Politics prevail as Indiana House passes school voucher bill

The Indiana House passed the controversial school voucher bill on Wednesday, just two days after a report from Wisconsin threw cold water on the claim that vouchers will improve educational opportunities for students.

The House voted 56-42, mostly along party lines, for the measure, House Bill 1003. Three Republicans — Tom Saunders, Phil Hinkle and Wendy McNamara – joined 39 Democrats in voting no. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it may face a more skeptical and less partisan reception.

The Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice hailed the House vote, saying the bill, if passed into law, would create “the nation’s broadest voucher program, allowing low- and middle-income families to use taxpayer funds to send their children to the private school of their choice.”

While most voucher programs in the U.S. are targeted to urban areas, failing schools and poor children, the Indiana bill would give state money to any low- and middle-income parents who transfer their children to private schools, including religious schools. Families would be eligible if their income is up to 150 percent of the cutoff for reduced-price school lunches – about $62,000 for a family of four.

The bill limits the number of vouchers to 7,500 in 2011-12 and 15,000 in 2012-13. It requires private schools that accept vouchers to take part in state accountability and teacher-evaluation programs.

House Democrats tried to moderate the bill with dozens of amendments, but Republicans shot them down, one after another. This was on Tuesday, the same day the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Continue reading

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The myth about teacher effectiveness that won’t go away

Like a bad nickel, the claim that a teacher’s influence on learning is 20 times greater than any other variable, including poverty, keeps turning up in the debate over Indiana education policy.

The latest to pass off the proposition is the Oregon-based organization Stand for Children. Stand landed in Indiana last month to lobby for legislation mandating a new system of teacher evaluation and performance-based pay, which it has labeled “Great Teachers, Great Schools.”

The “20 times greater” claim is at the top of a “comprehensive list” of research findings on which Stand’s positions are supposedly based. Gov. Mitch Daniels made the same claim in his State of the State address. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has made it too.

As we reported in January, the claim comes from a policy speech that attributed it to a preliminary draft of a paper written in 1998 by Texas researcher John Kain. But Kain’s paper didn’t actually make the “20 times greater” claim. And Eric Hanushek, Kain’s collaborator and probably the best-known academic advocate for measuring the effectiveness of teachers, told School Matters it’s not a legitimate claim.

As for other studies on Stand for Children’s list, some of the interpretations are at least questionable.

— Stand cites the McKinsey research group’s “Closing the Talent Gap” report from last year as the basis for its contention that failing to fire bad teachers makes the profession less attractive to talented prospects. School Matters wrote about the report in December. If that specific claim is there, it’s well hidden.

— It makes the often-repeated statement that “four consecutive years with an effective teacher can erase the black-white testing gap.” But as Matthew Di Carlo explains on Shanker Blog, that claim is “little more than a stylistic riff on empirical research findings, and a rough one at that. Continue reading

Indiana charter schools rally to feature Rhee, Daniels

Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor and arguably the most polarizing figure in American education, will share a podium with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and House Speaker Brian Bosma this month at a rally in support of charter schools.

The rally, at 11:30 a.m. on March 30 at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, is being organized by the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association. It’s aimed at showing support for House Bill 1002, legislation that could dramatically increase the number of charter schools in Indiana.

The House approved the bill on a mostly party-line vote – Republicans for, Democrats against. It’s now being considered by the Senate, along with several other education-related measures pushed by Daniels and Superintendent of Public Education Tony Bennett.

It expands sponsorship of charter schools to private, nonprofit colleges and universities and a state charter-schools board; lifts a cap on the number of charter schools sponsored by the mayor of Indianapolis; and allows up to 25 percent of full-time teachers in a charter school to be unlicensed (down from 50 percent in a previous measure). It also establishes procedures for charter schools to lease unused public-school facilities for $1 a year.

Rhee became the darling of education reform advocates with her take-no-prisoners approach to battling the American Federation of Teachers while she was D.C. schools chancellor. It won her a Time magazine cover and a starring role in the documentary film Waiting for “Superman.” She quit the job when her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost his job in the Democratic primary last fall.

Rhee then founded a group called StudentsFirst, which intends to spend an astounding $200 million a year on education-related political advocacy. A Democrat, she has been consorting recently with Republican governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Florida’s Rick Scott, Ohio’s John Kasich – and now Indiana’s Daniels.

Andrew Rice has an excellent story about Rhee and the national education debate in the current issue of New York magazine. Noting that public opinion may have swung back in favor of teachers and unions in response to over-reaching by Wisconsin Gov. Rick Walker and others, Rice concludes that “Rhee could soon learn an important lesson of politics: Your allies can damage you as much as your enemies.”

Bennett to testify on education measures before Senate committee

Here’s a chance to catch Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett talking about his education agenda – live on the Internet.

