thoughts, theories, observations & informationSubscribe Now

Lowering the Bar

barThe Ohio State Board of Education is considering a policy that would remove and redefine baseline requirements for the number of school counselors, library media specialists, school nurses, social workers, and potentially art, gym, and music educators required per thousand students in a school district.  In education shorthand, this is known as the 5 of 8 rule which states that 5 of 8 of these specialists are required for every 1,000 students.  If these resources are allowed to be cut by individual districts, the quality of our system of public education will once again be diminished. The result is we’ll have even fewer educational resources for our children, and they will be less prepared for the future.

To be fair, the State Board of Education has said that this policy is intended to provide our districts with more flexibility.  They also point out that the proposed language does not explicitly state that these programs will be actively cut by the state and say that public outcry about this move has been overblown.  Well intentioned or not, this policy is fundamentally flawed.  What the language does do is make it possible for these essential programs to be cut at the district level.  The explanation for this policy direction is that the old language is dated, specific new services now exist that did not exist in the old language, and the State Board of Education is simply responding to negative public sentiment about unfunded mandates by simply removing the requirements of those mandates. So instead of writing new language that defines the essential services our schools need now and being serious about finding ways to provide them, the State Board of Education will make it possible for individual districts to simply reduce or eliminate them. Instead of encouraging or advocating for our state legislators to fund this unfunded mandate and provide public schools with these essential services, this policy just shifts the responsibility to the districts. Problem solved right? Not quite.

Note: If my elementary school age kids are now required to provide detailed explanations for how they do basic arithmetic problems to have their answers considered correct on standardized tests, I believe it fair that this proposed solution be held to the same standard.

Technically removing the requirement does solve the problem – for the Ohio Board of Education that is.  However, further examination of their explanation shows that those tasked with solving it did not get this one quite right, because their solution does not solve the problem for the kids of Ohio. The mandate either remains unfunded at the local level or the districts are forced to cut essential services.

This policy change does not show how removing requirements for essential educational services will make public education in Ohio better.  It aims to offer districts more flexibility to get resources that their kids need most, but it also provides districts the option of giving our kids less or nothing at all.  It definitely opens the door to more educational disparity, fewer resources for many of our children with the greatest needs, and even more potential for dysfunction at the individual district level.

This policy accomplishes little, risks a great deal, and is just part of a much bigger problem. Public education in Ohio represents our greatest potential asset for growth and long term sustainable success, and yet it remains underfunded, unappreciated, and undervalued by our elected leaders.

It has been argued by the Ohio Board of Education that the current language is too dated. If that is the case then update the language to protect essential services.

It has been argued that the way the new language is written, physical education, art, and music will be protected as they are required in other parts of Ohio’s code.  Even if that is the case, write new language that sets minimum requirements that explicitly protect and value these services, as is the case in the existing language.  Further include language that ensures that physical education, art, and gym teachers aren’t tasked with “picking up the slack” when other specialized positions are allowed to be cut by districts, treating these teachers as second class educators which happens more often than most know.

It has been argued that updating the current requirement language is difficult because modern specialists and support services did not exist when the old language was written, thus we can’t expect schools to now be mandated to have 20 or more specialists. If that is the case, simply striking it out and replacing it with no policy is to avoid the responsibility of leading. It also misses the point that these are baseline requirements for services.

These are the essentials that every school needs to have. This requirement pertains to protecting the floor, not raising the ceiling. The explanation of infinite specialists would speak to requirements at the other end of the spectrum.

The proposed approach just removes the responsibility of setting the bar of minimum requirements from the state and in turn gives local school boards the ability to lower it even further. Having witnessed what has happened in Springboro Schools in recent years and experienced first hand the havoc that a politically motivated school board can bring to a community, this policy is a huge red flag to me. Worse still, the implications this has for struggling and impoverished districts who are increasingly fighting to survive, could be devastating.

