Indiana schools chief Bennett has big head start in election fund-raising

With the 2012 election still nine months away, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett is already sitting on a re-election treasury of $400,000, considerably more than the $307,000 he spent to win the office four years ago.

That means whoever the Indiana Democratic Party selects to run will face an uphill fight when it comes to cash – and the party won’t pick its candidate until June.

It’s no surprise that Bennett has raised a lot of money. He has gained a national reputation in education reform circles, and he’s been traveling the country, spending time with political heavy hitters. His is wired in with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Chiefs for Change organization.

Bennett’s major campaign funding sources include:

– Wealthy Indiana business people with a history of giving to Republicans: $50,000 from Merrillville hotel developer Dean White, $22,500 from Mike Weaver of Weaver Popcorn, $20,000 from William Oesterle of Angie’s List and $10,000 from Carmel investment manager Robert Goad.

– Out-of-state businesses that contract with the Indiana Department of Education, or might like to: $5,000 from K-12 Inc., operator of online charter schools; $2,500 from McGraw-Hill, Indiana’s testing contractor; $2,800 from ITEACH U.S., a Texas company that provides alternative teacher certification; and $1,000 from Kevin McAliley, CEO of educational services company Apangea Learning.

– Supporters of Bennett’s “choice and competition” agenda Continue reading

Live by the test, die by the test – but don’t teach to the test?

President Barack Obama seemed to give a nod to both supporters and opponents of test-based teacher evaluations in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

“Teachers matter,” he said. “So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

Obama said a good teacher “can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” a reference to a recent study by economists at Harvard and Columbia, who concluded that effective teachers have a long-lasting positive impact on the life prospects of their students.

Here’s the problem. Most of the proposals to “reward the best” and “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn” rely on student test scores to determine which teachers are effective. The administration has pushed that approach through its Race to the Top grants and, more recently, through waivers to No Child Left Behind Act requirements. It’s the entire premise behind the economists’ study that Obama cited.

As Dana Goldstein writes in the Nation, “It can be difficult to balance test-based accountability with the sort of ‘creative, passionate’ teaching the president says he supports, especially if teachers are so worried about raising test scores that they teach-to-the-test or — as we’ve unfortunately seen around the country — cheat, or are pressured by administrators to do so.”

Of course, it’s easy to bash teaching to the test; almost as easy as bashing teachers. Let’s just say this: Starting this spring, Indiana students will be retained in third grade if they don’t pass the new test called IREAD-3. Let’s hope third-grade teachers are teaching students the skills they need to pass that test.

The president didn’t describe any new programs to improve teaching, and the blueprint released by the White House with the speech was similarly vague. Continue reading

What can the U.S. learn from Finland’s educational success?

Finland became a global education superstar by doing exactly the opposite of what the United States is trying to do, Finnish education official Pasi Sahlberg told an Indiana University audience last week.

No school choice and competition, no high-stakes tests, no top-down accountability and no union-bashing. Instead, Finland pursued egalitarianism for students and high-level professionalism for teachers – and became a world leader on international measures of student performance.

Is Finland’s experience relevant to the U.S.? Certainly there are differences between the countries. Finland is a small; its population, 5.4 million, is less than Indiana’s. It is culturally homogeneous, although its immigrant population is growing.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the child poverty rate is about 5 percent in Finland, compared to over 20 percent in the U.S.; and we know that poverty is strongly correlated with student achievement. But other European countries – e.g., Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany – also have low child poverty rates but trail Finland on measures such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.

Advocates of American-style reform tend to dismiss Finland. For example, Rick Hess, education policy director for the American Enterprise Institute, calls it a “tiny island of homogeneity” and argues the U.S. should pursue its own path based on “uniquely American strengths like federalism, entrepreneurial dynamism, and size and heterogeneity.”

But if we listen to what Sahlberg and others are saying, what lessons might we learn from Finland? Here are a couple:

Maybe it’s not all about me. Americans, with our habit of making everything a competition, tend to think of “good schools” as a finite commodity. There are only so many seats, and if you get your kid gets one, there’s less for mine. Sahlberg says Finns don’t understand the concept of good schools and bad schools, because schools are largely the same. And there are almost no private schools, so there are no opportunities to opt out of the program. Finnish parents are all in this public education thing together. For them, apparently, “your kid” kid gets the same opportunity as “my kid,” and that’s OK.

