Ohio Public School Advocacy Network
This month, the Network for Public Education issued a report card on “Grading the States: Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools.” The report examines our nation’s commitment to democracy by assessing the privatization programs in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It not only highlights the benefits of a public school education, but compares the accountability, transparency and civil rights protections offered students in the public school setting versus the private school setting. Each state is graded on the extent to which it has instituted policies and practices that lead to fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails it has or has not created to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers. Ohio received an F.
Throughout my career, I’ve often heard these sincere and committed words from many of the most highly regarded teachers in our public schools: “Whatever you ask us to do, we’ll make it work.” However, when asked how, they often reservedly add the following caveat: “While we’ll try to do our best, we are being overwhelmed by a constant flow of changing expectations and mandates that are wearing us out both mentally and physically.” The mantra that whatever you ask us to do, we’ll make it work has deep roots. For over a century our public schools have been asked by our political leaders to do more to meet the changing needs of our society. And, in most instances, our educators have embraced the task and said, “we’ll make it work.” While turning to our public schools for help has been a blessing in many ways, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. In addition to the wear and tear on our teachers, an unintended consequence of these good intentions is that it has embedded in our culture the premise that government oversight is needed to improve education.
A friend, colleague and former superintendent, Charlie Irish and I are in the early stages of writing a book titled, Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows. Before settling on this somewhat provocative title, we wrestled with whether we should take the safe route and tone it down or go for broke and say what we really think. Since what we really think is that too many faulty assumptions and misguided beliefs are driving the conventional wisdom impacting public education and too many educational leaders are buying into them, our decision was easy. We’re going for broke. We’ve taken off the kid gloves of political correctness and replaced them with shovels to clean up the mess from sacred cows which, until now, have been immune to criticism or questioning. Throughout this book, we will expose sacred cow thinking that is jeopardizing the future of our local public schools and threatening to derail a statewide movement launched four years ago by Ohio’s school superintendents to save public education.
I recently viewed an engaging 6-minute video about an important concept which appears to be growing some legs – especially in Europe. It is called co-production. According to Wikipedia, “co-production is a practice in the delivery of public services in which citizens are involved in the creation of public policies and services. It is contrasted with a transaction based method of service delivery in which citizens consume public services which are conceived of and provided by governments.” The idea of involving citizens in the co-production of education policies and services is the driving force behind the movement being led by the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network to help shape the future of education in our state.
Ted Dintersmith is a leading venture capitalist who during the 2015-16 school year traveled to all 50 states visiting 200 schools. What he observed is that the core purpose of our schools has been lost in a wave of testing, data and accountability. This year, he published a book about his journey titled What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America. In this Tedx Talk, he underscores the potential for our children and our country if we educate to prepare our kids for life instead of for standardized tests.
John Tanner is one our nation’s leading critics of standardized student testing. In a provocative article for the American Association of School Administrators, he contends that standardized tests aren’t about instruction but, instead, were designed to rank order or distribute students to allow for meaningful comparisons within and among schools. He serves as executive director of Test Sense in San Antonio, Texas, and is author of the book, The Pitfalls of Reform: Its Incompatibility with Actual Improvement.
The following quote highlights an important reason why our citizens need to be engaged in discussing and helping shape education policy: “From a democratic perspective, the question isn’t whether there should be higher standards or a common core curriculum; it is who gets to say what the standards and curriculum should be. That’s where a meaningful public voice seems to be missing, whether it is at the local, state, or federal level. And being kept on the sidelines may be one of the reasons a lot of Americans have lost confidence in our system of schooling.” This quote appeared in a Kettering Foundation research report entitled “Putting the Public Back into Public Education: An Old-Fashioned Remedy for a Troubled Relationship (2015).” A highly regarded international research institution, the Kettering Foundation’s primary research question is: What does it take to make democracy work as it should?
In their effort to generate public support for their schools, many Ohio school superintendents share a common concern about a problem I’ve often heard expressed in my work in school districts over the past 20 years. It is that the only time we (superintendents) make a concerted effort to reach out to our citizens is when we need their help in passing a tax levy. I agree with this concern and would like to propose a solution to the problem. What if tax levy leadership teams were utilized to build community-wide discussion networks to discuss and help shape statewide education policy. In addition to keeping citizens productively engaged in between tax levy campaigns, the discussion groups would attract citizens who may vote no or who are often on the fence when it comes to their support of school tax issues. The bottom line is that these discussions would create a deeper understanding of the challenges facing our students and teachers and increase support for our public schools.
Kathleen Knight Abowitz is a mother of two children enrolled in her local public schools, a former school teacher, a volunteer leader of citizens in her community who discuss statewide policy issues impacting their school system, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University, and an author. In her book, Publics for Public Schools: Legitimacy, Democracy, and Leadership, she discusses the value of citizen participation. She writes that “citizens participation provides much-needed political legitimacy for public schools. In addition, citizen participation helps support a more holistic and effective approach to education, because parents, schools, and civic associations cannot educate children well by operating alone or at odds with one another.”
There is more evidence that top-down mandated education reforms are not working. On April 12, the national Network for Public Education reported that the billions of dollars spent on annual testing and Common Core have produced meager change. In fact, based upon NPE’s analysis of test data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, achievement gaps have widened. “It is past time to stop blaming students, teachers, and schools, and place the blame for stagnation where it belongs: On nearly 20 years of failed federal policy based on failed assumptions,” stated NPE President Diane Ravitch. Ms. Ravitch is a historian of education, an educational policy analyst and a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Previously, she was a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.