Educators speak with one voice
No one likes a whiner. Complainers who decry how hard, unfair or useless it is, come across as powerless, not as effective change agents.
Superintendent Talisa Dixon of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools participates in a monthly meeting with superintendents from Cleveland and 15 inner-ring suburban districts. Because they serve our most vulnerable students, these districts are the most vulnerable to the state legislature’s obsession with basing high-stakes decisions on test scores. Because tests are predictors of income rather than school quality, these districts and their students are punished.
One glaring example was Ohio House Bill 70, which included a punitive provision giving state officials authority to take over school districts. Six variables—graduation rates and five performance measures based on test scores—are used to determine if a district is in “academic distress.” If test scores don’t improve after three years, governance responsibilities are taken from local elected boards and their superintendents. The assumption is that those leaders are slackers and the solution is to have an appointed outsider lead.
Youngstown and Lorain have already come under state control, and the outcomes have been disastrous. Three Cuyahoga County districts are next in line: East Cleveland, Maple Heights and Warrensville Heights. That’s just the local count. The takeover threat is spreading across the state like the plague.
Eight mid-sized districts facing a state takeover have joined together to propose an alternative, as have local leaders including Dixon. Earlier this year, after three vulnerable inner-ring district leaders asked for help, their peers joined in. “We didn’t want to just whine about it,” said Dixon.
They established a website, www.publiceducationmatters.org, and met with legislators to explain their views on the implications of the House Bill 70 provision. The tests used to grade districts have changed three times in the last four years, making the already questionable approach more unfair.
“We need the Ohio Department of Education to understand what it does to communities,” said Dixon. Referring to her colleagues, she went on, “We are not sitting around doing nothing. We all want the same great things for our students. We don’t want a pass, but we don’t want to be held hostage to the state tests. They are holding us back.”
The state report card gets in the way of focusing on goals related to quality education. Tests do not capture quality, nor do they account for the reality that children have many needs. School districts are committed to addressing those needs, but they can’t do it alone.
In May, state Reps. Kent Smith and Teresa Fedor proposed a three-year moratorium on takeovers. Smith also introduced an amendment to Senate Bill 216 that would do the same thing, and four Republicans on the education committee sided with him. Rather than take a vote, the chair adjourned the meeting. There is both support for change and powerful opposition to change.
For too long, educators have been left out of state policymaking. The reality of everyday life in schools seems to be irrelevant to those who have lost sight of the cornerstone role public education plays in our communities and our democracy. None of it is easily boiled down to a test score. Punishment does not create quality, and neither does taking governance of local schools away from local community leaders.
While educators have not been included, they have not really inserted themselves into the policy making arena, but that is changing.
“There is power in speaking with one voice,” observed Dixon. She is pleased that, through the inner-ring group, they have come together to address a policy that is a very real threat to several members and to districts across the state. They are standing up for one another other.
The takeover option is bad for public education. It is bad for communities and children. It doesn’t work. It reveals a central flaw in the state report card and the entire accountability system that makes some districts more fragile because of the children they serve. Judgment does not reduce student vulnerability or improve outcomes.
It is important that districts that are not vulnerable to state takeover side with those that are. Bad policy is bad policy. Voices are important, and the more voices that unite and speak up, the more likely we are to have policies that serve the common good.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.