Selective outrage about testing

Indiana schools have finally received their preliminary 2015 ISTEP test results, and school officials aren’t happy. Superintendents, especially, are pushing back hard.

In media stories and statements to the public, they have called aspects of this year’s tests “not fair,” “a complete fiasco” and “almost unfathomable.” The setting of grades, they said, was arbitrary and invalid.

On the one hand, good for them. On the other, where were they when test scores and a similarly arbitrary process were being used to label other people’s schools as failing?

Were they pushing back against a state accountability system that was stacked against high-poverty schools? Or were administrators and school board members content with a system that delivered high grades and let them boast of running an A school corporation.

Yes, this year’s ISTEP exams were more difficult and stressful than in the past, with a new set of state standards and new tests to measure what students were learning. But the real issue seems to be the passing scores that the State Board of Education approved last month.

Under the new cut scores, the number of students who pass the tests is expected to drop by 20-25 percentage points. Lower tests scores will result in lower school grades. Continue reading

Grace College should say no to Seven Oaks charter school

It took a few years, but charter school organizers have finally figured out that the easiest way to open their school may be to ask one of the state’s private colleges to act as authorizer. That’s the case in Monroe County, where the folks behind the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School – rejected twice by the Indiana Charter School Board – have turned to Grace College & Seminary, a small Christian college 180 miles to the north.

The state legislature, seeking to induce more charter schools to open, amended the law in 2011 to allow 30 private colleges and universities to authorize charter schools and to create the state charter school board. So far, only three private colleges, Grace, Trine University and Calumet College, have joined the game.

This creates significant issues of accountability and transparency that the legislature should consider. Other Indiana charter school authorizers – local school boards, the Indianapolis mayor’s office, Ball State University and the state charter school board – are at least indirectly accountable to elected public officials. And under the state public meetings law, they make their decisions about authorizing schools in public.

That’s not the case with private colleges. In the case of Seven Oaks, the Grace College board of directors will decide whether to approve a charter. Good luck finding out even who the board members are, let alone why they should be trusted to make a decision about spending public dollars to provide an effective education for the children of Monroe County.

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Tyrone Howard to teachers: Have empathy, demand excellence

Tyrone C. Howard draws a line between sympathy and empathy for poor children and students of color.

Sympathy – feeling sorry for students – can mean teachers have lower expectations, settle for less and choose not to challenge students, he said. It can lead to a “pedagogy of poverty” that focuses on basic skills and denies children the rich opportunities offered to more advantaged peers.

Empathy, on the other hand, means listening to students, learning from them and understanding how their culture and life circumstances influence how they think and talk and behave in school.

Tyrone Howard (UCLA photo)

Tyrone Howard (UCLA photo)

“I’m asking you to be empathetic and to expect and demand excellence,” he told an audience of Monroe County Community School Corp. teachers this week.

Howard, a professor of education and director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA, spoke with teachers Tuesday during a professional development session on cultural competence. A renowned scholar of race and educational equity, he is the author of “Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools” and “Black Male(d): Peril and Promise in the Education of African American Males.”

Howard suggested it can be easy to fall into the sympathy trap. Take the nation’s 56 million public school students and compress them into one classroom of 30 students: 12 will live in poverty, and three in extreme poverty. Ten speak a primary language other than English. And one is homeless.

Seven will experience physical, emotional of sexual abuse during childhood. And perhaps that many more will experience abuse that goes unreported and undetected. No wonder some students are angry, some are sullen, and some act out in ways that adults consider inappropriate or disruptive.

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Pence’s 180-degree turn

Today is the day when dramatically lower ISTEP+ test scores could become a reality. Maybe that helps explain Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s surprising about-face on whether to pause accountability for schools and teachers based on spring 2015 test results.

As Shaina Cavazos with Chalkbeat Indiana documents, Pence had refused to consider a pause for over a year, even though Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz suggested the idea several times. In February, the Pence-appointed State Board of Education wouldn’t even discuss the topic.

U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan invited states to request a break from test-based school grades and teacher ratings when they shifted to new standards with tougher assessments. Many states jumped at the idea, but Pence and Indiana Republican legislative leaders insisted it wasn’t on the table. Continue reading

New authorizer, same concerns about charter school plan

Rejected twice, organizers of the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School in Ellettsville are back again with their application to open an Indiana charter school. This proposal doesn’t look much different. What’s new is the authorizer: Seven Oaks is asking for a charter from Grace College & Theological Seminary, a small Christian college in Winona Lake, Ind.

A state-mandated public hearing on the proposal will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4, at Holiday Inn Express on the west side of Bloomington.

Seven Oaks applied twice previously to the Indiana Charter School Board. The board voted unanimously in the fall of 2014 to reject its request. This spring, the school pulled its application after the charter school board staff again recommended denial.