Meanwhile…

At the same time our Ohio Board of Education is proposing to pass this policy change, Ohio’s charter schools continue to increase their share of public tax dollars while exemplifying waste and absurdity. Their performance is consistently abysmal and yet the steady stream of tax dollars that flow through them remains shrouded in darkness. Ohio will invest about a billion dollars on them this year, and most, if not all, will yield inferior results. Could we not use these tax dollars to help fund the so called unfunded mandate? It sure seems like a billion dollars would pay for a lot of much needed educational specialists.

If we’re going to run these massive educational experiments known as for profit charter schools with so much of our tax money at stake, shouldn’t we expect basic transparency and accountability? It seems rational that we should be collecting massive amounts of data about how they do or don’t work and then using those findings to improve all educational systems. At least, we should know where are money goes, how much of it goes to our children, and if they are delivering better results of any kind. It seems obvious that we should apply even basic accounting to these models, something I would assume most people would be in favor of… and yet, we don’t.

And Now Back to Ohio’s Public Schools…

Today in Ohio’s public schools, instead of spending real time supporting our teachers and students, and providing essential services and resources, our state’s educational policy makers remain obsessed with the constant administration of standardized tests – a measurement tool that has demonstrated little or no correlation with actual success in life.

Alfred Binet, the creator of the standardized test, recognized their inherent weaknesses, a century ago. These tests measure limited types of human intelligence and the findings they produce are generally not evaluated with any account of individual personal history, external factors, standard deviations, or statistical variances. In short, they would not stand the scrutiny of an entry level statistics course. But in their defense, they are easy to administer and can give us results – even if those results are essentially invalid for purposes of evaluating student performance or teacher effectiveness.

Do standardized tests have any value? Of course they do, but only in the context of broader sets of quantitative and qualitative metrics, which would require us to actually pay attention to our schools and our children over longer periods of time.

For those who want to take the unproductive path of arguing that the woes of our current educational system are merely the product of the powerful teachers’ unions, as is often where the conversation shifts, instead of staying focused where it belongs which is on our the issue of educating our children, I’ll gladly assert my belief that this is not a union / non-union argument. I have never been a member of a union, and can see valid circumstantial arguments for and against them. The present state of affairs in public education has less to do with some mythical demonized teachers union filled with greedy, lazy thugs, and a whole lot to do with big money, public apathy, misinformation, and an unwillingness by our elected officials, on both sides of the isle, to make meaningful changes and substantive investments in our future.

While our schools remain underfunded, many of our politicians don’t share this problem, as charter school organizations continue to funnel our tax dollars into campaign funds to perpetuate this new system of educational choice. This is waste, greed, and absurdity at its best. I spend a lot of time with teachers. They are my family, friends, and neighbors. I don’t know one that is an educational millionaire or billionaire or who got into teaching for the big money and lavish lifestyle. Those I know appreciate the support of their union in the context of the current environment, but most are generally not particularly interested in unions or politics, but rather they are interested in simply teaching. Some are Democrats, others are Republicans, and damn near all of the one’s I know are dedicated to their craft and their kids. They want to inspire our children. They want to empower our children. They want to prepare our children to become happy, contributing members of our society as they grow into adults.

Can our public schools perform better? Of course. Do policies and rules need to be updated to meet our modern educational needs? Yes. Is cutting requirements for essential educational services the answer? No. Is more testing the answer? No. Is more money the answer? I guess that depends on who ultimately gets to cash the checks. If the money is spent on our teachers, on our schools, and on our kids, and not on charter school millionaires, billionaires, and the politicians who enable them, than yes it is probably a sound investment in our future success.

But I digress…

Funding is a big part of what needs to change in Ohio’s public education system, but that responsibility falls on the legislature and the governor. The Ohio Board of Education is not responsible for that part. Back to what they are responsible for, which is setting educational policies that help our kids succeed. Removing the current 5 of 8 rule and replacing it with the proposal in question will not accomplish that goal, even if well intended.

Changing education for the better can start today. This can happen in the State House and this can happen in your house. Contact The Ohio Board of Education. Respectfully speak out against this policy and speak up for public education. Share with them why public education matters to you and why lowering the bar is the wrong decision.  Fight for our schools, our teachers, our children, and our future.