NEA may change position on using test scores for evaluations and accountability

Leaders of the National Education Association have proposed a policy statement that positions the union in favor of using stepped-up evaluations – and even measures that include student test scores – to improve the effectiveness of the teaching profession.

Squint really hard and you can almost see similarities between the proposal and Senate Bill 1, the teacher evaluation and merit-pay measure that the Indiana legislature approved last month.

The statement “outlines a system to help teachers improve instruction and meet students’ needs,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel in a news release. “It offers sweeping changes to build a true profession of teaching that is focused on high expectations.”

It calls for “regular, comprehensive, meaningful and fair evaluations” of teachers that will be conducted by trained evaluators and based on multiple factors. And in language that can only be called cautious, it says such factors may include “valid, reliable, high quality standardized tests that provide meaningful information regarding student learning and growth.”

The statement says evaluations must be fair and comprehensive. And it says they must be used to provide feedback to help teachers improve. If a teacher “fails to meet performance standards,” an improvement plan should be developed for the teacher. And if the teacher doesn’t improve, he or she “may be counseled to leave the profession or be subject to fair, transparent and efficient dismissal process that provides due process.”

Indiana’s SB 1, a key part of the Daniels-Bennett education agenda, calls for annual teacher evaluations based on several factors. It does require implementing improvement plans for teachers who get bad evaluations. It also says teachers can be dismissed for multiple evaluations that result in a verdict of “needs improvement” or “ineffective.”

While the NEA statement says standardized test scores may be used in teacher evaluations, SB 1 says they must be. Continue reading

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

Follow the money – to Harrisburg, Pa.

The Philadelphia Inquirer had a revealing article last week about the millions of dollars that activists are spending to persuade Pennsylvania lawmakers to adopt a school-voucher program similar to the one just approved in Indiana.

“From Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to Montgomery County to West Philadelphia, the money is paying for lobbyists, renting rally buses, printing pamphlets, even buying bright red backpacks for pupils,” report John P. Martin and Amy Worden. “It has flowed — sometimes in five- and six-figure checks — to legislators’ campaign coffers. And it has funded an unusual wave of attack ads, mailers, and websites against lawmakers who are undecided or opposed to vouchers.”

The Pennsylvania story features the same plot line and characters as the one that played out in Indiana. At its center is the American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher organization whose political action committee shares an address with Terre Haute, Ind., Republican super-lawyer James Bopp.

School Matters reported in February on AFC and its role in bankrolling the voucher cause through big contributions to Republican legislative candidates. The organization’s board of directors includes a Walton family member, a former head of the Michigan Republican Party and a couple of directors of Democrats for Education Reform.

FreedomWorks, the Tea Party group headed by former House Republican Leader Dick Army, also is involved in the Pennsylvania voucher effort. Another player is Pennsylvania Students First, not to be confused with StudentsFirst, the organization started by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee (although Rhee now also backs vouchers).

It sounds like Senate Bill 1, the Pennsylvania voucher bill, is very similar to House Bill 1003, the voucher bill that the Indiana legislature passed in near-party-line votes. As in Indiana, lawmakers in Pennsylvania sold vouchers as a way to help poor kids escape failing schools but introduced a bill that gives vouchers to middle-class parents.

For a detailed look at the pro-voucher money machine – how the American Federation for Children PAC collects tons of money from a handful of rich ideologues and funnels it to activist groups in several states – see Rachel Tabachnick’s article on the website Talk to Action. Who knew that AFC head Betsy DeVos is the sister of Erik Prince, the founder-owner of the private military company formerly known as Blackwater?

Checking up on Mitch Daniels at AEI

Gov. Mitch Daniels got several things right in his closely watched May 4 speech on education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

He acknowledged that, for all the hoopla over Indiana’s expansive new private-school voucher program, the vast majority of students will continue to attend public schools. And he made the key point that the success or failure of Indiana’s education reforms will depend on how they are implemented.

Daniels kept down the bombast, generally refrained from demonizing teachers’ unions, and even had a kind word for President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, praising their focus on teacher effectiveness and charter schools.

You can watch video of the speech and a follow-up interview at the AEI website. You’ll see that, while some in the audience were looking for Daniels to signal his intention to run for president, he kept it low-key – more like a guest lecture for a college class than a tryout for the national political stage.

But some of what he said calls for scrutiny:

Teacher effectiveness — Daniels said teacher quality is “the dominant variable” in determining student success. “Some have quantified it as 20 times … the importance of whatever’s in second place,” he said. Previously, he has said teacher quality is 20 times as important as any other factor, including poverty, a bogus claim. If he had said teacher quality was the most important school-based factor, we wouldn’t argue.

Indiana test scores – Decrying evaluations that rate 99 percent of Indiana teachers effective, Continue reading

GOP school funding formula: Them that’s got shall get

State officials boasted last month that Indiana was doing what few states have managed to do in these tough times: increasing funding for public schools.

But the claim probably rings hollow for students and parents in Gary Public Schools, where funding has been cut by 30 percent over two years. Or in rural districts such as White River Valley in southwestern Indiana’s Greene County, where the two-year funding cut is 16 percent.

