74 Interview: Director of Ohio’s Department of Education on Adding “Workforce” to Name and Mission

Steve Dackin, director of the first state education department to add work in its name, says career preparation will be a top priority.

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In a move that puts career education on par with traditional academic schooling, the Ohio state education department has become the first in the nation to add “and Workforce” to its name. 

Steve Dackin, appointed as the first director of the recast Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, told The 74 in an interview last month that building pathways to careers will be his second biggest priority — just after overseeing Ohio’s shift to the science of reading, which Gov. Mike DeWine and the legislature also mandated last year. 

For Dackin, career education even comes before the difficult task of tackling academic deficits students developed during the pandemic.

“I think a good job is the quickest way out of poverty,” said Dackin, a former local school superintendent and community college administrator. “I just see this as the mission of the agency.”

“First priority is making sure kids can read and write,” he said. “Second priority is making sure that they’re able to be employed and have a path to a good job.”

Dackin, 66, comes to the job with clear strengths, but also with controversy.

He has experience in both school districts and career pathways, having served as superintendent for more than six years of the 7,500-student Reynoldsburg school district near Columbus. Additionally, he has more than seven years connecting students, businesses and Columbus State Community College as that school’s superintendent of school and community partnerships.

Over the last few years, Dackin has also worked with the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board on a research project that looks at how well schools teach students about career opportunities. He said that the project, whose findings could be released in February, will be one guide in his new position.

A former member of Ohio’s State Board of Education, the current board selected him as state superintendent in 2022 to head the old version of the education department. But Dackin, who had a lead role in the search for that post before becoming a candidate, faced ethics complaints and had to step down just three weeks after taking the job.

Since the new director position is now appointed by the governor, the conflict of interest issues no longer apply.

Ohio’s shift to having an appointed director also drew controversy because it takes away control from the state school board, which has some elected members, and gives it to the governor. Some state board members sued to block the change, saying it would violate the rights of voters who elected them, but they failed and the powers of the state board and superintendent are now much more limited.

With those issues cleared, Dackin talked with The 74 about the department’s expanded mission.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Do you see the mission of this department really changing now that workforce has been added to the name? How much?

Dackin: Yes. I mean, we have workforce in our title. We can’t separate education from workforce. It’s inseparable. And so to have a prepared workforce means that we have to do our due diligence on the preparation side. 

I’ve heard a lot in the last four or five years, from employers about their needs, and you hear everything from ‘I just need people who can pass a drug test.’…that’s a refrain from some… to ‘We can’t find people who have the skill set that I need,’ you know, and ‘We can’t find people who have the employability skills that I need,’ like showing up to work on time and being able to work with people, contribute to the team, some of those things that we know are needed. 

The American High School is amazing to me, how resilient it’s been for 50 years. Think about your own experience in high school. My guess is you experienced a seven or eight-period day where you had classes every 50 minutes and three minutes or four minutes between a class and then went to the next class and went to the next class and, and so on. And high schools look a lot like that still. I think it’s time to take a step back and ask ourselves, ‘Are we getting what we need to have for this new demand of an information-based economy?’ I think that’s a lofty question for a whole lot of people to try to answer.

The 74: Are you watching what Indiana’s doing right now? They’re having a big talk about rethinking and transforming High School and making work experiences a much more central part of high school.

Dackin: Well, I will be now. No, I wasn’t aware of that. And again, I’m 14 days in the job, but I’m always interested in looking at whatever places that are producing real outcomes. Because there are a lot of places doing things, but not many places are producing real outcomes. And again, to me, the ultimate outcome is a good job. 

I think a good job is the quickest way out of poverty… We have so many good jobs in Ohio right now. I just see this as the mission of the agency.

First priority is making sure kids can read or write. Second priority is making sure that they’re able to be employed and have a path to a good job. 

Third thing we’re trying to do is to deal with the accelerated learning issues that we have. You know the pandemic really set a lot…we had some students in the state who weren’t in school for two years. And so there’s still a lag there, around what they experience and where they’re at, and their gaps in learning, mathematics being a really good example of that. We have huge achievement gaps in math, more than even literacy. So we have to think about interventions we need to be doing and, frankly, make sure the department has a role in helping to analyze and research interventions that work and make those available to folks.

And then the fourth priority is none of this happens well if students aren’t safe, or they have challenges in their mental or emotional well-being. I’ve always applauded the governor since his first budget for putting money in and getting the legislature to agree to make dollars available for student wellness. It’s really hard to concentrate and read and write and do arithmetic if you’re dealing with all kinds of emotional or mental health issues.

