Terry Ryan owns clear opinions on education and he’s not afraid to share them. He regularly wrote guest opinions and was frequently quoted in national newspapers, and in papers in his former home state of Ohio. In an article about Ryan’s departure from Ohio, the Cleveland Plain Dealer described Ryan as a “well-known voice on state education issues.”
Said his former employer, Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute: “Ryan became the best-known, most knowledgeable and probably most respected advancer of important K-12 education reforms in the state.”
Ryan spent the last 12 years pushing education reform in Ohio, and was hired last month as the president of the Idaho Charter School Network (ICSN). He was not looking to move out west. He was recruited to apply to rally and organize charter schools so they will be more influential in Idaho’s education reform movement.
“I will advocate for charters and see that they have a voice,” Ryan said. “At the end of the day, it’s about improving education for kids.”
Ryan has supported and argued for lightning-rod education issues such as:
- Charter schools and school vouchers.
- Funding the child, not school districts.
- Rigorous common academic standards.
- Creating a performance-based compensation plan for teacher pay and advancement.
- Using data to improve teaching and learning.
“Some of the best examples of school reform in America, the reasons they make gains, is because they use data to help teachers improve what they do in their classrooms,” Ryan said. “Data done well can be a powerful driver to help teachers get better.”
Ryan supports “new thinking and bold action” and he said charters are more nibble and can adapt to opportunities faster.
“He is the kind of person that can be a game-changer,” said Don Keller, a board member for ICSN who approved Ryan’s hire, who interviewed three Idaho and six national candidates. “He really stuck out to me as someone who believes in the potential of Idaho.”
Ryan’s Ohio background
Ryan worked for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute as vice president for Ohio Programs and Policy. He was responsible for Fordham’s sponsorship of charter schools, research and policy practices. Fordham was the first nonprofit charter school authorizer in Ohio and sponsors 12 schools serving more than 2,500 students.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a conservative nonprofit education policy think tank with offices in Washington, D.C., Columbus and Dayton. In its mission statement, the institute describes the problem facing American education as follows: “American children receive an inferior education because too many U.S. schools and school systems are dysfunctional or ineffective … and our neediest children, who lack high-quality education options, receive dumbed-down curricula and weak instruction, and whose school systems are too often held hostage by adult interest groups, including but not limited to teacher unions.”
Ryan worked on a number of statewide charter school efforts in Ohio, including the launch of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the creation of the Ohio Charter School Sponsorship Institute. Both programs received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.
“He helped shape state policy on a dozen issues from standards to financing to teacher quality,” Finn said.
While working in Ohio, Ryan helped superintendents redesign districts when that meant confronting resistance and frustration. He worked with politicians who took on reform critics and argued for new education policies.
“Terry Ryan provided thoughtful, well-researched advice on a broad range of education issues to the governor, the legislature and education advocates across Ohio,” said Ohio Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering. “He has been a central figure in many education reforms for a number of years and is going to be greatly missed in our state.’’
Not everything has worked as planned in Ohio’s charter school network. The movement gained national attention, but the charters have not made huge gains for their more than 130,000 students. According to a September article in the Columbus Dispatch, Ohio charters performed almost exactly the same on most measures of student achievement as the urban schools they were meant to push and improve.
“Early on, charter supporters, including me, thought that market forces alone would ensure quality schools because good schools would flourish and parents would pull their kids out of bad schools,” Ryan said. “It isn’t that simple. Too many families, particularly those in the poorest neighborhoods, simply aren’t — or don’t know how to be — very picky about academic matters when it comes to choosing schools. They often settle for such admittedly important basics such as safety, convenience and friendliness and pay little attention to math scores, graduation rates and college-going data.
“As Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev per nuclear arms reduction efforts, ‘trust, but verify.’ This maxim is as appropriate for education — and educators — as for arms control. Everyone does better work, and behaves better, when someone is looking over their shoulder.”
Ryan’s career before Ohio
Ryan has taught overseas and worked on education initiatives in Britain and Poland.
He began his career as a teacher in Poland and worked with the Polish Ministry of Education and the Foundation for Education for Democracy in the mid-1990s.
“It was a very different experience and life-changing,” he said.
It was also life-changing personally because Poland is where he met and “fell in love with” his wife of 18 years, Emilia, a graphic designer. They have two daughters enrolled in Sage International Charter in Boise. Although about 8,700 students are on waiting lists to attend Idaho charter schools, Ryan’s daughters were immediately accepted into Sage because they were in new grade levels just being added to the school. It was coincidence, said Keller, Sage’s principal, that Ryan’s daughters were in the right place at the right time.
From Poland, Ryan moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for an English education group that organized a series of international conferences on how humans learn and what the lessons were for educators.
Ryan was a 2008 New Schools Venture Fund/Aspen Institute fellow and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Ryan is also a commissioner for the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, the organization that certifies the nation’s schools of education.
Why Idaho for Ryan
Ryan’s move to Idaho was unexpected. The job was presented to him and he was compelled by what he thinks is an opportunity to affect positive change in education, and to work with others to create a model of achievement that could be replicated in other rural states.
“There’s something fun about going someplace different,” said Ryan. “I admit, I’m kind of odd.”
Ryan says he plans to also enjoy Idaho’s outdoors. He and his family have already been hiking at Stanley’s Redfish Lake.
Ryan also is excited about his seat on the nine-member Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho. The group of national experts will focus on the unique issues and challenges of rural schools in Idaho. ROCI is sponsored by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.
“Albertson’s’ vision is very compelling,” Ryan said. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help make Idaho a leader and a model in education.”
Ryan holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in political economy from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of International Studies.
He is co-author, with Finn and Mike Lafferty, of Ohio Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Front Lines (Palgrave Macmillan), and he co-authored the book, The Unfinished Revolution (ACSD Press) with the English educator John Abbott.
“He is someone with the knowledge and expertise but he stands out because his passion for learning is quite exuberant,” Keller said.
Disclaimer: Idaho Education News is funded by a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.