Teaching is complicated. Teachers in Finland are required to have master’s degrees, and they’re accorded autonomy and expected to act as highly trained professionals. They also spend considerably less time in the classroom than American teachers and more time meeting with each other, collaborating and planning. Sahlberg calls this “less is more,” but in fact it reflects a difference in how we see teaching. Here, people complain that teachers work only six hours a day and get summers off. We think they’re working only when they’re in class, a perception that is sometimes reinforced by contracts that restrict what teachers are supposed to do after school hours. Finnish lesson: Change our mental picture of teaching from “stand in front of classroom 180 days a year” to “do what it takes for every child to learn what he or she needs to learn.”

Sahlberg doesn’t set Finland up as a model. But he argues that we can learn from each other – and that the U.S. and states such as Indiana should think twice before heading further down the path of high-stakes testing, accountability and competition.

“I would say you have very little chance to be successful with these policies,” he said.

For more on Finland, see Indianapolis Star reporter Scott Elliott’s recent blog post on Sahlberg’s IU talk and Sahlberg’s recent essay in Education Week, as well as an upcoming Q&A with NPR State Impact Indiana. There’s also a lot of information, including links to presentations, on Sahlberg’s website.

Indiana update: Quality Counts grades, voucher decision, Finnish education

Indiana leads the nation with its educational standards, assessments and accountability, according to this year’s Quality Counts report.

But overall, the state’s education system is barely above average. Indiana earns C+ and is ranked 22nd among the states by Quality Counts, an annual initiative from Editorial Projects in Education that tracks education indicators and grades the states on their policies and outcomes. The state’s grades in sub-areas include:

– C for “chance for success,” which includes family income, parent education, preschool and kindergarten enrollment and adult educational attainment.

– D+ for K-12 achievement, including National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, high school graduation rates, achievement gaps and AP exam scores.

– A (and No. 1 among the states) for standards, assessments and accountability, with the latter category encompassing Indiana’s A-F rating system for schools and sanctions for low-performing schools.

– D for efforts to improve teaching, such as teacher education, licensing and pay. This score is likely to improve next year when Indiana schools implement a mandated teacher-evaluation system.

– C- for school finance. Indiana does OK for spending equity between districts but ranks low for per-pupil spending, even when adjusted for regional cost differences.

– B+ for education alignment, including school readiness, high-school-to-college transitions and workforce and career preparation.

Voucher lawsuit setback

It was disappointing but not surprising that a judge ruled last week against the parents, teachers and religious leaders who challenged Indiana’s private-school voucher program. As Indiana University’s Center on Evaluation and Education Policy explained last fall, the “choice scholarship” program was carefully crafted to withstand legal challenges.

Marion County Superior Judge Michael Keele ruled that the voucher law doesn’t violate provisions of the Indiana Constitution that call for a uniform system of common schools, prohibit people from having to support religion against their consent, and bar the use of state money to support religion.

There’s no question that the vouchers, which go almost entirely to Catholic and Evangelical Christian schools, amount to using state money to support religion. But Keele says it’s OK, because the state isn’t choosing which religious institutions get funding — parents are making that decision.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, which is supporting the lawsuit, says the decision will be appealed.

Finnish lessons

Folks in the Bloomington can hear this Friday about what’s behind Finland’s educational success. Pali Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in the Finnish education ministry, will speak at 1:20 p.m. in Wylie Hall 005 on the Indiana University campus.

Sahlberg is the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?, which explains how Finland transformed itself from educational mediocrity to powerhouse. Since 2000, its students have scored at or near the top on international assessments.

Sahlberg writes in Education Week that Finland imported good ideas from other countries and developed reforms through consensus with teachers and local education officials.

“Finally,” he writes, “the key driver of education-development policy in Finland has been providing equal and positive learning opportunities for all children and securing their well-being, including their nutrition, health, safety, and overall happiness. Finnish authorities, in this regard, have defied international convention. They have not endorsed student testing and school ranking as the path to improvement, but rather focused on teacher preparation and retention; collaboration with teachers and their union representatives; early and regular intervention for children with learning disabilities; well-rounded curricula; and equitable funding of schools throughout the country.”