So these are our four priorities. That’s all I want. Four. And they align with the Governor’s priorities. And I think when you can get really focused on doing a few things but doing better than anybody else, you’ve got a shot at doing something big.

The 74: You were state superintendent briefly under the old system? Do you prefer it this way? Is this really the best way going forward? 

Dackin: Yeah. I think the thing that I liked about this opportunity is that the governor’s focus is the same focus I’ve had my entire career. And it’s the same focus I had even as an appointee on the state board. First and foremost is literacy. We can’t accomplish our workforce goals if kids are not reading at or above grade level as they matriculate through the system. That’s foundational. I think that literacy is almost a right.

He’s put a stake in the ground around the science of reading. We know more now about how kids read and learn how to read than we ever have in the past. Our knowledge about the function of the cognitive processes in young brains, we know more now than ever. For him to say, ‘This is what we’re going to do in Ohio,’ took courage. And it was a visionary step on his part, to get us on the right path toward a more preferred future. 

The 74: Did you make the jump to science reading, when you were at Reynoldsburg?

Dackin: We did the science of reading in Reynoldsburg. We didn’t call it that, but we had the components of the science of reading. 

One of the things we did really well in Reynoldsburg is that we hired really, really, really, really quality teachers and principals. And then we gave them the authority to make decisions that they felt were in the best interests of their kids, relative to the outcomes we set. That was a difference-maker. 

The 74: So what if the professional in the classroom wants to use three-cueing with the kids? (Ohio’s law that requires teachers to use the science of reading approaches banned so-called “cueing” — having young students figure out what a word is through context or pictures — that has been a key part of other reading strategies.)

Dackin: Well, right now, the role of the Department of Education is to enforce the law. And so that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna enforce the law. That’s kind of a nonnegotiable.

The 74: But do you agree with that, that it should be banned, like the state has?

Dackin: I agree with the fact that we have focused on five components of the science of reading that are research-based and have proven results. We felt that when I was a superintendent, and I know districts that do it very well. And so that’s where I plant my flag.

The 74: With this new department, how would you balance how much is straight workforce prep? And how much is just straight education?

Dackin: I don’t think you can separate the two. That’s been one of our challenges, not just Ohio, but across the country. We’ve seen Career Tech as a place that some kids go, and we have general education as a place for other kids to go, and it’s been this kind of separation point. But employers say the skill sets that are needed, and the knowledge base that is needed now in the workforce are a sophisticated set of skills. 

The last couple years, I’ve been working on a project on an issue that I think few people have a fundamental understanding of. The number of kids who enter high school in any given year in Ohio as freshmen…about 135…136,000… between 68 and 70% of those kids never get to a four-year degree In Ohio. It’s a big number.

But we have all these jobs that are posted right now that we can’t fill. And so we need every able-bodied Ohioan to be skilled, ready to take these jobs. We can’t have a stat like that, where three-quarters of the workforce after they get out of high school, are not sure what they’re doing. 

We then have to kind of reverse-engineer this a little bit. And that is, what are they doing while they are in K-12? And how do we ensure that kids are graduating and how do we expand opportunities while we have them in K-12 so that they’re leaving us in K-12 with requisite skills that become employable?

Dackin continued talking about the research project with the Governor’s Executive Workforce Board and how little students are taught about career opportunities.

One thing we do not do well in high schools in this state, and I suspect in many states, we never grab a kid’s heart while they’re in high school. I think it’s time to kind of use the phrase, reverse engineer, the middle school, high school experience so that we can start grabbing kids’ hearts.

They don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t know about careers, largely.

We found out a couple things. One is most kids were led to believe that their primary opportunities would be either in college or the military. There was little discussion about careers in technology, careers in medicine. So right now they’re at a deficit. If you ask a kid, what do you want to do when you get out of high school, they’re void of much information about what’s available. 

That’s a shame, shame on us as adults. We’ve got to figure that out.

I think our challenge is to make sure that every kid, as they’re going through our K-12 system, their parents have access to labor market data that talks about what the careers are, what the pay is, what it takes to get from point A to point B. So many people don’t know how to navigate the system, because it’s very complex.

The 74: How much do you think that report is going to guide some of your vision for this job going forward? 

Dackin: I think that is one of many blueprints that we can build on. You’ve got to have multiple strategies. And we’ve got to see some pilots out there where we can get real data on what’s happening, real outcome data. One of our challenges in our state is it’s tough to get employability data.

We’ve got (places where) it’s being done pretty well. Our challenge in Ohio is how do we scale that? How do we ensure that it just isn’t the luck of the draw, that a kid happens to be in a place where they have a really well-thought-out system from K-12 to a good job? College may be part of that, maybe not, but how do we scale it?

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