School & District Management

Study Urges Top-to-Bottom Overhaul in Ohio

By Michele McNeil — February 15, 2007 4 min read

If Ohio wants to join the world’s educational elite, state policymakers will need to enact changes that touch nearly every corner of its K-12 system, according to a 96-page policy audit unveiled this week.

The report, drafted by the education policy group Achieve Inc. and the global consulting firm McKinsey and Co., identifies seven common characteristics of the world’s best education systems, including principals who are empowered as instructional leaders, strong intervention for struggling schools, and a fair funding system.

“Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio” is posted by Achieve Inc..

The report then spells out, step by step, policies that its authors believe Ohio needs to put into effect to compete with the likes of Singapore, known for its high math standards, or the State of Victoria in Australia, known for its sophisticated school finance system that relies on detailed cost studies to determine each school’s funding.

The authors believe Ohio is the first state to undertake such a project, in which state officials ask an outside authority or consultant to examine how the state’s education policies stack up internationally and what policy leaders need to do to compete globally.

Ohio has a long way to go, according to the report, which cost $500,000 and was financed by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

While noting that the state has made significant progress in raising academic standards, the report also points out major flaws in its education system: Its academic standards and student achievement aren’t keeping up with the rest of the United States, let alone the world; low-income, black, and Hispanic students lag behind other students in achievement; and the school finance system is broken.

Some of recommendations to achieve those seven, broader goals are relatively simple and would have few opponents, such as a suggestion to create a marketing campaign to increase the public’s awareness of the need to improve education. The report also recommends raising academic-content standards and making school principals instructional leaders, not just building mangers.

But other recommendations may be politically unpopular, such as exploring penalties for teachers based on student performance. Still others could be highly complicated to enact, such as changing the school funding system to eliminate reliance on local property taxes.

Hurdles Ahead

Remaking Ohio’s education system won’t be easy or immediate, said Sir Michael Barber, an expert partner with McKinsey and a former education adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The key, he said, is building a coalition of policymakers to see the reforms through.

“Education reform of this kind we’re talking about takes a lot of years,” Sir Michael said. The state “could move in this direction. It can make good progress compared to the rest of the world.”

Improving Ohio's Schools

An education policy audit of Ohio examines the qualities of the highest-performing public school systems in the world and makes seven recommendations on how the state can better compete in the international marketplace.

• Align academic-content standards with real-world expectations and improve testing, including implementing end-of-course exams in core subjects, and comparing Ohio’s standards against those of countries with which the state competes.

• Empower principals to serve as instructional leaders, with performance incentives tied to student achievement.

• Improve teacher quality with clear teaching expectations, increased training, rewards for meeting benchmarks, and penalties for failure to do so. A performance-based pay system is encouraged.

• Set high expectations for students and provide support and rewards. Launch a marketing campaign to raise the aspirations of students and communities, and provide positive incentives such as college scholarships for low-income students who take challenging courses.

• Fund schools in a fair way. Ohio’s school funding system, already ruled unconstitutional by the state supreme court, needs to rely less on local property taxes and be more transparent so the flow of money can be tracked from the state to districts, to schools, and to classrooms.

• Improve intervention in low-performing schools. Steps could include expanding the student-achievement measures that are used to identify struggling schools.

• Streamline the patchwork of traditional, charter, and private schools that receive voucher students. All schools that receive public money should be subject to the same accountability system.

Source: Achieve Inc.; McKinsey and Co.

Whether the study will serve as a blueprint for first-term Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, remains to be seen.

“Clearly this report provides a wealth of information to digest,” said Keith Dailey, a spokesman for Gov. Strickland, in an e-mail. “The governor welcomes the report, and he will review its findings and recommendations as he moves forward with this education reform agenda.”

The report, titled “Creating a World-Class Education System in Ohio,” was commissioned by the state board of education in October. The Washington-based Achieve, which was formed by governors and business leaders in 1996 and has focused on raising standards and achievement in high schools, worked with Ohio in 1999 on a similar study that prompted the state two years later to enact its first academic-content standards.

The new report’s timing is crucial and deliberate, said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve.

“This is a unique moment for Ohio,” Mr. Cohen said. “This provides a coherent framework for moving forward.”

The report comes as Gov. Strickland begins a four-year term and has pledged to improve education. His Republican predecessor, former Gov. Bob Taft, was aggressive on education issues in his eight years in office, ushering in higher academic standards and, in his final months as governor, signing legislation to increase graduation requirements in math and science.

The Achieve report was unveiled as public school advocates continue pushing a constitutional amendment that proponents say would guarantee a high-quality education for every student and require the state to pay for such a system.

The Ohio Supreme Court has declared four separate times that the state’s school funding system is unconstitutional. Legislative fiscal reports show that the proposed amendment, which could be on the November ballot, could cost the state from $600 million to $1 billion in additional funding a year.

Both Mr. Cohen and Sir Michael say Ohio can’t pick and choose its reforms—that all seven areas must be improved if Ohio wants to compete globally.

Some of the most significant steps recommended in order for Ohio to achieve the seven benchmarks outlined in the report include phasing out the state’s graduation test given in 10th grade in favor of end-of-course exams in specific courses, tying the salaries of principals and teachers to their students’ performance, and evaluating not just the academic performance of school districts, but also how they spend their money.

The state school board plans to hold meetings with and solicit responses from groups including the business community, teachers, general government officials, and higher education leaders. That process will help the board frame its priorities for the upcoming school year, said Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Karla Carruthers.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Study Urges Top-to-Bottom Overhaul in Ohio

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