Parent letter to Indiana Select Commission on Education

Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer sent the letter below to the Indiana Select Commission on Education, established by the state legislature to review Indiana’s new A-to-F school grading system, teacher evaluation and licensing rules and other policies established by the state Department of Education. The commission, made up of members of the House and Senate education committees, had its first meeting last week. Fuentes-Rohwer is a Monroe County parent and chair of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education of Monroe County and South Central Indiana.

It’s an example of how much of the opposition to reforms pushed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and others is coming not from teachers’ unions but from ordinary citizens. See also retired Monroe County principal Mike Walsh’s op-ed column on vouchers in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (also published Sunday by the Indianapolis Star but apparently not posted online there), recent posts at the Northeast Indiana Friends of Education blog, and the national resolution against high-stakes testing spearheaded by Parents Across America.

Dear Committee Members,

I am the mother of four children in our Indiana public schools. I am also a concerned citizen worried about the state of our democracy and the special interests which seek to undermine it.

I understand that your commission is reviewing the recent educational issues at the center of Superintendent Bennett’s reforms. I am so glad that you are pausing to look things over. We as a state have been racing at a breakneck pace in our efforts to reform public education and it would be a full time job in and of itself to keep track of the measures and legislative changes that have taken place. I am thankful to you and all of the committee members for your attention to these matters.

Take for example, the IREAD-3 and its implementation. No one could argue with the state’s desire to have all children read competently by third grade (although any parent knows that children learn different things at different times, on a continuum of growth). But there is virtually no research or data which shows that retention will help in that effort. It is common sense to know that a test reflects a child’s test-taking abilities and a test score is likely a better reflection of a child’s socioeconomic status than his or her ability. I am not against all assessment. I think there is a place for evaluation. But to punish children and label them for life as failures at age 8 or 9 is irresponsible and unfair.

What does the research and data show that WORKS for having children competently reading by 3rd grade? Early intervention. Preschool. Addressing the effects of poverty for children. How can a child read competently when she is hungry or distracted by stressful home environments? Continue reading

No raking, no coals for Bennett at Indiana education commission hearing

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett seemed to employ a strategy from football Tuesday at the first meeting of the legislature’s Select Commission on Education: If your defense may be leaky, try to keep your offense on the field.

Called to answer questions from lawmakers about Indiana’s recent education reforms, Bennett and several assistants went through a lengthy, detailed presentation on Indiana’s growth model for measuring student improvement, along with the state’s new rubrics for awarding A-to-F grades to schools.

By the time they were done, Democrats on the panel took some verbal shots, but there seemed to be little time or energy for substantive discussion.

The legislature voted overwhelmingly last month to create the oversight commission, made up of all the members of the House and Senate education committees. It’s supposed to review the new grading system, teacher licensing and evaluation rules, and any other education issues the members want to investigate.

“I was disappointed no Republicans asked any tough questions,” Indianapolis Star reporter Scott Elliott says on his blog. “This commission only happened because there also are a lot of Republicans who have questions about the new grading system and are getting an earful from constituents, too. I thought we’d at least get a taste of any hesitation about how education reforms are being implemented from the GOP side.”

Maybe the Republicans got the message to be on their best behavior. Continue reading

Legislature’s education oversight commission in action this week

The first meeting of Indiana’s Select Commission on Education takes place Tuesday. On the agenda: a review of the state’s new A-to-F grading system for schools and how it was developed by the Indiana Department of Education.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett is scheduled to speak, along with several of his top aides. Also on hand for the Department of Education will be Damian Betebenner of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment. He is the primary architect of the Colorado Growth Model for gauging student improvement on standardized tests, the basis for the Indiana Growth Model.

Lawmakers created the Select Commission because of a sense that the Department of Education and the State Board of Education were adopting policies without due deference to the legislature and the laws it enacted. Members include everyone on the House and Senate education committees – a majority of whom are, like Bennett, Republicans.

