Straight Up Conversation: Departing Kasich Edu-Advisor Bob Sommers on Reform in Ohio

For the past year, Bob Sommers served as newly elected Ohio Governor John Kasich’s education advisor and helped to spearhead the Governor’s reform efforts. This put Sommers in the thick of things during a year when Ohio enacted an ambitious agenda, including legislation that curtailed collective bargaining (and that was overturned in a heated referendum last fall). Effective yesterday, Bob officially departed his post to return to the school management business. He is forming a new company, StudentmindED Schools, to help launch and scale more great schools. Especially given that Ohio’s been through some dramatic developments, I thought it worth checking in with Bob to get his thoughts and observations as he moves on. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick Hess: What do you see as the agenda for Ohio school reform unfolding in 2012?

Bob Sommers: It will be a smaller agenda because we moved 13 out of 15 major reforms we wanted last year. And, frankly, the system has to implement some things. But one big push this year will be around data quality. The P-20 data pipeline is not very exciting, but we have got to get better data from pre-kindergarten all the way through to the workforce. And get greater clarity around how the system is working. How many kids are kindergarten-ready? Who’s doing a good job and who isn’t? How many kids are reading by the end of third grade? Out of college, are they getting employed? Are they making good wages? Are they living in Ohio? Are they being good citizens? So, that’s a big one. It’s greater transparency around performance and cost-effectiveness. Along with that one is improving school report cards. Right now, we have a convoluted report card system that can label a school with a fifty percent rate of failure as “honors with distinction.” That just doesn’t work. We need a much more understandable report card.

RH: Last year, what were the two or three most significant reforms that passed?

BS: We completely removed the cap on charters. We quadrupled vouchers. We got the school ranking system developed. School rankings, I would put up there in the top two. We now rank all the schools and school districts. And that has really changed the conversations. You now get people asking, “What do you mean my elementary in my wealthy school district is 1,100th out of 4,000 schools? I thought it was the best school in America.”

RH: How big a deal was the defeat on Question Two [the referendum which overturned Ohio collective bargaining reform] last November?

BS: The people spoke on the issue of collective bargaining rights. They didn’t appreciate collective bargaining being attacked. So the people spoke. From an education standpoint, though, there were very few things that we were looking for in changes in employment, compensation, and teacher relationships that we didn’t get [in separate legislation]. We eliminated seniority pretty much up and down the line. We got options in for performance-based pay. We got a teacher evaluation system that includes student achievement.

You know, politics is like farming. You can’t harvest unless you sell and cultivate. And we just didn’t do a good enough job of explaining to the public the problem that we tried to solve. The public didn’t see the problem that we saw…We knew we had to have more flexibility to manage costs. Teachers have a right to collective bargaining over their wages and hours, but they shouldn’t be able to bargain class sizes and which curriculum.

RH: What are a couple of key lessons that you take from the defeat on Question 2? And how might those inform the reform effort this year?

BS: We’re going to make sure we do a lot better job of explaining the problem we’re trying to solve. And to make sure that the public actually sees the problem the same way that we do. That’s the big lesson. You’ve got to go out. You’ve got to cultivate the fields….And so, a lot of our reforms are around that transparency. Making sure people are crystal clear where they are. And given huge latitude for the local levels to solve those problems that they all know what the problems are. And they can get them fixed.

RH: Is the Governor planning on reintroducing any elements from Senate Bill 5 [the collective bargaining bill] this year?

BS: No, I don’t expect so. The Governor is aggressive. But he’s also very respectful to the people. It’s the people’s government. And that’s not a company answer. That’s a genuine John Kasich answer. He pushes hard. He pushed to do the things, you know, to balance an eight billion dollar hole in the budget. He’s made some really tough reforms. He doesn’t mind taking a beating. But when it’s clear that the public doesn’t want something, then that’s the way it is.

RH: How have the politics of school reform changed in Ohio over the past year? What’s different this year than from where you were a year ago?

