Holding the ‘accountable police’ accountable

Tom Dunn - Contributing Columnist

Approximately 30 years ago, Ohio’s legislators hijacked public education in part because of achievement gaps that existed between students from various socio-economic backgrounds. We were told this problem could be fixed by the state mandating more rigorous academic standards and implementing a statewide testing program.

Three decades later, despite wasting hundreds of millions of our tax dollars on new standards and standardized tests, the gaps still exist. In other words, the state’s solutions weren’t solutions at all.

A recent report, titled “Ohio’s Educational Vital Signs; An Analysis of the 2017-18 State’s Report Cards,” released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (FI), illustrates why political solutions do not work. The FI is a well-known “think tank,” and politicians often seek advice from it and organizations like it prior to developing their policies. And, therein lies the problem.

The FI says it “promote(s) educational excellence for every child in America via quality research, analysis, and commentary.” It claims it does so through “advocacy and charter school organizing in Ohio.”

And, there’s the rub. Its real goal of expanding charter schools often gets in the way of engaging in conversations about why some children achieve success while others don’t. That’s too bad.

There is nothing about this report that promotes educational excellence. It is sixty pages of regurgitated information taken directly from the state’s latest school district report cards, with some summation of that information included for good measure. It is replete with pretty little charts, graphs, and scattergrams, much as the state’s report cards are, but that is akin to putting lipstick on a pig.

In the end, it’s still a pig.

In fact, the best Aaron Churchill, the report’s author, can do is inform readers what we have known for decades, that being that, according to the 2017-18 report cards, “Ohio, like the rest of the nation, has large achievement gaps between less-advantaged students and their peers.” Just like thirty years ago.

Now, call me crazy, but I expect any organization referred to as a “think tank” to do more than copy information from one report to another and tell me what I already know. I expect it to offer some meaningful solutions.

But, alas, the FI report doesn’t come close to doing that other than to suggest throwing some more of our tax dollars at solutions heretofore proven unsuccessful.

The report also includes a few bewildering personal opinions, such as “Ohio’s school report cards are as solid as they have been,” and the state has “transitioned to more robust and user-friendly report cards.” In fact, the report cards are infamous for their lack of clarity and user-friendliness, and their misuse of data to draw invalid conclusions is legendary.

Mr.Churchill also lampoons educators who dare challenge the validity of the state’s report cards when he writes, “It’s true standardized testing—and report cards built upon them—won’t win many popularity contests, now or perhaps ever from educators being held to account.”

For those not used to this kind of rhetoric, this is his way of suggesting that anyone who dares question a system that has no basis in research does so because of fear of “being held accountable.” It is a tired old insult that bureaucrats have wielded for years.

To characterize the rejection of the report cards as a popularity contest is an affront to popularity contests. I reject them not because they’re unpopular, but because they invalidly use data, and they offer no meaningful solutions for children who fail. It’s that simple.

Mr. Churchill also predictably cautions readers of his report to “not shoot the messenger.” However, when messengers insist on continually giving validity to invalid information “shooting the messenger” is sometimes the only option.

Finally, Mr. Churchill suggests studying some low income schools that are “being successful,” so that whatever they are doing can be replicated in other schools.

I have a better idea. Why don’t we study successful STUDENTS who attend “failing” schools and see why they succeed? Even schools bureaucrats call the “worst” contain students who are successful. How can that be? Why don’t we study what sets the successful students apart from their failing classmates instead of studying entire schools as if the school is the only variable? Why don’t we find out what parents of successful students do and what attributes the most successful students possess? Doesn’t that make more sense than studying schools, which we’ve already tried to no avail?

Admittedly, doing this would change the focus from what the SCHOOL is doing wrong, as policy wonks insist on doing instead of on what the STUDENT is doing wrong (or right, as the case may be), which is how this really works. But, “think tankers,” especially those with self-serving goals, refuse to go there. Well, you can’t solve the problem unless you do “go there.” History has taught us that.

I have forwarded some questions to Mr. Churchill that were generated by his report, and I have also asked the president of the FI for the research that supports some of what I suggest are misstatements contained on his organization’s web site.

As of this writing, I have not heard back from either of them. I’m not surprised.

I am tired of organizations like the Fordham Institute receiving a free pass to say and write whatever they please with no repercussions when they misspeak. Our children deserve more from their leaders than a rehashing of three decades of bad ideas.

When they fall short of excellence, it is time they are “held accountable” for their insufficient performance, just like they like to do to others.


Tom Dunn

Contributing Columnist

Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.

Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.