Readers of this blog may assume that Bennett and the Republican legislators are on the same page. In the 2011 legislative session, for example, Bennett relied on partisan votes to push through his package of charter schools, vouchers, teacher evaluation and merit pay, and limits on collective bargaining.

But that’s not necessarily the case.

Some of the most vocal critics of the state’s new A-to-F grading rubrics have been operators of charter schools, some of whom have close political ties to Republican officials. For example, Christel DeHaan, founder of Christel House Academy in Indianapolis, has given $2.3 million to Indiana political campaigns since 1998, with the biggest gifts going to Republicans.

As School Matters reported, the new A-to-F grading system could reflect poorly on charter schools; only one of the almost 100 Indiana charters would have earned an A, had the system been in place last year. Continue reading

One-side fundraising in the campaign for Indiana schools chief

When it comes to money, the 2012 election contest for Indiana superintendent of public instruction is shaping up as Bambi vs. Godzilla.

Godzilla would be current superintendent Tony Bennett, a Republican who was sitting on a campaign war chest of $549,758 as of the end of March and had established a network of donors that includes fabulously rich Wall Streeters and members of the education politics elite.

Democrats won’t choose Bambi until the state party convention in June. Justin Oakley, a Martinsville teacher and the one announced Democratic candidate, has $8,786.71 in his campaign account. He raised $6,142 in the first three months of the year, with no contribution bigger than $250.

Bennett, meanwhile, was raking in the cash. It looks like he hit the road in early February and, after some high-buck fundraisers, came back flush. His campaign brought in $67,484 between Feb. 2-14, almost 95 percent of it outside of Indiana.

Add three more large contributions this month — $10,000 from Carmel businessman Mike Weaver, $10,000 from New York hedge fund manager Paul Singer and $15,000 from the Fort Wayne-based Northeast Indiana PAC for Better Government LLC – and Bennett’s advantage is even more lopsided.

Bennett’s biggest donor has been Dean White, a Merrillville hotel developer. White gave the campaign $50,000 in March after having given another $50,000 in 2011. Also right up there is Daniel Loeb, another New York hedge-fund manager, who gave Bennett $25,000 in February. Loeb, described in media accounts as “notoriously prickly,” reportedly paid $45 million cash in 2007 for his penthouse unit at 15 Central Park West, a New York condo price record at the time.

It’s sort of touching, isn’t it, that Loeb apparently cares enough about Indiana children that he can take a break from making money and sending rude emails to competitors Continue reading

Thoughts on the Gates Foundation grant to ALEC

I’d be inclined to cut the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation some slack over its controversial $376,635 grant to the American Legislative Exchange Conference. But it’s hard, when the foundation spokesman keeps making comments that suggest the foundation has no idea what ALEC is, or does.

ALEC is an organization of conservative state legislators and their corporate supporters, which develops “model bills” that the legislators take back home and try to pass into law. Indiana’s school voucher law is an example.

Recently ALEC has come in for heavy criticism over its support of “stand your ground” laws like the Florida statute that almost let Trayvon Martin’s killer off the hook; and voter identification laws that seem designed to suppress voting by groups that are likely to vote Democratic. Businesses such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods and Wendy’s have cut their ties with ALEC in response to protests from Color of Change and other organizations.

The Gates Foundation awarded the grant late last year, saying it would go to educating ALEC’s members on teacher effectiveness and education funding.

When the grant was criticized, foundation press secretary Chris Williams posted a defense on the Gates Foundation blog, Impatient Optimists, explaining that the foundation uses its grants to engage with all sorts of organizations, including ones whose agendas it doesn’t share.

The explanation sounded reasonable, except for this statement: “Our grant to them does not indicate support for its entire agenda. We have made similar grants to the National Conference of State Legislators, a membership organization mostly composed of progressive state lawmakers …” Continue reading

Pre-kindergarten report: Another year, another black eye for Indiana

A report this week from the National Institute for Early Education Research laments the recent decline in funding for state pre-kindergarten programs. Declining funding isn’t a problem here in Indiana, though. As Bob Dylan put it: When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.

