Reframe Podcast: Episode 25

Educational Policy: In Schools Today - "Part 2"

D. Hile

In this episode, Dave Hile, superintendent of Licking Valley local schools in Ohio speaks about how educational policy looks in schools today.
Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University.

In this episode we continue our exploration of educational policy, why is it is a topic of such contention among educators and politicians, and what the growing disconnect between policy and practice actually looks like inside many schools today.

And here to talk with us about this subject is Dave Hile, who is not only an EHS educational leadership doctoral candidate, he is also currently the superintendent of Licking Valley Local Schools in Ohio. 

So, Dave, thank you for being here. As a superintendent, as someone who actually sees how policy decisions affect the day to day administration of a school district, what is the biggest challenge for educators when trying to manage an educational climate created by policy makers?

Dave Hile:

I think it is interesting because your calling and getting a practitioner’s perspective and to be honest I think that’s the biggest problem in education policy, is that the politicians aren’t doing that. The politicians make a lot of decisions about education policy that are political decisions and they are not decisions that are informed by research or the practitioners, and most of those policies end up costing the districts a great deal of money. Those are the unfunded mandates. Many of these policies are unfunded mandates. Almost all of them. It ends up costing the districts time and effort to implement them. And then when it eventually becomes obvious that the policy is unworkable or that it doesn’t make any sense or it’s somehow harmful to students, then the politicians reverse or revise the decisions and then all that time, money, and effort is wasted within the school districts.

A good example is PARCC. That was a few years ago. Ohio chose to join this multi-state consortium to impose these new state-based assessments and the name of the consortium was PARCC. It’s an acronym for the name of that consortium. And they spent 16 million dollars on these assessments that were created by PARCC and they implemented them for one year. They were enormously time consuming. And in fairness to PARCC, PARCC told everybody that these tests were going to be very different. These are new generation assessments, is what they called them. And they are going to be very different from anything that we’d seen before. They are going to be very different from anything that teachers or students have dealt with before. They are going to be really challenging, because they are going to be computer-based, and we can do things with computer-based assessments to make them more challenging than we can with paper and pencil. And so they were very upfront about how they were going to be much harder and much more complex assessments than we’ve ever seen before.

Apparently the politicians did not believe them or listen to them. They got implemented and they were enormously time consuming to implement in terms of just preparing to implement them and then giving them to the students. It took an enormous amount of time away from instruction to make these tests happen. Parents started realizing that their students were losing hours and hours of instruction that they weren’t losing before because of these new assessments and basically the parents revolted. And not just in Ohio, but in many other states. And they started doing the opt-out. Did you hear about the opt-out movement?

James Loy:


Dave Hile:

Yeah. So the parents were opting their children out taking the assessments because they were protesting the amount of time that was being required to take them and the loss of instructional time. And so after 1 year, the legislature that had just spent 16 million on the PARCC Assessments reversed their decision and canceled the PARCC Assessments for Ohio. 

That 16 million is only what the state of Ohio paid to purchase the assessments from PARCC. It does not include the untold millions of dollars that school districts spent getting ready to implement them and then actually implementing them. And then the untold hours of lost instruction as a result of that.

So that is one of my prime examples of a really uninformed decision by policy makers that had enormous economic consequences, but it also had consequences for students and their lost learning and instructional time. 

James Loy:

So who are the policy makers listening to, if they are not engaging and consulting the teachers and practitioners? Are they making it up as they go along? Or where do they get their information on how they decide what to do or should do?

Dave Hile:

Well, they have political agendas and they have people who drive those political agendas. So they really have lost trust and faith in educators. They think that . . . unfortunately what happens is that you have some school districts where students aren’t learning. There’s a lot of evidence that in some school districts there is just not effective instruction happening. Students aren’t learning and unfortunately they paint every school district with the same brush. America is an incredibly diverse country with diverse cultures and communities and Licking Valley Local Schools, which sits 50 miles east of Columbus is not Columbus Public Schools. It does not look anything like Columbus Public Schools. But all the policies that are created, are created because of the things that aren’t happening effectively in some school districts. And so all those policies rain down on all the school districts whether they need them or not.

