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Good news for Ohio students

A rare bright spot among the negative education news: An education-policy expert from a conservative think tank included Columbus when he said Ohio’s big three cities are “rapidly becoming leaders in school reform.”

“In fact, I’d argue there is no state with three major cities doing more than what is happening in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati,” says Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

His recent post on the institute’s Ohio Education Gadfly website ( affirms that the Columbus district finally is headed in the right direction after a miserable year of scandal and looming criminal charges.

Swift intervention by Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman, who appointed the Columbus Education Commission, has positioned the city alongside Cincinnati and Cleveland as a leader in school reform.

In past years, Ryan writes, he’d attended a meeting of national high-powered education reformers, wishing more was happening in Ohio schools. This year was different for him: While he warns the districts still have much to overcome, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati have become the ones to watch.

What has changed is the political climate and public expectations. Communities are taking back their schools, business leaders are rolling up their sleeves to help out, mayors are lobbying the legislature for operational flexibility, high-performing charter schools are being embraced and better funded, and teachers unions have become champions of reform.

In Cleveland, for instance, the new contract compensates teachers based on performance, skill and duties, rather than years of service and college courses taken. Its school board is preparing to hire the district’s first teachers from Teach for America, a program in which college graduates from the nation’s elite universities lend their intellect to teaching some of the neediest students for at least two years.

Just as Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has led the charge in his city to transform schools, Coleman has stepped up with his commission to formulate an extensive list of recommendations to improve education in his city’s schools. Like Cleveland, Columbus also wants legislative permission to share local tax dollars with charters. But Coleman’s group also is putting its money where its mouth is: It is raising $50 million in public-private funds for innovations and improvements.

For anyone who wonders if Columbus schools can be fixed, Ryan points to Cincinnati, which in 2010 became the first big city in Ohio to be rated as “effective.” It did so by appointing a superintendent who empowered strong building leaders, improved teacher quality and applied research-based curriculum and instruction changes.

Ryan says the improvements have been “so eye-popping” that The Atlantic ran a piece on the city in May under the headline, “How to Turn an Urban School District Around — Without Cheating.”