Diane Ravitch speaking at Indiana University

Mark your calendar for Tuesday, April 26, if you’re going to be in or near Bloomington, Ind. That’s the day that Diane Ravitch will give a public lecture at Indiana University, titled “Will Today’s Education Reforms Improve Our Public Schools?”

The timing could hardly be better. The Indiana General Assembly will be wrapping up its 2011 session, which is fairly certain to include approval of the laundry list of “today’s education reforms”: charter schools, vouchers, performance-based pay for teachers, and weakening teachers’ unions.

Ravitch is probably the nation’s foremost critic of those approaches. And what makes her story interesting is that she spent much of her policy career advocating conservative and Republican positions on public education. Has Ravitch changed, or have the reformers? Probably some of both.

A historian of education and a professor at New York University, Ravitch was assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration and supported the No Child Left Behind Act. But she turned against testing-based accountability and, especially, the market-based reforms advocated by what she calls the “Billionaire Boys’ Club” of the Gates, Walton and Broad foundations.

Ravitch’s essential book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, is part memoir and part policy analysis but primarily a history of the education policy debates of the past 30-odd years. It is decidedly not a polemic – which may come as a surprise to fans who follow Ravitch on Twitter, where she polemicizes with the best of them.

She advocates high standards and a rich curriculum in the book, but cautions, “If there is one thing all educators know, and that many studies have confirmed for decades, it is that there is no single answer to educational improvement. There is no silver bullet, no magic feather, no panacea that will miraculously improve student achievement.”

For a taste of Ravitch’s writing, read “The Myth of Charter Schools,” her devastating review of the film Waiting for “Superman” in the New York Review of Books.

Ravitch’s talk at IU will be at 5 p.m. on April 26 in Whittenberger Auditorium in the Indiana Memorial Union. It’s part of the Branigin Lecture series sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study.

On April 27 at 10 a.m., Ravitch and Deborah Meier, the well-known progessive educator and founder of Central Park Elementary School in New York, will have a public discussion of education issues in IU’s Willkie Auditorium. It’s billed as a live version of their popular “Bridging Differences” blog in Education Week.

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Senate Bill 1 amendments are introduced, but we’re still waiting to see them

Apparently it was wishful thinking for School Matters to believe that Indiana legislators would let us all know Monday exactly how they are reshaping Senate Bill 1, which changes teacher evaluations and tenure protections and institutes merit pay.

Amendments were introduced when the House Education Committee considered the bill on Monday. But they haven’t been posted to the legislature’s website; the version of SB 1 that appears on the site hasn’t been updated since Feb. 16.

According to Tosha Salyers, director of educator outreach with the Indiana Department of Education, the amendments may not be posted until the end of this week. But the Indianapolis Star reports the committee is expected to vote on the amended bill today.

The Star’s Scott Elliott does provide an account of Monday’s committee meeting in today’s paper, so it’s not as if we have to be totally in the dark. And Salyers of the DOE offers a summary of what some of the amendments will do. For example, they clarify that teacher salaries won’t be cut, let school corporations count experience and advanced degrees as the basis for 33 percent of a teacher’s raise, and end “last in, first out” criteria for teacher layoffs.

Some of the changes appear to be positive steps made in response to concerns about the version of the bill passed by the Senate. But it would still be helpful to see the actual language of the amendments.

Putting a dollar value on teacher effectiveness

School Matters has cited Stanford researcher Eric Hanushek several times to debunk the claim – made by Gov. Mitch Daniels, state Superintendent Tony Bennett and the Indiana office of Stand for Children – that teachers have 20 times more impact on student learning than any other factor, including poverty.

So it’s only fair to point out that Hanushek advocates the thrust of Senate Bill 1: rewarding good teachers and making bad teachers improve or get out.

In an Education Week article, Hanushek puts the teacher effect in economic terms. “By conservative estimates, the teacher in the top 15 percent of quality can, in one year, add more than $20,000 to a student’s lifetime earnings, my research found,” he writes. “ … For a class of 20 students, we see that this very good teacher is adding some $400,000 in value to the economy each year.”

Skeptics would point to studies that suggest a teacher who is in the top 15 percent of quality this year may be in the middle next year, and a teacher who’s at the bottom this year may do much better next year. Tweak the formula for measuring quality and you get very different results.

Indiana merit-pay bill: Still waiting for details

Forget vouchers and charter schools for the moment. Senate Bill 1, a merit-pay bill that establishes new procedures for evaluating, compensating, hiring and firing teachers, is arguably the most far-reaching education legislation being considered this year by the Indiana General Assembly.

But what exactly will it do? Maybe we’ll have a more complete picture Monday, when the House Education Committee considers the bill and long-promised amendments may be made public.

We know the bill is a big deal because of the effort that’s going into passing it. Stand for Children, an organization based in Oregon, was brought to Indiana to lobby for SB 1. Aiming Higher, which advocates for Gov. Mitch Daniels’ initiatives, is running TV ads supporting it. The ads urge viewers to ““Tell legislators to pass reforms to pay teachers for their excellence and results, not seniority.”

Paying for excellence and results sounds obvious. But it gets messy when you try to define excellence and implement a fair system to measure and encourage it. And recent studies of merit pay in Tennessee and New York have raised questions about whether it will produce better results. The biggest challenge may be scaling up the resources and personnel to implement this system in 2012.

