School referendum count-down – barely a month to go

The days are ticking down to the Nov. 2 election and the school-funding referendum for the Monroe County Community School Corp. – 33 is the count-down number on the “Vote Yes on #2” website.

But it remains hard to get a read on how the community is leaning on the referendum, and whether supporters or opponents of the 14-cent property tax increase will be more likely to vote.

At a public forum last week at Bloomington High School South, at least some people were champing at the bit to support the campaign; and they sounded a little frustrated at the lack of opportunity.

Questions from the audience of about 50 people included: When can we get yard signs? Can we make T-shirts with slogans? Is there a pro-referendum Facebook group? Can we get kids together to make pro-education posters? How do we contribute to the PAC that’s funding the effort? (You can donate online).

On the other hand, there were questions that sounded like ready-make excuses to vote no: Why didn’t the school board lay off administrators to cut spending? Why didn’t the teachers’ union agree to bigger wage sacrifices? Why were administrator contracts extended? Continue reading

Senate Democrats call for school funding flexibility

Indiana Senate Democrats came out this week with a package of proposals that they say will provide more flexibility and local decision-making for funding public schools.

The initiative was a response to Republic Gov. Mitch Daniels’ decision in December to cut state school funding by nearly $300 million, said Sen. Vi Simpson of Ellettsville, the Democratic leader.

“We want to provide flexibility for teachers, administrators and parents to do what’s needed to protect instruction and programs, and to manage class sizes,” Simpson said. “That control should stay with the local officials, who know the corporation’s needs best.”

The proposals include:

— Let schools transfer up to 50 percent of their capital project fund money to their general funds, which pay salaries and benefits for teachers and other employees.

— Allow individuals to donate all or part of their state income tax refunds to a fund that benefits schools, in the same way they can now support the Indiana Nongame Wildlife Fund.

— Expand a 50 percent state tax credit to include contributions to public school foundations, such as Bloomington’s Foundation for Monroe County Community Schools. Continue reading

‘Pay to play,’ part 2

The term “pay to play,” when used in education circles, usually refers to requiring students or their parents to pay fees for the privilege of playing sports or taking part in extracurricular activities.

But there’s another kind of pay to play, and it’s alive and well in Indiana politics, including education politics. It’s the practice of elected officials taking campaign donations from companies that do business with the government agencies that the officials oversee.

Karen Francisco of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette points to one example in her Learning Curve blog. She notes that Apangea Learning, a privately owned company based in Pittsburgh, signed a contract last week to provide online tutoring for Indiana students. And that the company had made two $1,000 contributions to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s election campaigns.

Here’s another: K-12 Inc., a Herndon, Va., company that is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, gave Bennett’s campaign $2,000 in October 2008. The next year, the Department of Education announced the launch of Indiana’s first online charter school: Hoosier Academies, run by K-12 Inc.

And another: Connections Academy, based in Baltimore, gave $2,000 to Bennett’s campaign in 2009. Continue reading

Bloomington teacher on state ‘reform cabinet’

Tajharjha Gibson, an English teacher at Bloomington High School North, is one of 15 educators named to the Indiana Education Reform Cabinet by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

A Department of Education news release says the cabinet was created to ask questions and provide feedback on state initiatives, such as Indiana’s Growth Model for making use of test scores, revised rules for teacher preparation and licensing, teacher and principal evaluations, and proposed legislation.

“The Indiana Education Reform Cabinet members are a vital component in building a system that better serves teachers, school leaders and students in Indiana,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said in the release.

Department of Education spokeswoman Lauren Auld said teachers were recommended for membership by the department’s senior staff. They come from all regions of the state, and they represent a mix of elementary and secondary schools and urban and rural districts.

Here’s hoping the cabinet will ask tough questions and provide a clear perspective on whether state reforms are likely to be effective in the classroom.

Gibson was one of 79 Monroe County Community School Corp. educators given reduction-in-force notices in the spring when the school board voted to cut spending and lay off teachers with the least seniority. She was called back to work over the summer.

Indiana Education Reform Cabinet members commit to a two-year term, with five meetings per year. The group met for the first time Saturday (Sept. 18) and will meet again Nov. 10. Because the cabinet wasn’t established by law and isn’t a governing body, it doesn’t fall under the Indiana Open Door Law, Auld said, and its meetings won’t be open to the public.

An overly convenient solution

People who care about the nation’s schools – and the nation’s children – should probably take heart in the buzz that’s being generated by the new documentary Waiting for Superman. Anything that gets people excited about the importance of schools should have potential for good.

But accounts from people who have seen the film – which premiered this week in Washington, D.C., after months of feverish build-up — suggest that director Davis Guggenheim may be asking the right questions but leaping to the wrong answers.

Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about Al Gore and climate change, tells a dramatic story of five young students who are entered in lotteries for coveted slots in charter schools – portrayed as a make-or-break gamble for their educational future. Besides the kids and their parents, its heroes include Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of District of Columbia Schools, and Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

And Waiting for Superman isn’t just a movie. It’s a crusade, with audiences pledging to see the film and get involved, corporations pouring money into promotional activities, and Washington politicians, Hollywood types and pop music stars getting into the act. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman went all wide-eyed over the film. Multibillionaire Bill Gates and musician John Legend are among the many celebrities joining Guggenheim to promote it.

The title comes from Geoffrey Canada, who makes the point that we can’t wait for Superman to rescue us from our problems; we have to rescue ourselves. But it sounds a lot like Guggenheim, the director, is making comic-book heroes of Canada, Rhee and some cherry-picked charter schools. Continue reading

‘Value-added’ evaluation of teachers: A flawed model?

A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute raises questions about the current push to closely tie decisions about teacher evaluation, discipline and pay to the gains that students make in standardized test scores – and, secondarily, about the value of making teacher effectiveness scores public.

The report, titled Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers, takes aim at “value-added” models, which rely on measures of test-score improvement from year to year and make allowances for the students’ socio-economic status and other factors.

The Indiana Department of Education’s “growth model” for measuring student and teacher performance appears to be sort of a poor cousin to a value-added model. It compares a student’s one-year growth in test scores with that of other students who started at the same place; but it doesn’t adjust for non-classroom factors that might influence how well kids perform.

The authors of the EPI report are a crew of heavy hitters in the world of education policy and research. They include Linda Darling-Hammond, a well-known education researcher at Stanford; Diane Ravitch, who was an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush Administration; and the institute’s Richard Rothstein, a former national education columnist with the New York Times and the author of several books on student achievement.

Citing studies by the National Research Council, Educational Testing Service and others, they argue that value-added modeling produces results that are too unstable and inconsistent for high-stakes decisions about whether teachers will be fired or promoted. Teachers who are effective in one year, according to value-added growth data, may appear to be ineffective the next year, and vice versa. Continue reading

New state tests coming; will they change the game?

The big news last week on the national education front concerned the U.S. Department of Education’s award of $330 million for the development of the “next generation of tests,” computer-based assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards.

Two consortia get the money: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), made up of 25 states and the District of Columbia, which gets $170 million; and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, a coalition of 31 states, awarded $160 million.

Indiana is one of 11 states leading the PARCC effort to develop the new tests, which are supposed to be on line by 2014.

“I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in announcing the funding from the government’s Race to the Top program. “For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents and teachers will know if students are on track for colleges and careers.”

News coverage generally reflected Duncan’s optimism. Stories in the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor described the initiative as a major step beyond the high-stakes “bubble” tests that came to define the No Child Left Behind era. Continue reading