Gov. Mitch Daniels and his fellow Republicans who control the House and Senate decided in April that Indiana could afford to add $150 million for schools to the two-year state budget. About half was added to the school funding formula and the rest was set aside for full-day kindergarten and teacher merit pay.

But remember that Daniels cut school funding by $327 million in December 2009. So Indiana public schools, on the whole, remain well behind where they were 2½ years ago. And that doesn’t count the money that will bleed away to new charter schools and voucher-funded private schools.

Furthermore, as Scott Elliott reported in Monday’s Indianapolis Star, the legislature also rewrote the school funding formula to favor fast-growing and wealthy suburban districts, which tend to be represented by Republicans, and to hurt districts with shrinking enrollment – especially high-poverty districts like Gary, where the politics are overwhelmingly Democratic.

“Put simply, Indiana’s new school-funding formula will cut aid to schools where the poorest children live and boost funds for schools in the state’s wealthiest neighborhoods,” Elliott wrote.

Here’s a file from the nonpartisan Legislature Services Agency that estimates what the impact is going to be for every school district in the state.School Formula No 41 Continue reading

Indiana school-funding referenda go 3-for-7

This week’s primary elections weren’t very kind to Indiana school corporations that tried to increase property taxes in order to support education funding – with one significant exception.

Voters in the Metropolitan School District of Perry Township on the south side of Indianapolis approved two school-funding referenda. They approved a tax increase of 31 cents per $100 assessed property value to bolster the district’s general fund. And they approved a 14-cent tax increase for construction.

Other than that, school-funding referenda went 1-for-5. Voters in Franklin Township Community Schools, another Indianapolis suburban district located just east of Perry Township, rejected a general-fund tax proposal by a large margin.

Information on the May 2011 school-funding votes is available from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. It’s the go-to site for referendum information, including data for every initiative since the spring of 2008, when the current school-funding law took effect.

CEEP has also produced two policy briefs on Indiana school referendum activities, one from the summer of 2010 and the other from last winter, with another on the way in a month or so.

One striking factor Continue reading

Indiana education reforms: research-based … or not?

Are the education reforms that the Indiana General Assembly approved really “based on substantial research,” as the state Department of Education claimed in a recent message? Or are they faith-based, relying on an ideology that says the market is good and unions are bad?

It’s easy to be cynical about vouchers, charter schools and merit pay – and to assume the Mitch Daniels-Tony Bennett agenda is simply about paying off business supporters and busting teachers’ unions.

But listen to Gov. Daniels tear up as he celebrates his legislative successes at a bill-signing ceremony for Senate Bill 1, the teacher merit-pay bill. He seems to truly believe he is doing what is best for children. (And never mind that he repeats, yet again, the bogus claim that teacher quality is 20 times more important than any other factor in student learning).

Still, research or faith, that’s the question.

School Matters asked the Department of Education to cite research showing that: 1) merit pay will benefit students; 2) more charter schools will benefit students; 3) vouchers will benefit all students, not just those who transfer to private schools; and 4) collective bargaining for teachers hurts students.

To their great credit, the DOE media folks replied with an extensive list. We’ll summarize, providing links so you can judge for yourself:

Merit pay – The department provided references to studies and white papers on this topic, but none showed evidence that a U.S. merit-pay system, on its own, had produced improvements in learning. A number of the links show that teaching matters; well, no one argues that it doesn’t. Several came from Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and the Colorado-based National Center for Education Policy, both adamant foes of merit pay based on test scores. There’s a study that shows small student improvement from the TAP system, which includes merit pay; another that shows benefits from teacher bonuses for school-level improvement, a cross-national study of merit pay, and a study from India.

DOE made no reference to recent studies from New York and Tennessee that showed no positive effects from merit pay.

Charter schools – The department cited the Stanford CREDO study that found charter schools in Indiana produce slightly more improvement in test scores than traditional public schools. But that study doesn’t argue for increasing the number of charter schools, as provided for in HB 1002. The author said Indiana charter schools may do well because only a few organizations have been allowed to award charters and the schools are well regulated.

Vouchers – The “research” cited is a series of talking points straight from the Foundation for School Choice, a voucher advocacy organization, and a book from the libertarian Cato Institute. Not mentioned were studies and reports that found little or no academic benefit for students in voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Collective bargaining – There’s a Brookings Institution paper that calls collective bargaining an “anachronism” and advocates its overhaul; a couple of studies that suggest getting rid of collective bargaining reduces teacher absenteeism; and a study from New Mexico that finds bargaining agreements helped high-achieving students and hurt low-achieving students.

So what does one make of all this? The studies on vouchers and charter schools are, at best, mixed. And there’s no evidence that implementing merit pay or weakening unions has helped students, possibly because it hasn’t been widely tried or possibly because it’s just not a good idea.

As school-reform advocate Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute has written, “To a frustrating degree, the conclusions one draws from the educational-performance evidence depend on which experts one trusts.”

You can pick your studies and argue that maybe, just maybe, schools will improve under the changes Indiana has adopted. But to think the legislation is sure to make a significant, positive difference for students – well, that takes a leap of faith.