Ohio Legislature Must Pass HB 154 to Eliminate State School Takeovers in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland

The members of the Ohio Legislature must pass House Bill 154, thereby repealing Ohio House Bill 70, which provides for the state to seize governance from locally elected school boards in the state’s lowest scoring school districts. HB 70 was passed in 2015.

House Bill 154, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Representatives Joe Miller (D-Amherst) and Don Jones (R-Freeport), would dissolve existing state-appointed Academic Distress Commissions and their appointed CEOs in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland.  By passing HB 154, the Legislature would restore the governance of these school districts to their locally elected school boards. HB 154 would also restore respect and collective bargaining rights for their teachers.

Under the current HB 70, Ohio identifies any school district which has received three years of consecutive “F” grades on the state report card as in academic distress and subject to state takeover. Youngstown and Lorain are now completing their fourth school year under HB 70 state takeover.  East Cleveland was seized at the beginning of the current school year. Other districts facing HB 70 state takeover in the near future are Dayton next year and Columbus, Canton, Mansfield, Toledo and several others the following year.

The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach describes the provisions of HB 154 which would offer broader support to districts deemed in academic distress: “Starting July 1, ‘failing’ districts under takeover would transition out of the Academic Distress Commission model and into a community learning center or other option. Starting July 1, 2020, districts that were not subject to an ADC but had received an overall F on the report card would begin to transition into an alternative model—including a community learning center… It also would allow for the Ohio Department of Education to provide support in creating the improvement plan and perform mid-and end of year-reviews of a district’s measurable benchmarks to make sure it is on the right track and provide feedback.”  (In Ohio, which formally names all charter schools “community schools,” the term “community learning center” describes the kind of school with wraparound social and medical resources that the rest of the nation calls “Community Schools.”)

Ohio’s HB 70 was passed suddenly at the end of June, 2015. The bill had been designed in secret by then Governor John Kasich, his appointed state superintendent Dick Ross, and some allies in Youngstown. It was fast-tracked after it was added suddenly as an amendment to a different bill.  Without committee hearings or any opponent testimony permitted, it was passed and signed into law within 24 hours at the end of the legislative session.

In Youngstown under its Academic Distress Commission, Krish Mohip has served as the appointed CEO of the school district. His tenure has been unhappy for Mohip and for the school community in Youngstown. Mohip hasn’t bothered to hide his disdain for the city. Last November, he announced he would not be re-applying when his contract runs out this coming July. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March, 2018 that Mohip felt he could not safely move his family to the community where he was in charge of the public schools. He has also been openly interviewed for other jobs including school districts as far away as Boulder, Colorado and Fargo, North Dakota. And a succession of members of Youngstown’s Academic Distress Commission have quit.  As measured by the state report card, under Mohip and the Academic Distress Commission, Youngstown is still earning an “F.”

Youngstown’s state-appointed Academic Distress Commission named a new CEO just last week: Justin Jennings will leave his position as Superintendent of Schools in Muskegon, Michigan to lead the Youngstown Schools. Jennings may well be a good choice, but one wishes the choice could have been made by Youngstown’s elected school board. Jennings rose to the job of school superintendent from within the Muskegon system. In his first year on the job as superintendent in 2017, Jennings earned a “minimally effective” rating from the local school board, but he improved his performance rating to “effective” at the end of the school year in 2018.

In Lorain, the HB 70 state takeover has been a disaster.  The appointed CEO, David Hardy has refused to bring his family to live in Lorain. He has alienated the school community, the teachers, students at the high school, the police department, the elected school board (which HB 70 permits to exist but without any power), several members of the Academic Distress Commission itself who have quit, and virtually the entire community.  After the chair of the Academic Distress Commission resigned in the winter, Paolo DeMaria, Ohio’s state superintendent, appointed Randall Sampson as a new chair.  Sampson has initiated a formal evaluation of David Hardy’s performance.  The Chronicle Telegram‘s Carissa Woytach explains that in mid-March at his first meeting as chair of the Lorain Academic Distress Commission, Sampson said, “he was working on evaluating the district leader. Per Hardy’s contract, the commission was required to evaluate him after his first 180 days in the district, 365 days in the position and thereafter on a yearly basis.  None of those evaluations were completed.” In Lorain, despite what has been described variously as months of confusion, rancor, crisis, and growing chaos, David Hardy remains on the job.  State Superintendent DeMaria and the president of the elected Lorain Board of Education are currently engaged in heated debate about the conditions in the Lorain City Schools as the state superintendent defends the ongoing HB 70 state takeover and the appointment of David Hardy.  As measured by the state report card, under Hardy and the Academic Distress Commission, Lorain is still earning an “F.”

