Offered ‘my way or the highway,’ Indiana Democrats take to the road

State Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan is as moderate a voice on education issues as you’ll find among Indiana House Democrats. An organizer of the new group Indiana Democrats for Education Reform, she is co-author of a bill to expand charter schools and favors parts of the Daniels-Bennett education agenda.

But she’s with her Democratic colleagues at the Comfort Suites hotel in Urbana, Ill., helping put the brakes on what caucus leaders call a “radical agenda” to dismantle public education, drive down wages, and roll back workers’ rights.

Sullivan might not use the same rhetoric. But she said the onslaught of proposed changes in how schools operate, coupled with the Republican majority’s refusal to compromise, forced Democrats to take dramatic action to call attention to the issues.

“If at least more people pay attention to what’s happening, I think that’s a worthy goal in itself,” Sullivan, D-Indianapolis, told School Matters.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, she said, was the right-to-work bill that Republicans pushed through the House Labor Committee Monday. Democrats left town the next day.

Let’s just say it’s a mystery why House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, advanced the right-to-work bill, even though Gov. Mitch Daniels warned against doing so. Bosma had to know Democrats would walk out over the bill, but sometimes people lose perspective in a legislative session. Or maybe a House Republican went to the recent Conservative Political Action Committee conference and heard an Americans for Prosperity staffer insist it’s time to “take the unions out at the knees.”

Even without right-to-work, however, tension had been building at the Statehouse over labor and education issues, including the school reforms that Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett are championing.

“There’s been an attitude on some of these bills of, ‘It’s our way or the highway,’” Rep. Peggy Welch, another moderate Democrat, told the Bloomington Herald-Times last week Continue reading

National Education Policy Center vs. Los Angeles Times

For all the education research and policy types out there, there’s a pretty good food fight taking place between the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado and the Los Angeles Times.

It concerns value-added modeling of teacher effectiveness – in particular, the Times project last summer that used test-score data and a value-added formula to give an effectiveness rating to 6,000 elementary-school teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School Districts.

The Times project, which was highly controversial and sent the LA teachers’ union into a frenzy, was based on a value-added analysis by Richard Buddin, a researcher with Rand Corp. The paper put LA teachers into one of five “effectiveness” categories based on their students’ test-score improvement and published a database of the teacher ratings on its website.

UC researchers Derek Briggs and Ben Domingue re-analyzed what they believed to be the same data. First they conducted a “sensitivity analysis,” which produced results that cast doubt on whether Buddin’s approach measured teacher effectiveness, not other factors that influence student achievement.

Next, they ran the data using a slightly different, but arguably valid, value-added model. The result was that about half the LA teachers ended up with a different effectiveness rating, calling into question the validity of the entire exercise.

“This study makes it clear that the LA Times and its research team have done a disservice to the teachers, students, and parents of Los Angeles,” said NEPC director Kevin Welner. “The Times owes its community a better accounting for its decision to publish the names and rankings of individual teachers when it knew or should have known that those rankings were based on a questionable analysis.”

The Times reported on the NEPC study but claimed that it “confirms the broad conclusions of a Times analysis of teacher effectiveness in the Los Angeles Unified School District” because it showed that the effectiveness of teachers varies widely and can be reasonably estimated. Continue reading

What’s the story on IPS Arlington Woods Elementary School?

The Indianapolis Star is running a compelling series about Arlington Woods Elementary School on the east side of Indianapolis, where an initiative called Project Restore has produced impressive gains in student performance, especially in math.

The series began Feb. 13 and continued Feb. 16 and Feb. 20; additional installments are scheduled Wednesday and next Sunday. Columnist Matthew Tully, who wrote the stories, and photographer Danese Kenon apparently had extraordinary access to the school’s teachers and students.

According to the Star, Arlington Woods has used high expectations for students, frequent testing and a relentless focus on learning to turn around what had been a low-performing urban school. More than 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; most are African-American.

The emphasis on high expectations and frequent tests (“formative assessments” in educator jargon) is widely accepted, and it’s likely a reporter could find a similar approach at many Indiana schools. But the success at Arlington Woods makes a great counter-story – a “man-bites-dog” tale – to the conventional narrative that Indianapolis Public Schools are mired in a culture of failure.

It’s worth noting that this turn-around was apparently accomplished by educators who were at the school. It didn’t require busting the union, instituting merit pay, firing teachers, relying on market-driven parent choice or bringing in a turn-around expert trained by Marian University. Continue reading

Gary, IPS are biggest losers in GOP school funding plan

Many school districts would face hardships under the budget and school funding formula unveiled last week by the Republican leaders of the Indiana House of Representatives – but none of them gets slammed harder than the Gary Community School Corp.

