A new study released Friday by the Fordham institute gauged Ohio superintendents' views on education reform in the state. One notable finding is that the majority of Superintendents support the Common Core, an initiative that has caused some controversy. Emily McCord spoke to the Fordham Institutes' Terry Ryan and the lead researcher on the project, Steve Farkas and began by asking Terry about the purpose of the study.
Terry Ryan: We think it important that in a state where we have so many reforms underway that we gauge where the folks out in the field are on these issues because at the end of the day for them to be successfully implemented, the frontline educators need to buy into it. And that's what the superintendents in the state are, they are the commanders-in-chief for their districts and if reform policies are going to make a difference and last it's important that ultimately they work at fruitfully implementing them. That was the logic behind the study.
Emily McCord: What issues did the study look at, specifically?
TR: We looked at seven big reforms. The first are the Common Core academic standards in mathematics and English/language arts. The second are teacher evaluations. Third, we looked at the third grade reading guarantee. Fourth, we looked at A-F ratings for schools and school districts. Fifth, we looked at open enrollment and the policies around open enrollment. Sixth, we looked at blended learning opportunities; those are opportunities that marry classroom with technology. And then the seventh thing we looked at was school choice, both charters and vouchers.
EM: One of the findings of this study is that superintendents favor the implementation of Common Core, and that's been controversial: I know that some conservatives have been worried that it's a top-down approach from Washington, and there's also concerns about implementation. What are superintendents saying?
TR: Superintendents don't see it as something that is being hoisted on them by Washington, D.C. because they know that it is has come from the state level. So what superintendents are saying is that they support the standards. They think the standards, which are basically the academic goals that we expect from kids in reading and mathematics, are better than what Ohio currently has. They think the standards are worth their time, energy, effort, and money to work towards. They support the standards. That's clear in this survey, and that's important in regards to the controversy that's going on around it. That said, they do worry about implementation and some of the challenges around implementation. Specifically, they're worried about the assessments. They've seen some of the test questions but they haven't seen the assessments in their entirety and they're not able to gauge what they're doing with a complete understanding of what the tests are going to look like. That said, despite their concerns with implementation, they think the common core is a positive, and they think five years from now it's going to be in place and it's worth pursuing. I think they would also like the state to pay for some of the costs, especially as it relates to things like technology.
EM: I want to you, Steve Farkas, you're the president of the FDR group and you conducted this study. 56% of superintendents participated in this, is that an accurate gauge of the attitudes of superintendents statewide?
Steve Farkas: We were actually quite pleased with the response rate, considering it pretty high. We had done a survey of Ohio superintendents a couple of years ago and this response rate was even higher. We're comfortable with the representation that we got, and in terms of the demographic characteristics of the superintendents, they were pretty well aligned with what the population of superintendents is in Ohio.
EM: In general, Common Core was one that superintendents were optimistic about. What other areas were perhaps not as popular with the superintendents?
SF: One of the areas that I think is getting a lot of press and a lot of attention is the value of added assessments and evaluating Ohio's teachers, meaning that teachers are going to be evaluated now, half of their rating at the end of the year will be based on the progress that their students make in terms of their test scores. So you take a snapshot at the beginning of the year and you take another snapshot later on, and then you look for growth and you assess the students, and from that you derive a kind of measure of how well the teacher has been doing his or her job. So the new policy that's enacted into law is that teacher evaluations must take into account the progress of students in terms of test scores. 42% of superintendents say that this change will lead to fundamental improvement in Ohio's education system, and 51% doubt that it will.
EM: So not a majority there.
SF: Not a majority, and the real problem seems to be implementation concerns. 86% say that there's going to be too much pressure on their principals because of observation requirements. 85% say it's going to be too hard to measure growth in certain subjects like art. One superintendent told me in an interview, "How am I going to show a child's progress in terms of an art project from the beginning of the year to the next?" 93% say that there are going to be a lot of legal challenges when you evaluate teachers, at least in part based on the test scores of their students, there are going to be challenges by the teachers themselves. So they see a lot of implementation problems down the line, and it behooves Ohio's legislators and Ohio's superintendents to get together and see how we will make this happen in a way that will not stymie reform.
EM: Terry Ryan, I want to ask you, what's the takeaway from this? What can we glean from this study?
TR: I think the main takeaway here is that there is a disconnect when it comes to some of the policies that are being implemented by Ohio's lawmakers and the field. You see the disconnect in terms of the ability or the desire of superintendents to actually want to put in place these reforms that they are being told by the general assembly they must put in place. So in some instances, the field - the superintendents - are more receptive, open, and have bought into the reforms. The best examples are the common core academic standards and blended learning. So they're buying into these reforms and they're going to own them and they're going to run with them, it sounds like. Some other reforms that are coming out of Columbus - the third grade reading guarantee is one, A-F rating of schools and districts, and school choice: charter schools and vouchers - with those policies there is less support, far less support and buy in from the field, so it's going to be harder and it's going to take more time for those to, in effect, bite, and to ultimately become commonplace. What we would say is that there needs to be more dialog between those out in the field and those making the laws. I think probably the biggest takeaway here is that reforms really are only going to last if you have people out in the field who bought into them.
NOTE: The Fordham Institute is a supporter of the Common Core.