It is too early to know how the state takeover of the East Cleveland schools will go. East Cleveland is the poorest community in the Cleveland metropolitan area and said to be one of the poorest communities in the nation. At least the newly appointed CEO is local; he is from Maple Heights, another inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. Henry Pettigrew was the former assistant superintendent in Maple Heights, and he promises quickly to raise East Cleveland out of academic distress. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell quotes Pettigrew: “We are going to do the rebirth of an American urban school system… Some people have written us off. Some people said it couldn’t be done… open your eyes and watch.”   O’Donnell comments: “Whether Pettigrew retains support as more details of his plan unfold will be key to its success… He… asks teachers and district leaders, ‘What are YOU going to do… how are we intentionally changing our behavior?'”  O’Donnell continues: “His full plan is not yet available.  But he said he wants to make decisions and faster changes in classrooms to help kids.  An early goal: Increase the district’s ‘Performance Index,’ the state’s composite of all state test scores across all grades, from 56.4 to 66 out of 120 points next school year.  That would improve the district’s grade on that measure from an F to a D and likely jump over about 20 districts after having the second worst score in the state last school year.”  Pettigrew says he will improve school attendance by ensuring that teachers offer “more interesting lessons in class.”  He will affirm and encourage the students, monitor student progress by computer, and engage parents.

I will simply comment that living as I do in the school district next door to East Cleveland, I have known a number of extremely dedicated and experienced teachers over the years from both Shaw High School and Kirk Middle School.  Surely the district needs to reduce the high rate of chronic student absence, but I wish Pettigrew weren’t starting out blaming the district’s teachers by implying that the district’s low test scores are a result of uninteresting lessons.

In 2017, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz published The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, a book length critique of our nation’s two-decades old, test-and-punish school accountability scheme—the basis of Ohio’s school district report cards by which the state identifies school districts for state takeover by academic distress commissions.  Koretz is an expert on the design and use of standardized testing as the basis for high-stakes evaluation of schools and schoolteachers.  He demonstrates that school evaluation based on high stakes testing unfairly penalizes the very kind of schools Ohio targets under HB 70: “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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… 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)

Koretz is very clear about how Ohio’s focus on bringing districts out of “academic distress”—moving them from “F” grades on the school report card based on test scores up to “D”grades—distorts teaching itself in the schools where student poverty is concentrated: “First, many good (educational) activities… fall outside the range most standardized tests can sample well… Second, while good instruction in general will improve students’ mastery and therefore, should increase scores, it won’t increase scores on a specific test as much as instruction—and test-prep—aimed squarely at that particular test.  In other words, teaching to the test can increase test scores more rapidly than high-quality teaching not focused narrowly on the specific test used for accountability.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 139-140)

Koretz explains further that punitive evaluation based on high-stakes testing is likely to drive educators in the schools serving the poorest children to narrow the curriculum to focus on test preparation or to find other ways artificially to raise scores.  After all school districts’ ratings and even teachers’ jobs in some cases have depended on their quickly raising scores.  Koretz writes: “Lower performing schools often face severe barriers to improvement—for example, fewer resources, less experienced teaching staff, high rates of teacher turnover, higher rates of student transience, fewer high-performing students to serve as models, fewer parents who are able to provide supplementary supports…. Faced with these obstacles, teachers will have a stronger incentive to look for shortcuts for raising scores. Ironically, one of the elements of school reform intended to help low-achieving students appears to have backfired, making these incentives worse.  The key is that the performance targets are uniform and are coupled with real sanctions and rewards. When these targets require faster gains than teachers can produce by legitimate means, teachers have a strong incentive to search for whatever methods might raise scores quickly… There is ample evidence that test prep is more pervasive in the schools serving disadvantaged kids, and some signs that cheating (the Atlanta and Washington, D.C. scandals where educators erased answers or otherwise raised scores) is more common.. What matters for rewards and punishments (for schools and teachers) is the performance—or at least the apparent performance—of the school system, individual schools, and often individual teachers.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 68-69)

Finally, Koretz concludes: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge. Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale.  Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents.” (The Testing Charade, p. 191)

And all this is most likely to happen in conditions like the ones created by Ohio HB 70, in which schools are threatened with state takeover if they do not quickly raise scores. The members of the Ohio Legislature must pass Ohio HB 154, which will repeal Ohio HB70, the state takeover of so-called “academically distressed” school districts.

