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Ohio’s Move to Narrow Elementary Schooling

November 10, 2014

Diane Ravitch reported yesterday on the latest “reform” initiative about to be undertaken by the Ohio Board of Education: the elimination of a requirement that “… schools must have in place five of the following eight specialists: art, music, counselor, school nurse, librarian/media specialist, visiting teacher, social worker, or phys ed.”

There isn’t a single district I served in that did not meet this minimal standard by the time I left as Superintendent, though this “reform” did bring to mind my experience as Superintendent in Washington County MD where I served for ten years.

When I was appointed to Superintendent in 1987, their elementary schools had only two item from this list in place at the elementary schools: librarians and PE. Art and music were provided via Instructional Television; counselors, nurses, and social workers were non-existent; and we had four administrators assigned to handle truancy cases for 42 schools serving 17,000 students. After 10 years we had “live” music and art teachers from our staff in each elementary school; elementary counselors in each school; nurses hired by the health department in each school; social workers in the four schools with the highest poverty rates; and were setting the stage for sufficient technology support staff. One of the reasons we were able to add this staff was because of the standards set by the state and because parents mobilized in support of these needs.

When tight budgets combine with loose standards I could see districts like Washington County regressing toward the minimums. This would especially be the case where there is a need to focus on “boosting test scores” because they are the primary metric used to determine the quality of your school. I am not confident that our Board and staff could have sold the County Commissioners on the notion that elementary art, music, and PE helped us increase test scores. Nor am I sure that we could have persuaded them that elementary counselors prevented drop outs… and I know that without a State mandate we could not have staffed the schools with nurses. And in this day and age when everything is available at the click of a mouse I am not at all certain that retaining librarians would be an easy sell.

Most districts today are strapped for funds. After six years of fiscal restraint they have a backlog of deferred maintenance; teachers who have made concessions in wages and benefits to balance the budgets; higher class sizes; fewer electives; and only those support services that are mandated. On top of these rollbacks in staffing levels and wages and benefits, schools are required to upgrade their technology infrastructure to administer tests to youngsters that will be used to “prove” they are failing to provide a “quality education”. When and if State Boards roll back their staffing requirements, I would expect the financially strapped districts– which are, sadly, in the majority in this country—  to shed non-mandated staff in order to balance their budgets. Parents, school board members, and administrators like my colleagues and me who fought to get these programs funded in districts across the country look on in dismay as “reform” minded State boards gut the rich programs we instituted only two or three decades ago.

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