‘Achievement gap’ discussion should have local focus

Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington is hosting community conversations this Friday and Sunday on “Closing the Achievement Gap.” The topic hits close to home.

We typically think of the achievement gap as a national phenomenon – as the gap between test scores for white and minority students. Or the gap between scores for high-performing and “failing” schools.

But thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, individual schools and school districts report test results for “disaggregated groups” of students: those from racial and ethnic categories, students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, special-needs kids and English language learners.

And those results raise questions for the Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington. It had some of the lowest test-passing rates in Indiana this year for students from low-income families and for minority students. And it had some of the biggest test-score achievement gaps in the state.

I’ve lived in Bloomington most of my adult life, and I can’t think of a good reason why this should be the case. We know that poor kids are less likely to pass standardized tests than middle-class or affluent kids. But is poverty in Bloomington different from poverty in other Indiana cites?

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It’s about time

Students in the Monroe County Community School Corp. will spend considerably more time in school starting next year. Does that mean they’ll learn more? It’s a reasonable question. And the obvious answer is: It depends on the schools and how they make use of the additional time?

Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, which helps schools implement expanded learning time initiatives, said as much in a recent interview with Education Week.

“We find that of the schools that transition from a traditional schedule to an expanded schedule, the most successful are those that carefully create a new school plan and schedule that better addresses the needs of students and teachers,” Davis said. “They step back and ask themselves ‘What do our children need to succeed and how do we create a schedule that best meets those needs?’”

In the MCCSC, the longer school day is tied to the implementation of Professional Learning Communities, which very much involves asking what students need to learn and what needs to happen for them to succeed. The PLC process can identify opportunities for effective use of remediation and enrichment, which can take time.

In the elementary schools, another factor is making room for the 90 minutes of daily reading instruction — 90 minutes of uninterrupted daily reading instruction in grades K-3 — required by a new state reading rule.

The MCCSC isn’t alone in wrestling with time. Education Week has had several recent articles on the topic, including coverage of a two-day forum in Washington, D.C., on “Reimagining the School Day.”

Isabel Owen of the Center for American Progress addressed the issue Continue reading

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

Referendum spending a challenge and opportunity for MCCSC

Some initial thoughts on the Monroe County Community School Corp. budget committee recommendations on how to use $7.5 million a year from the recent property-tax referendum.

1 — This is an opportunity for the school board to get the process right. That means having all its discussions in public, however difficult and messy they may be.

The board shouldn’t hash this out behind closed doors on the rationale that it involves collective bargaining strategy. It is doing the right thing by getting input from parents, teachers and the public. It should listen to what people have to say, then do what’s best for students and the community and clearly explain the rationale.

2 – The budget committee report says improving student performance is its No. 1 priority. While acknowledging the central role of teachers, it calls for spending money in a way that will “provide the most meaningful benefit for our students and … reflect an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our school corporation.”

“If enhancing student performance isn’t our primary goal, then I think we’ve got a problem in this school corporation,” said MCCSC Comptroller and committee member Tim Thrasher. It’s hard to argue with that.

3 – The committee gets style points its “three Rs” approach: restore positions and programs that were cut, replenish the district’s operating balance, and reform instruction.

Best of all is using reform to describe investing in programs and personnel aimed at making sure young children learn to read and older students don’t fall through the cracks – reclaiming a term that has come to refer to charter schools, vouchers, teacher merit pay and union-busting.

Open Door Law update: MCCSC sí, state legislation no

Let’s give credit to the Monroe County Community School Corp. board for doing the right thing and complying with the Indiana Open Door Law, no matter how reluctantly.

At a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 4), the school board will consider a proposal from the corporation’s principals and directors of elementary and secondary education to serve as interim MCCSC leaders while the board searches for a new superintendent. Then the board will meet again at 5 p.m. Thursday to appoint an interim superintendent.

The board has been through this movie before. The problem is, it apparently discussed and decided to reject the team leadership proposal in a closed-door executive session, on Dec. 7. It then voted Dec. 14 to appoint Tim Hyland interim superintendent.

Bloomington resident Eric Knox questioned whether the Dec. 7 executive session was appropriate in a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor. When the counselor said the Open Door Law didn’t allow for such a discussion to take place in secret, Knox threatened legal action.

The school board, in a statement explaining the do-over, claims it “followed proper procedures” and blames the necessity for this week’s meetings on “a private citizen,” i.e., Knox. But as the Bloomington Herald-Times editorialized, “It’s time to shine a light on the discussion, the disagreements, the persuasions, the consensus being built. It’s time to operate in the open.”

While we’re on the subject of the Open Door Law, here’s a really bad idea that has been proposed for the 2011 session of the state legislature: State Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, has introduced legislation that would water down the law to let school boards discuss proposals for school consolidation in executive sessions.

There’s probably no topic that has a more disruptive impact on students and parents – and hence, is more controversial – than school consolidation. That’s all the more reason that consolidation should be discussed in public, not behind closed doors.

The legislation has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Local Government. Let’s hope Sen. Connie Lawson, D-Danville, the smart and sensible senator who chairs the committee, will decide there are better issues to spend time on this session.

More Open Door Law problems for MCCSC board

Did the Monroe County Community School Corp. board violate with the Indiana Open Door Law by discussing a leadership team proposal in a Dec. 7 executive session?

Both the state public access counselor and the school board’s own attorney, writing in response to a complaint from Support Our Schools organizer Eric Knox, seem to have said that such a discussion is not allowed. Yet the board apparently not only discussed the proposal but decided to reject it and to come up with an alternative in the closed-door meeting.

And that’s why the board will be having yet another executive session on Tuesday, its sixth in the past month – this one to discuss strategy with respect to a threatened lawsuit over violation of the Open Door Law.

To recap, the proposal made in November by the MCCSC’s instructional leadership team called for having the 25-member team, made up of school principals and the directors of elementary and secondary education, serve as interim leader while the board seeks a replacement for Superintendent J.T. Coopman, who is retiring.

After getting feedback from the school board, the instructional leadership team revised its proposal, suggesting that a three-person executive serve as interim leader with support from the other 22 team members.

The school board never discussed the revised proposal in public. But board president Jeannine Butler told the team on Dec. 14 that the board declined the offer. Instead, it appointed retired school administrator Tim Hyland to serve as MCCSC interim superintendent, a position he previously held in 2008-09. Butler said the board would establish a committee of four principals to advise him.

Questioned about the decision, Butler said she believed the board had decided to reject the leadership team proposal during the executive session on Dec. 7. Continue reading

Why making adequate yearly progress can be a big deal

The Bloomington Herald-Times asked this question in a recent editorial: “With a vast majority of the state’s school corporations able to make AYP year after year — 94 percent made it this year — how is it that Monroe County’s public school systems aren’t?”

One part of the answer is that it’s a lot harder for large, diverse school corporations to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) under the No Child Left Behind Act than for small, homogenous school districts. Why? Because bigger and more diverse corporations have more opportunities to fail.

And compared to most Indiana school districts, the Monroe County Community School Corp. is big and diverse. It ranks No. 21 in enrollment among nearly 300 public school districts in the state.

Monroe County’s other public school district, Richland-Bean Blossom, did in fact make AYP year after year, for five years in a row, before missing it this year. The MCCSC made AYP this year after failing to do so for two previous years.

School corporations, in order to make AYP, must do two things: 1) meet required standards on state standardized tests for all students, or “overall AYP”; and 2) meet testing standards in at least one grade span – elementary, middle or high school – for each subgroup of students, such as special-needs students, minorities and those from low-income families.

But here’s the catch. Continue reading