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.

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