Big, impressive study, questionable policy conclusions

A study of the impact of teachers on student success has been drawing lots of attention, including a big story in the New York Times, praise from columnist Nicholas Kristof and analysis in the blogosphere.

On the one hand, the paper by economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman and Jonah Rockoff offers new evidence that good teaching has long-lasting and far-reaching effects. This suggests that the recruitment, preparation and support of teachers should be a high priority for the nation.

But the economists also use their findings to call for rating teachers on the basis of “value-added” models, which use complex formulas to measure teachers’ impact on student test scores – and for firing teachers who don’t measure up. Annie Lowrey writes in the Times:

The authors argue that school districts should use value-added measures in evaluations, and to remove the lowest performers, despite the disruption and uncertainty involved.

“The message is to fire people sooner rather than later,” Professor Friedman said.

Professor Chetty acknowledged, “Of course there are going to be mistakes — teachers who get fired who do not deserve to get fired.” But he said that using value-added scores would lead to fewer mistakes, not more.”

This is a little surprising, given that, in the study itself, they caution against that sort of policy conclusion.

“Overall, our study shows that great teachers create great value and that test score impacts are helpful in identifying such teachers. However, more work is needed to determine the best way to use VA for policy,” they write in the executive summary.

They add that two important questions must be resolved before value-added models are used to evaluate teachers. One is whether attaching high stakes to test scores will skew results so much that it undermines the accuracy of the models. The other has to do with the economic cost of firing teachers, sometimes in error – the very “mistakes” that Chetty said would be trivial.

Then the New York Times calls and they throw caution to the wind.

The study reportedly breaks new ground Continue reading

Not everyone is sold on proposed Indiana school grading changes

Look for some push-back Tuesday morning when the State Board of Education conducts a public hearing on its plan to change the way letter grades are calculated for Indiana schools. It’s the only chance people will have to comment in person on the change, and critics are determined to make the most of it.

Vic Smith, a retired educator who helped start the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, has written detailed criticism of the proposed grading system, and he’s urging parents and public-school supporters to show up and make themselves heard.

Officials with Bartholomew Consolidated Schools in Columbus are also upset about the plan to change how schools are evaluated. In a guest column in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star, Bartholomew school board member Jill Shedd argued that the system focuses too narrowly on reading and math, ignoring much of what schools do for students.

Smith argues that the rule is flawed because it relies on statistical quotas to determine whether schools should get credit for improvement.

Using the state’s “growth model” for measuring year-to-year student gains on test scores, the DOE will arbitrarily determine that one-third of students show high growth, one-third show normal growth, and one-third show low growth. Schools can earn bonus points if a high percentage of their students show high growth; they can be penalized if too many students show low growth.

But growth is measured by how students perform compared to their peers, not whether they improve their ability to meet academic standards. “We might have a great year when everybody learns, but we’ll still have 34 percent with low growth,” Smith said Wednesday at a Bloomington forum on public education. Continue reading

Federal report says school district funding policies short-change poor children

Are school districts short-changing schools that predominantly serve poor kids? That’s the claim that the U.S. Department of Education made in a report released several weeks ago.

The report didn’t seem to get much attention, maybe because it came out right before the holidays, or possibly because the topic is pretty far removed from the current narrative of education reform. But it’s probably worth a closer look.

It compares per-pupil spending in schools that receive federal Title I funds, and serve large numbers of students from low-income families, with spending in schools that don’t qualify for Title I. It finds that 40 percent of Title I schools spend less state and local money on teachers and other personnel than comparable non-Title I schools in the same school districts.

You might think that’s OK – that federal funding makes up for what the schools aren’t getting from state and local sources. But according to the DOE, Title I is intended to “supplement, not supplant,” to help schools meet the additional challenge of educating poor children, not compensate for a lack of state and local dollars.

Why would Title I schools receive less? One possible explanation, the report says, is district teacher-assignment policies that often result in sending the least experienced – and lowest-paid – teachers to the highest-poverty and most challenging schools.