And so you have  . . . if you poll the American people about what is the most important issue of the day, and what is the issue that we should be focusing our time on and dealing with, education will end up in the top 3 or the top 5 every time. So politicians see that and every politician runs and as one part of their platform is to fix education. And so it has become this political football and when they get elected, whether they know anything about education or not, they have a mandate, in their opinion, to fix it. And that’s driven by the political cycle.

So they are elected for 4 years or 2 years or whatever their term is. And they have to get something done before the next election cycle, so they can go back and tell the people what they did. So these policies get . . . basically come from their political agendas. They get imposed without input because they don’t have time for the input. They’ve got to get this stuff done and on top of that they have very little respect for educators. They think educators are just protecting their own fox holes and don’t really want to make changes. So they implement these thing without their input because it is the fastest, easiest thing to do.

James Loy:

So, now, today we are in a situation where the Every Student Succeeds Act has taken over from No Child Left Behind. Which is actually what we talked about with Dr. Andy Saultz during our last episode, which was basically part one of this podcast. So now that the Every Student Succeeds Act is in effect, Dr Saultz talked about how that is effectively moving power away from the federal government and to the states. So will that help fix this problem? Or is that shift in power . . . from your perspective as a superintendent, do you see that shift in power as a good thing?

Dave Hile:

The positive that I see is that there is now a recognition by the feds that they need to leave education policy more to the states. So we had this big overreach by the feds with NCLB and Race to the Top, and we saw that it failed. And so now the feds are saying, okay, well, let’s maybe reverse course here so the pendulum is swinging back to where they are saying maybe we don’t know what’s best for education. Maybe we should leave those decisions to the states.

That is a positive. Except the states don’t necessarily know what’s best for education either. And so what you’ve got is now we have the feds saying we are going to step back and we are going to give the states more control and flexibility to set their own education policies. But you have the states still stuck in the NCLB mindset, that testing is the only way to determine anything in education.

The state likes to call that local control. Local control to me and to a lot of the superintendents that I know, is the school board in each district setting their policies. Not the state telling everybody what to do. Because the state does the same thing the feds do. They set a policy and it is once-size-fits all. And we have 612 school districts in Ohio. They are all vastly different and they all have vastly different needs, for the most part. And so when you set one-sized-fits all policy, you affect some that may need to be affected. But you negatively impact all the others. And it costs us money, their unfunded mandates. And a lot of is even though we are spending this money and out time and our effort, it is ineffective and unnecessary. So it does not go far enough to get the states out of our policy making situation.

And I understand that 43-44% of the state budget goes to education. The states are going to have a say in education policy and they should. But it has to be more differentiated than the one-sized-fits all approach.

James Loy:

So, in some ways, at least there was an acknowledgement that No Child Left Behind was an overstep by the federal government. And then the Every Student Succeeds Act was, like, okay, we’ll give states more local control. So there is a shift in that direction, right. So it is a start. Are you hopeful that there will be an ever further shift to local control down the road, once we see that even the states may not know what’s best for local schools?

Dave Hile:

That is my hope. That is my dream. Right now there is a senate bill. Bill 216, which is actually advocating that on a very broad scale. I think there are still a lot of people at the state level that want to have a lot of control of education. Again, they see it because it is one of the 3 or 5 top issues with voters that it is something that needs to be addressed. That they see a need to have control over education and they need to be seen as education reformers.

What’s happened is that a narrative has been created that schools are broken. And really nothing could be farther from the truth and from the evidence. Across this nation, our graduation rate is I think about 83 or 85%. It’s never in the history of this country been higher. More people are acquiring high school diplomas than ever in the history of our country. That’s just one measure of effectiveness of schools. But even though we have done nothing but increase the graduation rate, and I believe increase the quality of education in public schools over the last 50 years, there’s still this narrative that public education is broken. And I think it is a false narrative. But it’s something that politicians run on. 

