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Struggling schools need a locally-driven but state-supported solution; not the other way around.

 

Ohio’s legislators continue to grapple with how to support struggling schools. As the former Superintendent of numerous Ohio school districts including one subjected to HB70, I believe I have a unique perspective on what successful state intervention could look like. I agree that there are times that districts need some state intervention and assistance to help ensure that all children have the best access to good schools. I've led diverse districts for the majority of my career and have created turnaround plans in multiple districts. Those plans were based on the individual district and no two plans were alike. There is no quick fix and top-down decision-making does little to help the local district. 

 

We all want the same thing for our schools - improve our districts and eliminate failing schools. However, in addition to the past two iterations of legislation aimed at addressing that very issue, the current focus appears to remain largely on district leadership. The assumption that local Boards of Education do not understand how to turn around a district, or that a Superintendent hired by the local board is not capable to turn a district around, is simply a flawed assumption. Further, the Senate's proposal to replace HB 70 - a law that was passed after one hearing and little vetting - is once again being driven with little input from educators and via an amendment that was released less than one week ago. I urge the Senate to take the time necessary to engage educators and others in a transparent and comprehensive way.   

 

Unfortunately, I don’t believe a good solution can come from a flawed process. Let me explain. When you examine HB70, at it’s core, it is a strategic plan designed to improve student achievement. As such, legislators need to follow a strategic planning process and in my opinion, they have consistently missed three main tenets of strategic planning:

  • Appropriately engaging stakeholders

  • Identifying what the need is and why it exists (in this case, why are students underperforming)

  • Assigning the appropriate best practice to address the need

I disagree with the process by which HB 70 was created, the manner in which it was implemented and the current course of action in the Senate’s version to replace it. HB 70 was executed poorly. As a result, it’s failing and the apparent solutions from the Senate also will fail if they continue to follow the same flawed process.

 

Even more troubling is that lawmakers continue to consider legislation crafted in secret - just as HB70 was, and with similar attempts to rush it through committee. There appears to be the assumption that a ‘one size fits all’ plan is appropriate instead of personalizing the plan to meet the specific needs of each district. Comprehensive policy change should not happen quietly or quickly. 

 

Let me repeat this for emphasis. As a superintendent who has led diverse districts for the majority of my career, it’s become clear to me that this is the root cause of Ohio’s failed takeover experiment: a good solution cannot possibly come from a flawed process. 

 

Legislators are making decisions without listening to nor engaging those their laws are impacting. For that reason, they cannot possibly understand why the needs of each district exist - and until that is known (not assumed), the appropriate best practice cannot be identified.  Alienating local residents does not benefit anyone, nor does it encourage the local community to support their local schools.  

 

I could introduce you to many superintendents and other school leaders from districts whose students score high on the state tests - as well as those whose students do not - and not one of them would presume to prescribe a solution to a neighboring district solely because it addressed a need in their own district. It simply doesn’t work that way. Each community has a different history, different culture, different people, with different needs requiring different solutions. To ignore that is just bad business.

 

I have been blessed to have served many school districts as a superintendent, all of which during my tenure had either demonstrated and sustained the highest levels of academic achievement or were praised by the ODE for their scope and efficacy. However, if you laid these three plans down side-by-side, you would find that they had absolutely nothing in common. Which is as it should be.

 

The process we used - a process I continue to follow - was a simple one, steeped in best practices and was taught to me by a community member who served at the Ohio Department of Education in the 90’s. We began by creating a process by which we could successfully engage our staff and community. Once we did, we listened to the needs they identified. We arranged these needs into common themes and we collectively identified those that were the most impactful and the most pervasive. We then re-engaged our stakeholders and researched why that need existed. The ODE needs to have oversight to ensure that districts are doing what is needed to improve education but they also need to allow the process to take place at the local level. 

 

It’s neither a secret nor a mystery that these “failing” districts occur in communities of high poverty. However, that doesn’t mean the solutions are all the same.

 

When I started my first superintendency in the Woodridge Local School District in 2003 the Local Report Card rating had leveled off at Continuous Improvement, the equivalent of a C, for five straight years. After employing the above process for just one year and implementing the appropriate best practices for a year, we earned a rating of Excellent, an A. The following year, we raised our rating to an Excellent with Distinction, an A+, and we sustained that grade for many years after I moved on.

 

When I left the Woodridge Local Schools, I became superintendent of the Parma City Schools which had earned a rating of Excellent as a result of the student performance from the previous year. However, at the same time, the district also had been crippled financially because it had experienced seven straight levy failures. We employed the same engagement process, and over the course of the next five years, we implemented a plan that resulted in the passage of the largest new money levy in the district’s history, enabling us to recreate the school district based on best practices and research. During that entire time, we were able to maintain our excellent rating.

 

I left Parma when I accepted a position in the Lorain City Schools, a district that had already been placed in academic distress. Twelve hours after I was hired, House Bill 70 had passed. Understanding that it was statistically unlikely to convert our F’s to C’s in 7 months (the requirement to remove ourselves from ADC oversight at the time), we still created a plan by following the same engagement process detailed above. And while we didn’t have time to see the results come to fruition, our recovery plan was praised by the ODE’s academic recovery assessment expert Michael White, who wrote, “The Lorain City School District should be held up as a ‘light house district’ — and their road map to academic recovery broadly shared with the field.”

 

Again, none of these plans looked even remotely the same. That is because we didn’t approach each school district assuming we knew why their needs existed. We also didn’t assume that similar needs required the same “fixes.” Actually, we were very careful to follow a process that did not rush to solutions. Instead, what all of these plans had in common was fidelity to the process. 

 

It is not enough to identify needs. Districts need to understand why the needs exist before assigning a best practice to address it. For that reason, in each district I’ve served, we continued to engage our stakeholders, investigate our practices, study our data and adjust our sails based on the input we received.

 

My ask of Ohio’s legislators is simple. Respect and engage the stakeholders in the communities which are most in need of support. Provide local leaders with the supports needed to engage in a strategic planning process with fidelity. In this way, Ohio’s struggling schools will be better equipped to identify, implement and monitor the appropriate best practices needed to serve their children to assure they are meeting our state’s rigorous academic expectations.

 

 

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