The GOP plan would cut funding for Gary schools by nearly $20 million over a two-year period. Add the $5 million that Gov. Mitch Daniels sliced from the district’s budget last year, and the city’s schools are looking at a 25-percent reduction.

We don’t talk much about race or class in 21st century America, but it’s hard not to notice that 97 percent of students in the Gary public schools are African-American and most come from low-income families. Look also at Indianapolis Public Schools, where two-thirds of students are black, Hispanic or multiracial and more than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches: IPS funding would be cut by $41.3 million over two years, about 15 percent, under the proposal.

All 60 Republicans in the Indiana House are white. It’s a safe bet that none are poor.

Republicans would point out that, even with the cuts, per-pupil funding will remain higher in Gary and Indianapolis than the state average. They might suggest that generous state funding hasn’t produced stellar test scores and graduation rates in those districts, so it’s time for something else.

One reason the funding imbalance developed was that Democrats long controlled the House and protected urban (and some rural) schools from funding cuts, even when they lost enrollment. The logic was sound: A district that loses a few students can’t necessarily close schools and lay off teachers without sacrificing quality.

But growing suburban school districts complained the formula wasn’t fair. Some even sued. Now Republicans control both the House and Senate in Indiana, and they are tilting the school-funding formula to favor their own constituents.

The MCCSC referendum funding: An argument for doing what’s best for students

Someone claimed in the Bloomington Herald-Times that no one has come forward to say he or she voted for the Monroe County Community School Corp. referendum just so the school board could decide how to spend the money, or words to that effect.

Well, I cast one of the 18,701 votes in favor of the referendum. I urged my friends to vote for the referendum. I wrote on this blog that people should support it. I even stood in the cold on Election Day and told strangers they should vote to raise their taxes, even though some of them probably couldn’t afford a tax increase.

Why? Speaking only for myself, I wanted to restore lost funding so the MCCSC would have a better chance at meeting the needs of all of its students. I was encouraged when I heard Superintendent J.T. Coopman and board members say – on multiple occasions – that the referendum would support early-literacy and drop-out prevention programs. But I didn’t take that as a promise.

I assumed decisions about spending the money would be made in the same way that important school budget decisions should always be made: by a democratically elected school board in a public, transparent process that includes honest discussion and a free exchange of ideas and opinions. I hoped board members would respect the advice of MCCSC administrators and listen with an open mind to teachers, students, parents and citizens before making up their minds. Continue reading

Catching up with the legislature (or trying to, anyway)

Several of the bills to implement Gov. Mitch Daniels’ education agenda are moving through the Indiana General Assembly — some faster than others.

Up next: House Bill 1003, the school vouchers bill, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the House Education Committee, which meets at 9 a.m. in the House Chambers. The bill, supported by Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett, would provide taxpayer-funded vouchers to help pay tuition for parents who transfer their children from public to private schools.

It’s hard to keep track of legislation from a distance – ideally, you’d want to attend every meeting of the House Education Committee and the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, then follow the debates on the floor of the House and Senate. But we’ll make a stab at it anyway.

Bills that have passed either the House or Senate

House Bill 1002, which seeks to expand the number of charter schools and gives charters access to unused public-school property, was approved by the House last week, 59-37. Lots of amendments were added, and the bill is clearly a work in progress. Next step: a committee hearing in the Senate.

Bills in committee this week

Senate Bill 1, which creates new procedures for teacher evaluations and mandates merit pay for teachers, was subject to three hours of committee testimony last week. The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to consider amendments and vote on the bill this Wednesday Continue reading

CEEP survey on K-12 education: mixed messages for policymakers

The 2010 Public Opinion Survey on K-12 Education in Indiana finds support for some of the education changes being pushed by Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett, but not for others.

The telephone survey of 612 Indiana residents was conducted for the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in November and December 2010. The survey report is available online, and so are a news release and a PowerPoint presentation given to the State Board of Education.

On the plus side for Daniels and Bennett, the findings suggest a majority of Hoosiers would support changes in the way teachers are evaluated and compensated. On the other hand, a majority believe that schools are underfunded, while the governor and superintendent insist more money isn’t the answer.

As a general trend, the survey found Indiana residents were more critical of schools than in previous years. They were a more likely to give low grades to the state’s schools and a little more likely to think education is getting worse than that it’s getting better.

Of course, most people think schools in their community are better than average – 59 percent gave local schools an A or a B; only 38 percent gave state schools an A or a B. And among parents of school-aged children, 65 percent gave local schools an A or a B.

The folks at CEEP tried to address issues likely to be considered by the state legislature, but the survey doesn’t measure support for two high-profile Daniels-Bennett proposals: promoting more charter schools and instituting private-school vouchers.

Study co-author Terry Spradlin explained that the charter-school proposals – expanding sponsorship of charter schools, giving them access to unused school property, etc. – are probably too technical to address in a survey. Continue reading

Bennett: Retention rule holds kids accountable

We need to start holding 9-year-olds accountable, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said – that’s why they must be held back in third grade if they can’t pass a new state reading test.