The Obama administration wants to change federal education law to require comparable state and local funding for schools that receive Title I money and those that don’t. Doing so, it says, would boost funding for low-spending, high-poverty schools by 4 percent to 15 percent.

Forum on public education in Indiana

State and local advocates for public schools will take part in a forum this Wednesday evening (Jan. 11) in Bloomington, titled “The Future of Indiana’s Public Schools: Are We On the Right Track?”

The forum, which starts at 7 p.m. in the Bloomington High School North Auditorium, will focus on school funding, state grading of schools and collective bargaining for teachers. Panelists will Indiana State Teachers Association president Teresa Meredith, Dennis Costerison of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, State Rep. Matt Pierce of Bloomington and superintendents Judy DeMuth of Monroe County Community Schools and Steve Kain of Richland-Bean Blossom Community Schools.

Sponsors include South-Central Indiana Jobs with Justice, Monroe County Education Association, Richland Bean-Blossom Education Association, Indiana Coalition for Public Education – Monroe County, and White River Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

The following morning (Jan. 12), DeMuth will deliver the first MCCSC State of the School Corporation address at 7:30 a.m. at the John Waldron Art Center in Bloomington. The speech is free, but people who want to attend are asked to register at mccsfoundation.org/events.

Education issues looming in Indiana legislative session

The 2012 session of the Indiana General Assembly is under way, and that means debates on education policy are coming soon – though they won’t be anything like the fights over vouchers, charter schools, collective bargaining and teacher evaluations that lit up the 2011 session.

Terry Spradlin, education policy director with the Center on Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, listed several topics that lawmakers may tackle in the 10-week short session:

Appointed state superintendent – This is an issue that’s been kicked around for at least two decades: Should the state superintendent of public instruction be appointed by the governor? Or should voters continue to select Indiana’s chief state school officer?

Appointment advocates say the governor and superintendent should be on the same team. Opponents say it’s better to have an elected superintendent who can act as an independent advocate for education. (A CEEP policy brief from 2008 explores the pros and cons and compares Indiana’s governance system with those of other states).

Multiple count days – Indiana currently sets funding for schools on the basis of student enrollment on a single “count day” in early fall. If students leave a school district after that day, the district doesn’t lose any money. If students enroll after count day, the district doesn’t get any money to pay for them.

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White has advocated for multiple counts. He has accused charter schools of “dumping” students Continue reading

Lift every voice – and say no to crackpot legislation

State Sen. Vaneta Becker of Evansville is usually one of the more sensible Republicans at the Indiana Statehouse. It’s surprising that she’s the author of one of the first truly awful education bills of the 2012 legislative session: a proposal to put government restrictions on the singing of the national anthem at school events.

Becker’s Senate Bill 122 would require the Indiana Department of Education to develop standards for what is “acceptable” in the performance of the anthem. State-funded schools, colleges and universities would have to enter contracts with anyone who sings the anthem at a public, school-sponsored event. Schools would be required to record the performances and maintain the recordings for two years. Singers who deviate from appropriate words and music could be fined $25.

Apparently many folks have strong feelings about the right and wrong ways to sing the English drinking song that became the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But regardless of what you think of a little melisma with your bombs bursting in air, it should go without saying that Indiana schools and the Department of Education have better things to worry about. Remember, this is the same state legislature that last year insisted on relieving schools from “burdensome” rules and regulations in locally negotiated teachers’ union contracts.

Bill-filing for the 2012 session, which starts this week and ends in March, has just begun, yet several questionable education measures have already been introduced.

SB 89 would allow school boards to require the teaching of “creation science.” See Karen Francisco’s Learning Curve blog at the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette for a good report on this measure.

SB 83 mandates the teaching of cursive writing as part of the school curriculum.

SB 84 would eliminate multi-class state basketball tournaments.

There will be serious education issues to debate in this session – more on that soon. But let’s hope lawmakers give these four bills the cold shoulder they deserve.

Meanwhile, a New Year’s gift for Sen. Becker: Colorado-based jazz singer Rene Marie’s lovely, daring and inspirational version of the anthem our nation should aspire to.