Seeking Measurable School Improvement in the Buckeye State

We like to believe that the federal level is where all the action is when it comes to education improvement.  It’s easier to wrap our hands around, with one national policy to keep an eye on.  And it is cleaner when it comes to funding, as we just watch federal funding streams and an annual appropriations bill that has stayed relatively level-funded for much of the past few years.  In reality (as EdSec designee Arne Duncan will soon realize), the feds only account for about eight cents of every dollar spent in the classrooms.  The federal level may be the rhetorical brass ring, but the real action (especially these days) is happening at the state level.

Don’t believe Eduflack?  We all know we’re asking our schools to do more and more these days.  Close the achievement gap.  Make AYP.  Boost the grad rate.  Hire and retain effective teachers.  Collect and use meaningful data.  All is in a day’s work for our schools.  Our current economy is putting a major wrinkle in our plans to do more and achieve more.  According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 27 states have cut education because of the economic recession.  We’ve read about the 9 percent cut offered in Alabama.  We were disappointed by the hundreds of millions of K-12 cuts proposed in our home state of Virginia.  We’re also seeing significant K-12 cuts either implemented or proposed in states such as California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, and New York.  These cuts are real, and our students will be feeling them.
These past few weeks, Eduflack has been paying particular attention to the state economic realities, particularly in Ohio.  The Buckeye State has a new state superintendent — Deborah Delisle, the former superintendent of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district.  Delisle doesn’t seem to be deterred by these budget issues, as least according to a new piece from Cathy Candisky and the Columbus Dispatch.  Candisky depicts a real school improver in her piece, despite a possible $2 billion cut to public education in Ohio’s upcoming two-year budget.
What is Delisle focusing on?  Teacher quality, drop-out rates, and achievement gaps.  She’s looking at replacing the Ohio Graduation Test with a college entrance exam, recognizing that graduation is one thing, but having kids prepared for college is something completely different.  She wants mentoring programs and a highly-qualified teacher in every classroom.  She wants to boost student quantitative measures while maintaining (and we presume increasing) students’ general love for learning.  And she recognizes her battle lines are being drawn in her urban districts, the low-income, low-family-education centers just like those she just arrived from.
Why is this important?  What Ohio and Delisle face is really a microcosm for what we collectively must address.  Her agenda is remarkably similar to what EdSec in-waiting Duncan will likely announce and what the Obama campaign had laid out.  Her challenges are near identical to what other states — like Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, Georgia, Arizona, California, and others — must face.  And she is doing so in a budget scenario that would be considered doomsday by far too many chief state school officers.  Yet she is rising to the challenge and not backing down.  Delisle is spotlighting the need for communications and better sharing of information, and isn’t claiming that the absence of increased budgets will keep her from achieving her goals.  She really is looking to build a “world-class education system” in Ohio, and she’s offering no excuses to get there.  And as we know from our politics, as goes Ohio, so goes the nation.
Fortunately, Delisle is not doing it alone, and she’s got some real successes to build on.  Yesterday, KnowledgeWorks Foundation released data on its high school improvement efforts in Ohio, embodied in its Ohio High School Transformation Initiative (OHSTI) and Early College High School (ECHS) efforts.  Over the last six years, KnowledgeWorks (along with the Gates Foundation and others) has worked with some of Ohio’s most struggling high schools.  Working with more than 25,000 students and 2,000 teachers, KnowledgeWorks has some pretty impressive data to talk about.  The graduation rates in OHSTI high schools is up 31%.  The graduation gap in OHSTI schools, compared to all of Ohio high schools, closed by 77%.  89% of OHSTI sites reported an increase on math and reading pass rates on the OGT.  ECHS students earned more than 10,000 college credits, with ECHS 10th graders outperforming the state average on the OGT’s reading, writing, math, social studies, and science portions.  The full announcement can be found here —  (Full disclosure, Eduflack has been working with KnowledgeWorks on this important initiative,)  
These are real results in schools that many would have given up on years ago.  These aren’t cherry-picked high schools or those with the resources to supplement and enhance at will.  These are urban schools in communities that have gotten poorer and have watched family education levels drop over the last five years.  So if it can happen in KnowledgeWorks schools, it can happen just about anywhere.  The OHSTI and ECHS effort gives Delisle and other state superintendents a clear blueprint on the multiple pathways available to improve our high schools, and how those improvements can both improve grad rates and provide postsecondary options to those who never envisioned it.  More importantly, it gives Delisle clear data that proves her state mission is achievable, assuming school districts follow the right path to improvement.  And she should know, her former district was part of the OHSTI network.  Who knows better?

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