The State of Preschool 2011: State Preschool Yearbook shows Indiana is one of 11 states where 3- and 4-year olds had no access to state-funded preschool in 2010-2011,” NIEER says in a news release.

The report says it would cost $4,130 per child for Indiana to establish a state-funded pre-K program to NIEER standards. A 2006 policy brief from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University put the cost of a statewide program at between $68.2 million and $96.1 million a year.

Currently about 15 percent of Indiana 4-year-olds and 10 percent of 3-year-olds attend free preschool through federally funded Head Start or locally funded special education programs, NIEER says.

National enrollment in state-funded pre-K has doubled over the past decade, it adds, despite recent funding cuts. Florida, which Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett often cites as a model for education reform, ranks No. 1 in providing access to free pre-K programs, according to NIEER.

Kyle Stokes at NPR State Impact Indiana has had a series of good stories on Indiana and pre-kindergarten. As he notes, there was some talk that the state might consider funding pre-K after the Daniels administration discovered the state had $320 million more in the bank than anyone realized. But lawmakers opted to complete funding for full-day kindergarten instead — although some evidence suggests pre-K is a better investment.

The legislature did pass a law instructing the state Education Roundtable to create an advisory committee on early childhood education, which could conceivably advocate for state-funded pre-K. But lawmakers would still have to be persuaded to pay for it.

Who knows? Maybe the administration will find $100 million under a mattress and we can finally start catching up with states like Kentucky and West Virginia in this area.

For evidence of the societal benefits of early childhood education, see this site on the work of James Heckman, a University of Chicago professor and Nobel laureate in economics.

Community conversation on testing

A public forum titled “IREAD-3 and High Stakes Testing: A Community Conversation” will take place this Saturday, April 14, in Bloomington at the Monroe County YMCA. It’s sponsored by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County South Central.

Phil Harris, co-author of the book The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do, will present information about testing in Indiana. Parents and teachers of children who are facing the state’s new high-stakes, third-grade reading test are also expected to speak.

Lawmaker: Board of Education disregarded legislative intent with IREAD-3

Was the Indiana State Board of Education just complying with the wishes of the Legislature when it adopted a rule last year that says third-graders must be retained if they don’t pass a reading test? Not according to the author of the bill in question.

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, told School Matters that lawmakers clearly weren’t saying kids should be held back on the basis of their performance on a single test.

“The state superintendent and board of education essentially usurped what we said we wanted done as a legislature,” he said. “They went beyond the intent of the legislation.”

Porter was chairman of the House Education Committee in 2010, and in that role he was the lead sponsor of HEA 1367 – also known as Public Law 109 — which called for for improving reading skills for students in primary grades.

The legislation, Porter said, was a compromise that reflected strong reservations about the push by Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett to require students to pass a reading test in order to be promoted to fourth grade. It said retention should be used only as a last resort.

Porter said lawmakers were aware of research showing that students who are held back are much less likely to graduate from high school, and they also questioned implementing such high-stakes accountability when Indiana trailed other states in funding early-childhood education. Continue reading

Remembering Ellen Brantlinger

“We’ve lost a warrior for public education,” a friend told me this week at the memorial service for Ellen Brantlinger. Yes, she was that and much more.

Ellen was a teacher, scholar, mother, wife, grandmother, neighbor, friend, gardener and quilter. She was also, for the past 30 years, the most passionate and eloquent advocate in Bloomington not just for public education but for fair and equitable schooling for all.

A professor in the School of Education at Indiana University, she died on March 24, just over two weeks after suffering a stroke. She was 71.

She was an advocate for public education, but not an uncritical one. An abiding theme of her research was the harm that’s done when schools sort children into winners and losers, often on the basis of family background. Her books included The Politics of Social Class in Secondary School: Views of Affluent and Impoverished Youth and Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage.