The school’s organizers then went authorizer-shopping, thanks to a 2011 state law that expanded the ability to sponsor charter schools to 30 Indiana private colleges and universities. Grace College authorizes two charter schools: Smith Academy for Excellence in Fort Wayne School, which earned Fs from the state in 2013 and 2014; and Dugger Union Community School, which opened this fall.

There’s no real oversight of private colleges that authorize charter schools. And the law provides an incentive for colleges to say yes – they get to keep 3 percent of the schools’ state funding.

But Grace College says it’s committed to authorizing high-quality charter schools. So given that the new application appears similar to the previous ones, it will want to consider concerns raised by the charter school board’s spring 2015 Seven Oaks staff recommendation. Continue reading

‘The Prize’ is a compelling book that won’t settle debates

Dale Russakoff set out to write the story of just what happened when politicians bolstered with $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg set out to transform a city’s troubled schools.

“My goal was to write a book that was indisputably true,” she said this week during a Skype chat with a dozen students, faculty and staff at Indiana University.

'The Prize,' book coverShe even hoped her book, “The Prize,” might transcend the nation’s polarized debate over schools. That hasn’t happened. Supporters and critics of the Newark initiative take issue with what she wrote. What’s hard to deny is that it is a compelling read with important lessons for urban education.

“The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools” tells what happened after Zuckerberg, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie launched an ambitious plan to fundamentally remake the public schools in Newark.

The plan, announced in 2010 on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” was to transform a struggling district by tying Zuckerberg’s cash to the precepts of the education reform movement: merit pay to reward talented teachers and school leaders, data-driven instruction and no-excuses accountability.

But Newark residents pushed back hard against efforts to close neighborhood schools and open new charter schools. Critics said reform was being done to them, not with them, and they objected to a process that seemed to be driven by outsiders and $1,000-per-day consultants.

By the time Russakoff’s reporting wrapped up, Booker had moved on to the U.S. Senate, Christie was busy running for president and Zuckerberg was talking about mistakes made and lessons learned. Cami Anderson, the sharp-elbowed superintendent brought in to engineer the Newark Public Schools turnaround, stepped down in June. Ras Baraka, a high school principal and a leading critic of the reformers (and the son of poet Amiri Baraka), was elected mayor in 2014.

Russakoff, who covered New Jersey politics for the Washington Post, told the IU listeners that the effort could have capitalized on community support for improving schools, but didn’t.

“There was a lot of consensus on the ground that the schools were in trouble and needed to change,” she said.

But the initiative got off on the wrong foot by launching on “Oprah” before anyone in Newark knew about it. The community split apart, with much of the city clearly hoping the outsiders would fail.

Zuckerberg staked his bet on a conviction that teachers should earn more money with bonuses tied to improving test scores.

“But there’s no data that shows that because teachers get bonuses for success in the classroom, student achievement goes up,” Russakoff said. “I didn’t find anyone (among Newark teachers) who said they had done anything different to get the bonuses.”

Russakoff had extraordinary access to Booker, Christie, Zuckerberg and Anderson, and “The Prize” is packed with candid behind-the-scenes accounts of the politics of reform. The story line shifts between the power players and Newark teachers and students who struggle against long odds.

“The Prize” focuses on two schools, a KIPP charter school and a Newark Public Schools “renewal” school called BRICK Avon. That’s its great strength, a clear demonstration that what happens in schools matters to real children. It’s also the source of what critics like New Jersey teacher Mark Weber see as its flaw: A willingness to accept claims about charter school success without hard evidence.

Russakoff told Tom Moran of the Newark Star-Ledger that the main lesson of “The Prize” is that school improvement efforts won’t succeed if they don’t address the challenges children face out of school.

“The reform movement is focused on changing the management of schools, instilling more accountability,” she said. “Those things are necessary. But they didn’t attend to the effects of poverty on children, and that’s a huge issue in Newark’s schools and neighborhoods.”

Use cut-score delay to explain test changes

Here’s a suggestion for Indiana education officials now that the State Board of Education has delayed setting ISTEP+ cut scores that will dramatically lower grades for many schools.

Let people know what you’re doing. Explain why a more rigorous grading system is in the best interest of Hoosier children. Spread the word now so parents, teachers and others won’t be caught off guard when test scores and school grades are announced.

Because we’re talking about some significant changes. Barely half of Indiana’s seventh- and eighth-graders will pass the ISTEP+ math exam. Over 50 percent of schools may get Ds or Fs. About 100,000 more students will fall short of passing the tests.

The board was scheduled to approve the cut scores Wednesday, but it postponed making a decision. The reason: Indiana Department of Education staff allegedly didn’t forward an Oct. 2 report to board members, staff and experts until Tuesday night. Continue reading