. While the members of the Working Group proclaim that the new plan will: “Require school and district transformation plans that respond to the root cause analysis of the district’s performance challenges and focus on effectively addressing those causes with effective practices to drive meaningful change, ” the plan’s very substance assumes that school governance is the problem: the school district’s educators don’t know how to improve their students’ performance.
But what if school governance is not the problem? The state evaluates and judges school districts almost entirely based on their standardized test scores. And it is well known that standardized test scores correlate primarily with family and neighborhood economics. As one looks at the school districts currently under HB 70 Academic Distress Commissions, all of them, along with the districts currently slated for takeover in the next two years, are school districts serving children living in concentrated neighborhood poverty and racial segregation.
In an excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, examined essential supports that would be necessary in 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in Chicago, the poorest schools in a school district where many schools are troubled with poverty. The families these school serve are 96 percent low income: 64 percent of adult males in these families are unemployed; the median family income is $9,480; and the percentage of families living below the poverty line is 70 percent. Bryk and his colleagues prescribe strategies for improving the schools that serve children in such neighborhoods, but they point out that realistically, “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused… ” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, p. 173)
The National Education Policy Center’s Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel recently explained why standardized tests are the wrong way to evaluate school quality: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”
Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the use of standardized testing, condemns high-stakes standardized testing as an inaccurate way to measure the quality of a school. While schools in the poorest communities need more support for their students and smaller classes to increase the attention students receive from adults, standardized test scores in the aggregate merely tell us that the so-called “failing school” is likely to be located in a neighborhood or community where the residents are struggling with poverty:
“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)
The Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan is merely another top-down attempt to prescribe governance changes as the way to raise aggregate students’ test scores. It will fail like all the others. It is a paternalistic plan envisioning that state overseers and consultants know more than local educators. In other words it assumes that school district administrators don’t know enough and teachers aren’t working hard enough. Like the federal law that didn’t work, the Ohio’s Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan assumes that the Legislature can merely prescribe that school districts promise No Child Left Behind. It assumes that school districts can cure our society’s failure to overcome the tragedy of concentrated family poverty.
Instead of adopting the Senate’s Ohio School Transformation Plan, the Ohio Legislature needs to pass HB 154 or alternatively the Ohio House Budget’s plan to eliminate the HB 70 state takeovers. Then the Legislature needs to invest significantly in smaller classes, more counselors, more social workers, more wraparound social and medical services and more school enrichment. The state needs to begin adequately supporting rather than punishing its very poorest school districts.