During the time that Anne Kibbler, Laura Lane and I wrote about education for the Bloomington Herald-Times, Ellen was the go-to source for frequent stories about social class and schooling – often in the context of disputes over elementary-school redistricting. She was unfailingly patient and thoughtful in answering our questions and aiding our understanding.

The topic was personal for Ellen. When her children were young, the nearby Elm Heights Elementary School was closed. Parents in her affluent university neighborhood rose up against an initial plan to transfer their children to schools that served low-income families. As a result, they were given a choice of where to send their kids. They overwhelmingly chose a school where most parents were well off, like themselves.

Ellen was surprised and disappointed that her liberal neighbors seemed eager to keep their children from going to school with poor kids, and alarmed at the result – continued concentration of poverty in certain schools. But she would recount the experience with a smile, appreciating the irony.

She retired from IU in 2004 and subsequently volunteered as an advocate for children in the family court system and in the library at Fairview Elementary School. At the time of her death, she had been organizing an issues forum for the Monroe County group of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

An H-T editorial said it about as well as it can be said: “She was a conscience for the community. Her persistence helped raise awareness that the playing field is far from level for young people who walk through the school doors, and that the school corporation needs to help level it when possible.”

Why not ban private schools?

Super-investor Warren Buffett has received a lot of ink lately for his assertion that he and other rich people should pay taxes at as high a rate as ordinary working folks. But maybe you haven’t heard about another Buffett proposal, one that is equally provocative: Ban private schools.

It’s apparently not a new idea for Buffett, but it got renewed notice in January with a Time magazine cover story. “He’s only half joking when he says he’d like to see private schools banned so that rich families would be forced to invest in the public K-12 system,” wrote Rana Foroohar.

Jason Kamras, chief of human capital with the District of Columbia Public Schools, endorsed and elaborated on the idea in a recent Q&A with Hechinger Report. What’s required, he said, is eliminating not only private schools but any form of school choice: No charter schools, magnet schools or home-schooling. Everyone’s children would attend public schools, with assignments made by lottery.

As a result, Kamras suggested, engaged and empowered parents, instead of trying to find the best school for their own child, would devote their energy to making sure their kid’s school is the best it can be. “If these changes were put into place, how fast would it take to turn things around?” he said. “Five minutes? Ten?”

Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, supported the idea in a 2010 essay, attributing it to Buffett. She later made an apparent about-face, becoming an aggressive champion of parental choice, even advocating publicly funded vouchers for private schools.

Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, says Finland doesn’t allow private education – and that’s one of the secrets of its success in combining excellence with equity.

Of course, private schools won’t be outlawed in America, which has a long history of religious education – and where the idea that successful people can do whatever they want with their money is almost a religion in itself. The Supreme Court would no doubt find a right to private schooling in the Constitution.

But the value of the “thought experiment,” as Kamras calls it, is that it lets us imagine how things might be different if all parents had a personal stake in ensuring that every school served the needs of all its students. Would so-called education reformers still argue that class size doesn’t matter when talking about their own children’s schools? Would they insist that money isn’t important? Would they applaud a single-minded focus on raising test scores in math and reading?

Or would we find a way to create schools that provide rich opportunities for all, for “other people’s children” as well as our own?

Plucker blogging at Ed Week

Indiana University professor and Center for Evaluation and Education Policy director Jonathan Plucker is guest posting this week on the Rick Hess Straight Up blog at Education Week.

Plucker kicked off Monday with a piece on the PISA and TIMSS international assessments – and how Americans typically draw the wrong lessons from the way our students’ scores compare with those of students from other countries.

According to an IU news release, look for Plucker to also write about “excellence gaps” between high-achieving white, Asian-American, African-American and Hispanic children; the No Child Left Behind Act waivers that the U.S. Department of Education is granting; and Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully’s recent book about a year at Indianapolis Manual High School.