BS: I think it’s the classic “The more reform you get done, the harder the status quo pushes back.” The people that don’t get it, they fight back. They’re not bad people, but they’re just traditionalists…You make major changes. It takes time to implement. And so, there’s a pressure to slow down. When you have a lot of the things that we have done in the way of teacher evaluation, the up and coming changes in assessments, the Common Core, closing poor-performing schools–there are just a whole lot of things that take time to implement.

RH: Where is the Governor and where are the Republicans in the legislature on the Common Core at this point?

BS: I can’t speak necessarily for the legislature as a whole. But, I know the Governor is very supportive of Common Core. [State superintendent] Stan Heffner is very supportive of Common Core…Now, Ohio historically has had better than average standards. So, it isn’t as dramatic a change as it would be for some states. But we’re still going to go through some significant updates.

RH: And what’s the status of Race to the Top implementation right now?

BS: If you believe the feds, we’re like number two or three in the country in the quality of engagement. And I think it’s true. The disappointing thing–and the Governor talks about this all the time–he says, “Only half our schools are on board. What happened to the other half?”

When you look at Race to the Top, and you look at the Kasich administration’s reform agenda, you can’t tell them apart. You just can’t. And so at the half [of schools] that [aren’t on board with Race to the Top], it’s the case that the unions wouldn’t agree, or that the school board wouldn’t agree, or the administration didn’t care, or whatever. But now, because of the Governor’s legislation, they’re going to have to implement all of the reforms anyway, just without the extra Race to the Top money.

RH: Have you felt like the Race to the Top implementation has made it easier to push the Governor’s agenda?

BS: There were times when somebody would say [of the Governor Kasich’s agenda], “It’s those terrible right wing Republicans [who are pushing these ideas]!” And I don’t think Obama would have appreciated being called a right wing conservative. So yes, it was, it was valuable.

RH: As far as implementing the reforms, what are the key challenges?

BS: Number one, educators think the world is a non-competitive, fair place. And it isn’t. And if we’re going to have our kids ready, they need to recognize that effort doesn’t matter, results do. So, that’s the first thing. There’s also a lack of clarity in the education community of how important it is to be aggressive in preparing kids for life. Number three is that school and district leaders get stuck in tradition. There are a million things that there are absolutely no laws against. But people think there are.

RH: What’s an example?

BS: Blended learning. It’s a pretty phenomenal approach that has a lot of promise. People say, “Well, we can’t do that. It’s against the law.” But we’ve been doing it in the state of Ohio since 2003. There are no laws against it. It’s just a lack of willingness to go beyond tradition. I think school boards are more obstructionists than visionaries. The other thing is a lack of focus on performance and cost effectiveness. You’ve got to get better performance at a lower price…And oddly enough, it’s rarely the law that’s the problem. And it’s rarely cash. But that’s what everybody complains about. But I don’t think those are the problems.

RH: Ohio is famous for its uneven charter school sector. How big a concern in this?

BS: People aren’t willing to take on [some of the bad operators] for any number of political reasons. But last year we put in place some of the toughest school closure laws in the country. And we’re starting to close schools. We do have a problem with sponsor quality. In Michigan, where I operated before, you have universities serving as sponsors, and a university has a reputation to uphold that goes beyond the charter schools. So, they really want the charter schools that they sponsor to be good quality because they’re an extension of their larger image. In Ohio, we don’t have that. The sponsor network is pretty weak. So, that’s a huge problem, but I do think we’ve made great progress in correcting that.

RH: Last question. You’ve been working in K-12 a long time, and in a lot of roles. What surprised you most about tackling K-12 improvement from Columbus?

BS: The thing that surprised me shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, I spent 15 years with the Department of Ed and so should have known it. But I’ve been away for a long time. It’s that state level reform cannot be on the aggressive leading edge simply because you’re moving a whole state. Aggressive leading edge reform only occurs at the school, school district, or charter level. And that’s part of the reason I’m going back there. I’d much prefer to be on the extreme edge of reform. And I think that’s maybe as it should be. It’s one thing to have an individual school try an extreme reform and fail. It’s another one to do that on an entire state. The speed with which reform is possible at a state level is slower than I had hoped.

– Frederick Hess

This blog entry originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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