The State Board of Education on Tuesday approved a reading rule that says schools must retain students in third grade if they don’t pass the test, called I-READ 3. The only exceptions are for special-needs students, non-English speakers and students who have already been retained twice. Parent and teacher assessments of whether children should be promoted won’t matter.

“When I’ve traveled around the state, I’m asked, ‘Where’s the accountability for parents and students?’” Bennett said. “This is accountability. One of the things we’ve learned in two years is that things happen when accountability occurs. What we inspect, they respect.”

Board members and Indiana Department of Education officials didn’t respond to – or even specifically acknowledge – objections that educators raised in public hearings last month. The educators cited research that shows academic gains made after retention don’t last; kids who are retained are two to 11 times more likely to drop out; and retention costs U.S. schools $14 billion a year.

The rule and an accompanying “reading framework” also require schools to intervene when children fall behind in reading and provide 90-minute, daily, uninterrupted blocks of time devoted to reading. Most schools will have to use “scientifically based” reading programs approved by the state.

Department of Education staff have suggested it may be possible to retain students in reading but pass them to fourth grade in other subjects; but it’s not clear how that would work. Continue reading

State board about to decide on third-grade retention rule

A proposed rule that would force schools to retain students who don’t pass a third-grade reading test could face a vote by the State Board of Education this week. The board meets Tuesday at 1 p.m. in Indianapolis.

The rule, which was the subject of a previous post on School Matters, also requires elementary schools to implement reading plans that include goals for student achievement and interventions for students who fall behind. Schools will have to devote 90-minute uninterrupted blocks of time to reading instruction in grades K-3 and use research-based reading programs.

The state board accepted comments on the proposal at public hearings on Jan. 20 and Jan. 25. The hearings, video of which can be viewed online, brought comments from reading specialists, principals, superintendents and representatives of the state associations of teachers and school administrators.

Thirteen people testified. And while some praised certain aspects of the rule, all 13 said unequivocally that it’s wrong to hold kids back based on results of a single test.

Speakers cited research showing that the academic gains children make after being retained don’t persist; that students are two to 11 times more likely to drop out of school if they are held back than if they aren’t; and that forcing students to repeat grades costs the nation $14 billion a year.

“There is no research that retention benefits children,” said Whitney Witkowski, principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School on the south side of Indianapolis. “There is a substantial body of research about the negative effects … Retention is not only ineffective but it punishes children.”

Several speakers suggested that, if Indiana wants to help kids learn to read, it should require kindergarten attendance and fund pre-kindergarten programs. And some pointed out that the retention mandate goes considerably further than the 2010 state legislation that called on the Department of Education to develop a rule to make reading instruction more effective.

Department of Education staff members are suggesting some changes to the proposed rule. One spells out that students should get a second chance to pass the yet-to-be-developed reading test, possibly after remediation in summer school, before they are held back. Another makes clear that the rule applies to charter schools as well as regular public schools.

But the pass-the-test or fail-the-grade language remains – the only exceptions are for special-needs students, non-English speakers and children who have already been retained twice.

Interestingly, when the State Board of Education has a hearing, members apparently don’t need to show up. Who knew? Not a single board member was present on Jan. 20, when weather was apparently an issue. On Jan. 25, David Shane was the only board member on hand.

Presumably the other board members can watch the video of the hearing and read testimony submitted in writing. Let’s hope they do, and that they consider the issue with an open mind.

Money talks in the Indiana school voucher debate

“Follow the money,” Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, famously told the young reporters in All the President’s Men. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette took that advice to heart for an editorial on the push for school vouchers in the Indiana legislature, and here’s what it found.

The “loudest voice” supporting publicly funded vouchers for students attending private schools is the Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice, the J-G says. The chairman of the foundation’s board is Utah businessman Patrick Byrne, CEO of online retailer Overstock.com., who has given $125,000 since 2007 to Gov. Mitch Daniels’ political campaigns and another $25,000 to Aiming Higher, Daniels’ political action committee.

Byrne also gave $15,000 to the campaign fund of Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Bennett and $200,000 to Hoosiers for Economic Growth, a PAC that spent money last year primarily to produce a Republican majority in the state legislature. Four other trustees of the Foundation for Educational Choice gave campaign money to Daniels and Bennett.

“In the absence of data and public support for school vouchers, the influence of campaign contributions speaks loudly,” the Journal-Gazette argues. “Public education supporters will need to speak even louder in the weeks ahead to protect Indiana schools and students.”

Follow the money a bit further and you see that Hoosiers for Economic Growth gave money in 2010 to Rep. Robert Behning, chairman of House Education Committee, and Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee Continue reading