Improve education in Cleveland by treating problem, not symptoms - December 14, 2013

By Piet van Lier and Elaine Weiss on

Almost a year has passed since new levy money began flowing to the Cleveland school district and partnering charters. Since then, the schools have become more deeply engaged in many encouraging initiatives, the best flowing from collaborative efforts among the district, the teachers’ union and community partners.

There have been bumps along the way, however, including the F grades on the district’s state report card. More such hitches are likely as the district races to show improvement before asking voters for a renewal levy in 2016.

But three years is a woefully short window to make lasting improvements, and concentrated poverty compounds the already daunting challenge. Unfortunately, federal and state policies exacerbate this challenge rather than helping districts like Cleveland.

In Ohio, as elsewhere, policymakers focus on symptoms, rather than underlying causes or solutions. Ohio’s new grading system, for example, casts a harsh light on many schools, but identifies neither reasons nor fixes. Schools statewide expect ratings to fall again with next year’s Common Core implementation. While advocates make a compelling case for these more coherent, rigorous standards, connecting them to high-stakes testing undermines their potential.

What should we do? 

Give an F to any effort that fails to identify and address differences in opportunities that begin before birth. Rather than focusing on achievement gaps, we should address these “opportunity gaps.” A new report that explores implementation of the federal Race to the Top program should serve as a map for how to make our schools work for everyone.

The report, from the D.C.-based Bolder, Broader Approach to Education, comprehensively summarizes the research on root causes of achievement gaps. They grow substantially before kindergarten and are compounded throughout childhood by differences in access to health care, nutrition and enriching afterschool and summer opportunities.

Race to the Top and most Ohio policy efforts fail to address these opportunity gaps. As a consequence, today’s policies cannot substantially close achievement gaps; by focusing on test scores, and not on factors that boost or depress them, we doom reform from the start.

The report’s Ohio case study presents the paper’s most devastating conclusions. Drawing on articles, reports and a dozen interviews, it finds few pockets of hope. Superintendents describe laws and mandates piled on in helter-skelter fashion. Legislators arbitrarily and constantly change the goal line, and punitive decisions make them enemy No. 1 for teachers, principals and others who are key to making schools work.

For example, this year legislators decided that test scores of students absent for nearly a quarter of the year will be included in teacher evaluations, which could unfairly result in “ineffective” ratings for teachers.

The report offers practical alternatives. Given Ohio’s stated goal of competing with Massachusetts, it suggests taking that state’s approach: real investment, long-term commitment and wraparound supports for schools serving disadvantaged students. Ohio can also look closer to home: Cincinnati has been converting its schools to Community Learning Centers, addressing aspects of students’ lives that affect academic performance but have historically been outside school control. The district offers space in its buildings to hospitals, community groups and service agencies, designing many schools with such partnerships in mind. Cincinnati has improved its performance on state ratings relative to other urban districts. And a recent New York Times article cited not test scores, but rising attendance rates and reduced asthma as evidence of Cincinnati’s success.

This approach, which addresses gaps in pre-kindergarten readiness, nutrition, health care, and afterschool and summer enrichment, is beginning to take hold in Cleveland. According to schools chief Eric Gordon, 17 district schools are using a similar approach. The Sisters of Charity Foundation has been working to create a Promise Neighborhood in our Central neighborhood, and another initiative is gaining traction in Slavic Village. These fragile efforts need to be nurtured. Unfortunately, Cleveland’s efforts to beat the clock are undermined by state and federal obsession with high-stakes tests.

The bottom line for Ohio is common sense, not rocket science: what works to make school, and life, successful for affluent students works even better for disadvantaged children. Only through comprehensive evaluation of and investment in schools and the communities they serve can we truly close the opportunity gap.

Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator for the Bolder, Broader Approach to Education.
Piet van Lier is a Cleveland parent and the education researcher at Policy Matters Ohio,
a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.
Print Friendly