Heartbreak in Atlanta

Rachel Aviv’s account of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal in a recent New Yorker is one of the most heartrending stories about education you’re likely to read.

Yes, teachers cheated. They gained access to test questions. They even changed students’ answers. At least 178 educators at 58 schools were caught up in the behavior.

But in Aviv’s telling, teachers weren’t motivated by greed, nor were they especially dishonest. In a culture where test scores were everything, they feared losing their jobs. And they worried about their students: the impact of being judged failures, and what would happen if their schools were closed.

The article centers on Damany Lewis, a math teacher at Parks Middle School with a strong sense of compassion for his students. Lewis says he initially resisted principal Christopher Waller’s suggestion that the school cheat to meet district-imposed test score targets. But he eventually joined a group of teachers who changed students’ answers on standardized tests from wrong to right.

If the close-knit school didn’t succeed, the principal said, it would be shut down and students sent to schools outside their neighborhood. Lewis says that “it was my sole obligation to never let that happen.” Continue reading

Indiana’s NCLB waiver dispute: Is someone playing politics?

The latest and arguably the most disconcerting chapter in the feud between Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and the State Board of Education concerns the state’s efforts to keep its waiver under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Recall that the U.S. Department of Education warned Indiana in May that it was placing a condition on the waiver. Ritz’s state Department of Education scrambled to file an amended waiver proposal by a July 1 deadline. Then the Center for Education and Career Innovation, a new state education agency created by Gov. Mike Pence, responded with a blistering, 28-page critique of the IDOE request.

Claire Fiddian-Green, Pence’s assistant for education, emailed the document last week not just to the state education department and state board members, but to federal education officials. Last Wednesday, the state board approved a resolution that harshly criticized Ritz’s handling of the issue.

The CECI critique says the board of education sets education policy in Indiana, and to not weigh in on the waiver request “would be a failure to discharge the statutory responsibilities of the SBOE,” especially since the proposal includes policy changes and conflicts with established rules and statutes.

I’ve read through the CECI document a couple of times, and I don’t see much in the way of alleged violations. Instead, most of the comments seem to boil down to:

  • The agency doesn’t think the state education department can be trusted to do what it says it’s going to do. There are numerous suggestions that the IDOE outreach coordinators charged with working with schools aren’t up to the job.
  • CECI wants to pin the blame on Ritz for the tension that’s erupted at state board meetings in past months. There are statements to the effect that board members tried to raise issues related to the waiver but Ritz wouldn’t let them.
  • Ritz has done things in the past – not part of the waiver proposal – that CECI doesn’t like. The document goes on about her decision in 2013 that schools could go easy on using test scores to evaluate teachers because of the computer glitches that disrupted ISTEP+ exams that year.

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Bennett wins in ethics settlement

Score one for Tony Bennett. The former Indiana superintendent of public instruction not only got off easy for violating state ethics rules, he also got out in front of the news coverage, almost making it seem he was exonerated.

Bennett agreed to pay a $5,000 fine for using state property for political purposes during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign. A report by Inspector General David Thomas said Bennett tracked political events on his state Outlook calendar and used state email for election-related communications, and his staff kept lists of donors on a state server.

The report said Bennett didn’t violate the ethics code by tweaking Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system so a charter school would get an A instead of a C. The school was founded and run by a prominent campaign donor to Bennett and other Republicans.

News of the ethics settlement broke Wednesday when someone leaked a copy to Stephanie Simon of Politico. That someone was almost certainly Bennett or a member of his camp. He’s the only character in this drama with a national profile and an interest in Politico’s influential readership.

And there’s a pretty good irony to that. Bennett’s supporters blame a leak from the staff of his successor, Glenda Ritz, for disclosing the departmental emails that led to the ethics investigation. A plausible interpretation for the political attacks being made against Ritz is that they’re payback for having derailed Bennett’s public-sector career.

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Bennett ethics case a fitting backdrop for Ritz-board spat

It’s an interesting coincidence that news broke of a settlement between Tony Bennett and the State Ethics Commission just as a another dispute between Glenda Ritz – Bennett’s successor as Indiana superintendent of public instruction – and the State Board of Education may be exploding.