And that narrative, I believe, is a false narrative that schools are broken. But that narrative is out there and politicians use that narrative to drive political change within the schools and to drive policy change. And so I don’t see us maybe getting off of that false narrative any time soon, even though I do think there is a lot more momentum and a lot more, I think, impetus to do some now among politicians than there was before ESSA came out.

James Loy:

So what advice would you have for lawmakers? Are there solutions to ongoing problems that you wish they would consider or implement?

Dave Hile:

Number one: create a policy making infrastructure that includes professional educators in the policy making process. The practitioners have to be consulted. I will give you an example. So a few years ago, law makers, and this came out of the, I think, Kasich Administration. They made a law that said if  . . . we are going to give tests to 3rd graders at the end of 3rd grade. And if they don’t get a certain score on that reading test, then they are not going to be allowed to be promoted to 4th grade. In other words, we institutionalized grade retention at 3rd grade in Ohio. 

Their argument was that schools . . . again painting everybody with the same brush. Schools in Ohio are not doing enough to make sure kids are reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade. So if the school system fails the kid, because if the kid is not reading on grade level, it is not the kid’s fault, it is the school district’s fault. And I truly believe that. The adults have got to do their job to get that kid reading on grade level.

But some kids come in so far behind at kindergarten and we can’t get them caught up by 3rd grade. We’ll get them caught up eventually, but it is not going to happen by the end of 3rd grade. So, anyway, if the kid does not achieve a certain score on a state assessment for 3rd grade reading, they can’t go onto 4th grade. They get retained. 

Now all the research overwhelmingly . . .  there are very few things in research where you can say that the research is completely overwhelming on this point. All the research says that grade retention is one of the worst things you can do to a kid. Because you are removing them from their peer group and it is absolutely devastating to them. Nothing good comes from it. Only harmful effects come from it. You actually hurt a student’s academic progress for the rest of their career by retaining them.

Here is the statistic. If you retain a kid once, they have a 50% chance of not graduating. If you retain them twice, you almost guarantee they won’t graduate from high school. So in Ohio we institutionalized grade retention at 3rd grade. Because a kid may not achieve a certain score on a reading test. Now, in the past what we’ve done is those kids would go on to 4th grade, but they would get instruction on level where they needed to get them caught up to grade level. So that law said that they can’t go onto 4th grade.

There was no . . . So I explained that. We had a breakfast with some of our legislators and I explain the research on grade retention and that’s why I was opposed to the 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee. And one of the legislators, someone from my district, raised his hand and said, “Dave, why didn’t you tell us about this research before we passed the law?”

And I said, “Well, you have Google too don’t you?”

They didn’t even make an effort on their own to do their own research. I was supposed to somehow come and present the research to them. You know, so professional educators have got to be involved in the discussion about policy before policies are created and implemented.  

James Loy:

Alright, great. And I guess, do you have anything else to add to that? I mean, finally, really, when you get down to it, what do you think is the best way to ensure that students receive the support and attention they need and deserve?

Dave Hile:

There are no policies, in my opinion, that can be written at a state level or a federal level that will answer that question. That has to happen at every school district. Education is about the people that work with the kids. You have to find the best people every single time. You have to find the best teachers, the best bus drivers, the best cooks, the best aides, the best administrators. So we put an enormous amount of time and effort and energy and learning into hiring the best people. And when you do that, when you put your kids with the best people, those who have their best interests in mind, that are high quality, highly talented people, kids will learn and grow every day. It is that simple. That can’t really be legislated. It has to be a commitment in each school district for that to happen. But if you do that, it solves a whole lot of other problems.

James Loy:

Wonderful, Dave Hile, again, thank you so much for taking the time to talks to us. And hopefully, maybe, we can talk about this subject again and revisit it in the future to see how things continue to unfold. 

Dave Hile:

Great. I look forward to it, James. Thank you.