No School Is “Doomed.” Continuous Improvement, Not School Closure, Must Be the Goal

I have read Eliza Shapiro’s reporting in POLITICO for years and I respect her as a reporter, but her story in Friday’s NY Times baffles me: New York Knew Some Schools In Its $773 Million Plan Were Doomed, They Kept Children in Them Anyway. The story raises a thousand questions and answers none of them. It fails to consider realities, which Shapiro surely knows, affect any child’s experience at school.

In Shapiro’s piece last Friday, we learn that the future of NYC’s Renewal Schools plan is in jeopardy.  And we learn that one of the interventions made in these, NYC’s lowest performing schools, as part of the Renewal Schools plan was their transformation into full-service, wraparound Community Schools. We are not told, however, what other interventions have been tried or how widely any intervention has been taken across the schools.  Over the weekend, in the blog of her organization, Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson explains that one improvement which would have been likely to support students was not tried.  Children were still assigned to classes of over 30 students. Shapiro tells us that the Renewal Schools program has cost $773 million but not how the money was spent.

Here is how Shapiro begins last week’s report on the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Chancellor Carmen Farina’s Renewal Schools program: “Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to ‘shake the foundations of New York City education’ in 2014 with a new program called Renewal, a signature effort to improve the city’s 94 poorest-performing schools by showering them with millions of dollars in social services and teacher training.  A year later, aides raised a confidential alarm: about a third of those schools were likely to fail. The schools were not meeting goals that the city set for higher test scores, increased graduation rates and other academic measures—and probably never would… ‘In order for these schools to reach their targets for 2017, the interventions would need to produce truly exceptional improvements,’ read the December 2015 memo, a copy of which was obtained by the New York Times. ‘Historically, it has been quite rare for schools to improve that much in two years.’  Mr. de Blasio kept most of the schools open.  Now, after sending thousands of children into classrooms that staff members suspected were doomed from the start, the administration appears ready to give up on Renewal.  Its cost: $773 million by the end of this school year.”

The headline and the school district’s 2015 memo that Shapiro quotes describe the Renewal Schools program as “doomed” from the start because the district’s promise quickly to improve graduation rates and test score metrics would be unprecedented if achieved.  That kind of proclamation of an impossible, aspirational goal— “doomed from the start”—is surely also exemplified by No Child Left Behind’s promise to make all children in America proficient, as measured by standardized tests, by 2014.  And exemplified by the Race to the Top program, in which no school or school district raced to the top.

Here are presumably some of the realities faced by many of the students in New York City’s lowest-performing schools. Two weeks ago Shapiro herself reported that one out of ten students in the New York City Public Schools is homeless—114,659 students.  NYC is a segregated city, racially and economically, and Shapiro’s own reporting confirms that many homeless children are concentrated in particular schools: “District 10 in the Bronx served the most homeless children of any of the city’s 32 school districts last year. The district includes Kingsbridge International High School, where about 44 percent of students who attended school over the last four years were homeless.”  We know that homeless students drop out or delay graduation at higher rates than their more privileged peers and, in the aggregate, their test scores lag.

The NY Times‘, Elizabeth Harris reported last April: “The upheaval of homelessness means those children are often anxious and traumatized, and that their parents are as well.  Many of them travel long distances from where they sleep to school in the morning, leaving them exhausted before the day begins.  Drained and frightened, they bring all of that with them to school… “(H)omeless students accounted for 13 percent of all suspensions, relatively flat when compared to the previous year.”

And of course, we know that homelessness represents only the most desperate marker of poverty and that many additional students in NYC’s public schools face economic challenges, which have been correlated for decades in the research literature with diminished standardized test scores and lower graduation rates.

