State schools chief: Ohio has what it takes to be best

DeMaria sworn in to new role, says building-level implementation is more important than new policies.

New state school superintendent Paolo DeMaria told state school board members after his swearing in Monday that all Ohio schools can get better, and he believes the focus should be less on new policy and more on school building-level implementation.

“I come into this position with the opinion and the belief that we have what it takes to be the best,” DeMaria said, while pointing out states that currently outpace Ohio in test performance. “We shouldn’t hesitate to aspire to be as good as those states, or even better than those states. I start with a premise that this is doable.”

DeMaria most recently worked as a consultant in the education industry, but has held numerous posts in state government – executive vice chancellor at the Ohio Board of Regents, associate superintendent for school options and finance at the Ohio Department of Education, director of the Office of Budget and Management for Gov. George Voinovich and chief policy advisor for Gov. Bob Taft.

He has not been a teacher or school administrator, and quickly after being chosen for the state superintendent post, DeMaria said he wants to gather input from a wide range of people.

“One of my visions is to try to cobble together a strategic plan for Ohio’s overall system of education, so we can all align around what it is that we want to accomplish, knowing full well that we will not agree on every strategy and metric and approach,” DeMaria said. “We can recognize our disagreements but not let them get in the way of making forward progress.”

Ohioans have argued repeatedly in recent years over school funding, Common Core curriculum, testing platforms and more. The first point DeMaria listed about ODE’s role was a need to build consensus about what practices and strategies are effective, while emphasizing that doesn’t mean a one-size-fits-all approach.

“We want to engage people to make the best choices for their own communities and their own schools,” he said. “And that may be enhanced by giving them two or three or seven effective models and letting them evaluate for themselves.”

DeMaria jumped right into major issues. He gave a presentation to the state board on the upcoming state budget process as it affects ODE. He revealed a series of 10 meetings around the state to tell people how the new ESSA federal education law will affect Ohio schools (the Dayton meeting will be Sept. 8). And he sent board members a summary of how ODE is handling more than a dozen recommendations stemming from the agency’s state audit earlier this year.

DeMaria, who has a degree in economics, said he loves data, and joked that he’s already started to drive a few ODE staffers “a little bit crazy” on that front.

Senate Education Committee chair Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said data can be useful, but urged him to look beyond just state test scores to other data points such as student attendance, gifted services and suspension rates.

State board member A.J. Wagner of Dayton urged DeMaria to focus attention on early-childhood education as a means to close education gaps between rich and poor students. DeMaria said Wagner was “absolutely right,” and lauded the cities of Dayton and Cleveland for their efforts to address the issue.

While DeMaria said he’s already working on several issues, he tried to downplay his importance.

“I’ve told a number of people, at the end of the day, I don’t educate a single child. I’m so far away from the actual education that happens for children in this state,” he said. “It’s the teachers and the principals and the families who are making the difference.”

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