Bennett is scheduled to testify at 4 p.m. Tuesday (March 22) before the Indiana Senate Appropriations Committee. Plans call for the committee hearing to be webcast at www.in.gov/legislative. (Click on the “Watch Indiana General Assembly Live” link at the upper-right corner).

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, has convened a series of hearings on the two-year state budget and related legislation. The notice for Tuesday says Bennett will speak about the school funding formula, remediation and testing, turnaround schools, charter schools, vouchers and collective bargaining – in other words, most of the education platform advocated by Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in the one hour that Bennett is scheduled to be on the stand. Let’s hope Kenley allows plenty of questions from committee members.

The procedure here is sort of unusual. Normally the Indiana House approves a budget bill, and then it goes to the Senate, which passes a different version. And then it goes to a House-Senate conference committee, which works out a compromise.

But House Democrats walked out before the GOP-drafted House budget bill came down for a vote. The state constitution says that bills “raising revenue” must originate in the House. So Senate leaders apparently plan to take a House-approved bill and amend it to include the state budget.

Some lawmakers have suggested the Daniels-Bennett education proposals could end up in the budget bill – if, that is, the governor and superintendent can persuade Kenley that they should pass.

Reasons for caution on performance-based evaluation of teachers

If only we could give assigned reading to state legislators. At the very least, Indiana lawmakers should read these brief articles as they consider Senate Bill 1, which mandates performance-based pay for educators and makes it easier to fire teachers who get bad evaluations.

Start with this column by Rutgers education professor Bruce Baker. He explains the drawbacks of evaluating teachers on the basis of student test-score improvements, and why “getting a good rating is a statistical crap shoot” with value-added formulas for measuring teacher effectiveness.

“We may be able to estimate a statistical model that suggests that teacher effects vary widely across the education system – that teachers matter,” Baker writes. “But we would be hard-pressed to use that model to identify with any degree of certainty which individual teachers are good teachers and which are bad.”

Michael Winerip, in his “On Education” series in the New York Times, shows what happens when the dice come up snake-eyes. He writes about Stacey Isaacson, by all accounts a dedicated, hard-working English and social-studies teacher at a selective public middle school in Manhattan. Almost all her students scored proficient on state tests; her supervisors and students say she’s a wonderful teacher.

But according to the complex formula used by the New York Department of Education to measure student learning gains, Isaacson is one of the city’s worst teachers. Continue reading

Lesson from PISA: raise the status of teachers

The U.S. needs to recruit and retain better teachers and raise the status of the teaching profession if it’s going to catch up with educational leaders like Finland, Canada and South Korea, according to a new report that draws on the much-talked-about PISA comparisons of educational outcomes.

The report, “Lessons from PISA: What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” comes from the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation. Authors are Andreas Schleicher, the director of PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment), and Steven L. Paine, a McGraw-Hill vice president and former West Virginia state school superintendent.

“The most important lesson the U.S. can take from the countries that have been most successful in achieving high PISA scores for their students is to begin investing in the preparation and development of high-quality teachers, while at the same time taking steps to elevate the status of the entire profession to a higher level of respect and regard,” the report says.

But how exactly do we do that? That’s where the debate gets difficult.

PISA, a project of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, assesses the test performance of 15-year-olds in dozens of countries every three years. When the latest PISA results came out in December 2010, media reports focused on the rankings – in particular, the fact that the U.S. was in the middle of the pack in reading and science and below average in math.

But PISA produces a ton of data and extensive reports on how nations compare in a variety of educational outcomes and what can be learned from the top-performing countries. Continue reading

Unlicensed teachers in charter schools? On what ‘BASIS’?

The Indiana Department of Education has generally done a pretty good job of responding to rumors and concerns about legislation it supports. But one recent communication from the department – about a provision to let up to half the teachers in charter schools be unlicensed – raises more questions than it answers.

Dale Chu, the DOE’s assistant superintendent for policy, attempted to explain it last week in a message to educators and others. Oddly, the licensing language is in Senate Bill 1, the teacher performance-pay bill, not in House Bill 1002, the charter-schools expansion bill.

“Some nationally-recognized, high-performing charter sponsors currently operating in other states are interested in sponsoring schools in Indiana,” Chu writes, “but they will not come to our state unless we offer them this flexibility (BASIS is one example, and they have achieved great results …).”

So we’re changing the rules for everyone because a charter sponsor might come to Indiana and it doesn’t like the rules?

It’s true that BASIS, which runs three charter schools in Arizona and plans to open three more, has achieved “great results.” But its story isn’t one of those inspirational tales about turning poor and minority children into high achievers, a la KIPP and Harlem Children’s Zone charters.

The original BASIS school, in Tucson, has been named one of “America’s Best High Schools” by both Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report – designations that rely on test scores and, especially, results from Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams.

Its formula is a super-rigorous curriculum and a demanding workload that drives away all but the most motivated students and parents.

“Most of its students are ambitious children of engineers, attorneys and doctors, Continue reading