My biggest fear as I read Shapiro’s story—which leaves a lot unanswered—is that school-reformers in the mold of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg will push for the return to an earlier era.  Based on the philosophy of corporate, test-based accountability, Mayor Bloomberg brought so-called “portfolio school reform” to NYC. The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.” School closure is the ultimate fate of so-called “failing” schools in a portfolio framework.

Portfolio school reform theory—operating across a network of America’s big cities and resulting ultimately in school closure—contrasts with the idea of continuous improvement as the goal for any human institution. What concrete steps can we take to help a public school better serve its students and families? And how can we correct as we go along to ensure that we keep on doing better?

Mayor de Blasio and Carmen Farina tried a  strategy very different from Bloomberg’s portfolio plan.  One intervention Shapiro’s article acknowledges they tried was  expanding investment in wrap-around, full service Community Schools as a way to support the students as well as overwhelmed and overworked staff at New York City’s poorest schools. Perhaps leaders in the school district hoped this investment would “cure” these schools, but I don’t believe advocates for Community Schools have never claimed that locating medical, dental, mental health, social service, Head Start, after-school and summer programs at a school will immediately turn around test scores and graduation rates.  Community Schools are designed to support families and children and thereby ensure that the school’s students are able to be more engaged in the school’s academic program.  Here are the pillars of a full-service Community School: relevant rigorous and engaging curriculum; supports for quality teaching and collaborative leadership; appropriate wrap-around supports for every child; student-centered school climate; and transformative parent and community engagement. One Community School I visited several years ago in NYC is a model developed by the Children’s Aid Society. It is a school where the principal of the school works in partnership with the community school director to coordinate the work of a strong academic staff with a staff of social and medical service providers and to engage the parents and children in a wealth of wraparound supports and enrichments.

Here are some questions Shapiro’s article raises:

  • With the size of the NYC Public Schools (1.1 million students) and the scale of family poverty in NYC, what would it take adequately to support the principals and teachers in schools serving masses of children who struggle with poverty and homelessness? Why is our society unwilling to consider the scale of investment that would be necessary to make a dent in child poverty? Two weeks ago in her report on NYC’s alarming family homelessness, Shapiro explained that the city has invested million of dollars in new services for homeless students—to achieve, for example, a ratio of one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students and to provide school bus transportation for children who previously were trying to navigate bus and subway rides from a succession of shelters to their home school which may now be in a distant borough. But it clearly isn’t enough.  In her new report, Shapiro quotes Mayor de Blasio’s spokesperson: “The Renewal school program wasn’t a silver bullet, but it sure made a big difference in the lives of kids and parents at improved schools that would have been closed by prior administrations. The mayor views the program as a foundation, not the endgame.”
  • Will policy makers in NYC eventually fall back on now-discredited interventions like school closure? Decades of research correlate metrics like test scores and graduation rates with family and neighborhood economic conditions and conclude that schools alone cannot be expected to overcome our society’s exploding inequality.  Lacking the dollars and sometimes the expertise for continuous improvement in a so-called “failing” school, Portfolio School Reformers are likely to prescribe school closure as a solution. But having watched Chicago’s experiment with school closure five years ago, we now know about the tragedy that is likely to follow school closure. Sociologists confirm that even struggling schools—the schools that are unable quickly to raise test scores—are important institutions anchoring neighborhoods and serving families in myriad unnamed ways. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research published research earlier this year documenting widespread community mourning after the Chicago Public Schools’ closure of 50 schools in 2013.  And just last month, Eve Ewing, a sociologist at the University of Chicago published Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a book tracing the impact of the 2013 Chicago school closures, with many of the closed institutions concentrated in the African American, Bronzeville neighborhood. Ewing considers the technocratic point of view of Barbara Byrd Bennett, then Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, and contrasts Byrd Bennett’s reasoning with the voices of the children who were enrolled, their parents and their teachers who together explain the meaning of their schools. This book is essential reading for anyone who cares about urban public schools.

In New York City, if the Renewal Schools plan is floundering, the school district’s leaders must seek to better serve the students. Surely nobody wants the city’s poorest schools to fail. One hopes, however, that the future will feature continuous improvement, not school closure.

Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explains the tragic mistake of test-based, portfolio school reform theory in his essential book, The Testing Charade. High stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face overwhelming challenges:  “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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.” (pp. 129-130)