The SB 1 centerpiece is a mandate for annual evaluations that place teachers in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, improvement necessary and ineffective. Teachers in the two lower categories wouldn’t get raises. If rated ineffective or improvement necessary multiple times, they could be fired.

The bill says that “objective measures of student achievement and growth” must “significantly inform the evaluation.” That means results or improvement on ISTEP-Plus tests for teachers who teach subjects that are covered by the exams, and other measures for teachers who don’t. Continue reading

Under legislation, charter teachers would be licensed – but there’s a catch

Indiana lawmakers continue to make changes in legislation to expand the number of charter schools in the state, and it’s hard to keep track of what they’re up to.

Take the matter of teacher licensing. House Bill 1002, the charter-schools bill, was amended in the Senate to require that 90 percent of full-time teachers in a charter school hold a teaching license – up from 50 percent in previous legislation. That sounds like a step in the direction of holding charters accountable.

Except that another amendment says, in effect, that you can get a license to teach in a charter school simply by having a desire to teach in a charter school.

The amendment, introduced by Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, and passed 38-12, requires the Department of Education to set up a program that lets a person get a license to teach in a charter school if he or she completed a four-year college degree with at least a B average.

Vic Smith writes about the charter legislation in his “What’s Happening at the Statehouse” column on the website of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education. “The watering down of the licensing procedure is hard to believe,” he says.

What’s driving this? One possible answer is a desire to lure to Indiana charter operators that don’t want to hire licensed teachers, like Arizona’s BASIS schools.

Dale Chu, assistant superintendent for policy with the Indiana Department of Education, said last month that the earlier proposal that 50 percent of charter-school teachers needn’t be licensed was targeted to schools like BASIS. But state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett subsequently told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the department had learned BASIS wouldn’t accept a requirement that any of its teachers be licensed.

Nick Fleege, director of new school development for BASIS Schools Inc., told School Matters that Indiana ranks sixth or seventh on the list of states that BASIS is eying for expansion. The Kruse amendment could vault it up a few notches.

BASIS plans to expand outside of Arizona when it opens a school in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Its schools enroll students in grades 5-12 and are known for a rigorous curriculum and lots of students taking and passing AP exams. (But questions have been raised about attrition in the schools). Officials say BASIS teachers often have advanced degrees in the subjects they teach.

Fleege said BASIS expects to open between two and four new schools a year and to expand to approximately one new state each year.

Charter school expansion: More reasons for skepticism

As the state legislature moves ahead with a plan to open the door to lots more charter schools in Indiana, news stories keep appearing that make you wonder why.

In Monday’s Indianapolis Star, Scott Elliott explains how Indiana charter schools can use “sponsor shopping” to avoid being held accountable. Fountain Square Academy, a grades 5-12 school sponsored by the Indianapolis mayor’s office, is slated to become the first charter school in Indiana to close for poor performance. But it may be able to stay open by switching its sponsorship to Ball State University.

Sound unlikely? Elliott recounts how, in 2006, the mayor’s office, in a “devastatingly detailed” report, rejected a proposal from the Imagine Schools charter chain. But three months later Ball State approved the first of what would be four Imagine schools in Indiana – schools that are among the worst-performing charters in the state.

Department of Education officials claim House Bill 1002, being debated by the legislature, will hold charter schools accountable. But in fact it will be up to the sponsoring organizations – and to a certain extent a new state charter-schools board – to ensure that the schools perform.

The legislation extends the ability to sponsor charter schools to at least 30 private colleges and universities. So opportunities for charter operators to shop for sponsors could be greatly enhanced.

KIPP gets a kick

Probably no charter school operation has a better reputation for helping poor and minority kids succeed than the California-based KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) school system.

But a recent study from Western Michigan University could scuff up KIPP’s image. It found that KIPP schools have high attrition rates, with up to 15 percent of students leaving each year between sixth and eighth grades. And because of private donations, KIPP schools spend about $5,000 more per year per student than traditional schools, Continue reading

Republicans’ shifting rationale for vouchers

It’s a rare treat when a public official directs journalists to a document that proves what he is saying isn’t true. So … thank you, Speaker Brian Bosma.

The topic, once again, is school vouchers. Last week, the Republican-controlled House voted largely on party lines for a bill that would provide taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for low- and middle-income parents who transfer their children from any public school to a private school.

House Democrats tried to amend the bill to limit the vouchers to students transferring out of schools that receive a D or F on Indiana’s school-rating system. Wasn’t the point of the voucher idea to help students escape “failing” schools, they asked?

But Republicans rejected the amendment. Pressed by reporters after the vote, Bosma, R-Indianapolis, insisted GOP support for vouchers had always been about “giving parents choice,” not about getting kids out of ineffective schools.

“No one in the Republican caucus has said this (was about failing schools),” Bosma said, according to the Indianapolis Star. He urged reporters to look at the House Republicans’ “Strengthening Indiana” plan. “It says nothing about failing or successful schools there,” he said, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. “It’s about empowering parents with additional choices.”

Of course, the reporters looked at the plan, which is linked from Bosma’s own website. And the only language in the plan that could be a reference to vouchers is this pledge:

“Provide Children who Attend Failing Schools Grants to Attend a School of Choice” (italics added).

The voucher bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday afternoon before the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.