Checking up on Mitch Daniels at AEI

Gov. Mitch Daniels got several things right in his closely watched May 4 speech on education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

He acknowledged that, for all the hoopla over Indiana’s expansive new private-school voucher program, the vast majority of students will continue to attend public schools. And he made the key point that the success or failure of Indiana’s education reforms will depend on how they are implemented.

Daniels kept down the bombast, generally refrained from demonizing teachers’ unions, and even had a kind word for President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, praising their focus on teacher effectiveness and charter schools.

You can watch video of the speech and a follow-up interview at the AEI website. You’ll see that, while some in the audience were looking for Daniels to signal his intention to run for president, he kept it low-key – more like a guest lecture for a college class than a tryout for the national political stage.

But some of what he said calls for scrutiny:

Teacher effectiveness — Daniels said teacher quality is “the dominant variable” in determining student success. “Some have quantified it as 20 times … the importance of whatever’s in second place,” he said. Previously, he has said teacher quality is 20 times as important as any other factor, including poverty, a bogus claim. If he had said teacher quality was the most important school-based factor, we wouldn’t argue.

Indiana test scores – Decrying evaluations that rate 99 percent of Indiana teachers effective, Daniels said that “only one third of our students can pass the national standard exams.” About one-third of Indiana eighth-graders score proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But a score of proficient on NAEP is the equivalent of an A or a strong B. Falling short of that isn’t failing.

Teacher licensing – Daniels said college graduates “will no longer get a (teaching) license with an education major. They can minor in education, but they will have to major in the subject they want to teach.” This is not correct. You can still get a license to teach elementary school with an education major. And according to the state Department of Education, you can get a secondary teaching license with an education major, provided the content coursework “meets or exceeds the requirements for the parallel non-education majors.”

State spending – Daniels said Indiana spends a larger percentage of its state budget on K-12 education than any other state. This may be true but misleading. Most states rely on a mix of state and local revenue to fund school operations. Indiana eliminated local property taxes as a funding source for school operating expenses in 2009, shifting the burden to the state. So it’s not surprising the percentage of our state budget that goes to schools is higher than in other states.

Spring ISTEP exams – Perhaps unintentionally, Daniels gave the impression that the 2011 Indiana reforms included moving state standardized tests from the fall to the spring so they could better serve accountability purposes. This happened in 2008-09.

What works — asked about the federal role in education research and development, Daniels said, in essence, “We know what works.” We may know what we think will work. But there’s actually a lot of disagreement — and conflicting research findings — about the effectiveness of the reforms Indiana has adopted.

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