The ethics commission opened an investigation of Bennett last year after Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco disclosed emails that show Bennett directed staff to do political work on state time. We won’t know details until Thursday, but Bennett’s high-powered lawyers announced the deal, so it’s likely he’ll face a wrist-slap or less.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s state board meeting could be the ugliest yet in a series marked by nearly open warfare between the elected Democratic state superintendent and the 10 board members appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. On the agenda:

  • A resolution that criticizes Ritz for her handling of Indiana’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law and seeks to elbow her aside for purposes of responding to a federal critique.
  • A proposal to change procedures so the state board and its staff, not just Ritz, will determine the time, place and agenda items for board meetings.
  • An item that says “initiate rulemaking on accountability.” This could mean almost anything, but one possibility is prescribing how schools evaluate teachers.

Ritz’s supporters, including the Indiana State Teachers Association, have been rallying the troops to attend the meeting and back the superintendent. Ritz issued a statement on the NCLB resolution, saying she’s asked Pence to pull it and warning it “will place our waiver in serious jeopardy.” Continue reading

‘This Is Not a Test’: a passionate book on schools, teaching

Jose Vilson’s blog is a must read for anyone who follows and cares about public schools in the U.S. It’s a smart take on education policy and politics with a strong focus on the crucial issues of race and poverty.

His new book, “This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education,” is even better – an open-hearted account of the joys and frustrations of teaching in an era of polarizing disputes about how to improve schools. With teachers, especially teachers of color, too often voiceless, the book fills a big gap in the conversation.

ThisIsNotATestBut readers looking for a political tract or a detailed expose of reformist errors won’t find it here. Neither is it a slog through the pros and cons of various education policies. The book is structured as a memoir, grounding Vilson’s perspective in his own experiences.

“What you’re about to read,” he writes, “is the most honest account of my life up to this point and how my sense of self has influenced my identity as an educator.”

The son of a hard-working Dominican mother and a mostly absent Haitian father, Vilson grew up in poverty in New York. He was a good student, a “math nerd” who mostly thrived in public and Catholic schools and went on to study computer science at Syracuse University. Continue reading

Glenda Ritz on NCLB waiver, accountability and literacy

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz spoke recently to the Monroe County Democratic Women’s Caucus. (Men were allowed). Some highlights:

NCLB waiver

Ritz said the U.S. Department insists Indiana must test students on new “college and career ready” standards in 2015 to keep its waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. The new standards were just adopted by the State Board of Education, so teachers will have only about seven months to teach them before students are tested next spring.

Glenda Ritz

Glenda Ritz (Indiana Department of Education photo).

The superintendent said staff at her Department of Education are talking with officials in Gov. Mike Pence’s office about offering more flexibility in test-based school and teacher evaluations until everyone can get up to speed on the new standards.

“I’m concerned about the accountability,” she said. “We want to figure out how to lessen the impact.”

Giving up the NCLB waiver isn’t a good option, she said. Without the waiver, most schools would fail to achieve the 100 percent proficiency for all students required by the law. That means they would lose control of spending decisions for 20 percent of the federal dollars they receive.

School accountability

Ritz said she’s pleased with the work of a state Accountability System Review Panel, which includes 13 educators among its 17 members and was charged with creating new criteria for Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system.

“I’m all about a fair, transparent, strong accountability system,” she said.

Ritz said she doesn’t like using letter grades to label schools, but the grades are now required by state law. She worries, however, that a diploma from a high school that gets an F from the state will be worth less to employers than a degree from an A school.

“Students in these schools are getting less credit, and that’s just not right to me,” she said. Continue reading

The anti-Common Core election campaign that wasn’t

It’s been 19 months since Glenda Ritz upset Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, but some people are still struggling to make sense of the election. One tempting explanation: Voters punished Bennett for supporting the Common Core State Standards. From there, it’s a short step to imagining a campaign that didn’t happen.

You’ll see it in “The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar,” a Fordham Institute policy piece on state education departments. “Political backlash has often frustrated state efforts to adopt, protect, and implement the CCSS,” the report says. “Tony Bennett, Indiana’s chief, was defeated in an upset election by Glenda Ritz, who ran largely on an anti-CCSS platform.”

In fact, that didn’t happen at all. I wasn’t involved in Ritz’s campaign, but I paid pretty close attention. I don’t recall her raising Common Core as an issue, much less running “largely on an anti-CCSS platform.” But I don’t entirely trust my memory, so I reached out to people who were involved in the campaign, to the organization Republicans for Glenda Ritz, even to someone who is close to Bennett. They all agreed that Common Core wasn’t a point of emphasis for Ritz or much of a factor in the election.

Trish Whitcomb, Ritz’s campaign manager, said Ritz didn’t campaign against Common Core. The topic would occasionally come up at campaign events or on social media, she said; and Ritz would say Indiana had rushed to adopt CCSS in 2010 without much input and it would be appropriate to take another look.

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