As thousands of youngsters in the Mahoning Valley plunge head-first into the start of the 2013-14 academic year this week, they’ll begin a three-season-long adventure in learning. As they do, they’ll also embark on a nine-month-long magical mystery tour.
This school year, more than any in recent memory, finds education in Ohio at a crossroads. On one track, to be sure, the year will include ample amounts of magic — students awed by the sights and sounds of new classrooms, inspiring teachers and priceless gotcha moments of grasping previously bewildering and beguiling concepts.
On another track, however, the 2013-14 school year begins in a shroud of mystery brought on by many new challenges for students, educators and administrators. Add to that the state’s time-worn funding conundrums, and the result produces plenty of questions and uncertainties.
Academically, Ohio teachers have new marching orders from state and national authorities, many of which already have generated controversy.
For one, Gov. John Kasich pushed for and won legislative approval this term for the new Third Grade Reading Guarantee. It requires students to be proficient in language arts at the third-grade level before advancing to fourth grade. The governor and others argue that there’s a strong correlation between early reading skills and future learning ability. However, some critics argue the mandate was rushed through with insufficient thought on its real-world applications and consequences. Despite its noble goal, the reading mandate makes this year’s teachers and students guinea pigs for the practicality of such an ambitious target.
Schools in Ohio also join those in 44 other states that are implementing the Common Core curriculum standards aimed at better preparing students for college and careers. The new standards create uniform content over mathematics and language arts instruction in America’s public classrooms. Common Core naysayers, including a group of Ohio legislators who have introduced a bill to abolish them in the Buckeye State, see them as federal encroachment on the state’s constitutional turf over public policy for education
And if all of that is not enough to keep Ohio educators on edge, there’s also the new policy of applying students’ standardized test scores as one major instrument of teacher evaluations. For teachers and administrators alike, the new school year also ushers in more strict standards by which schools will be graded for their 2013-14 state report cards. What’s more, expanded school vouchers this year promise to siphon more students and resources away from public schools.
All of these new educational challenges will be complicated by ongoing questions over school funding. Will teachers and school districts have the financial wherewithal to adequately respond to the new challenges and successfully implement the new largely unfunded mandates? Many argue no.
Even though the state General Assembly increased school funding by about 4 percent this year, in typical Ohio fashion that increase will not be spread evenly among all 660 public school districts. In addition, schools and union officials say the funding increase doesn’t offset earlier gargantuan state cuts, the end of federal stimulus aid and reduced property-tax revenues.
To be sure, these and other challenges and mysteries stand in abundance at the school door this term. The academic year will unfold as an extended learning experiment for all involved. But we’re confident in our hypothesis that the mysteries, challenges and uncertainties of this year’s more rigorous school agenda will be overcome by the resilience, dedication and yes, magic, performed by the vast majority of Ohio teachers.