With Indiana legislative session long past, bitterness still shows

You would think that, nearly two months after the close of the 2011 Indiana legislative session, some of its partisan bitterness might have faded. Then again, maybe not.

Just watch the archived video of a legislative forum that took place last week at the Indiana University School of Education’s summer Education Leadership Conference. In particular, listen to –- and watch the body language of –- Democratic Rep. Terry Goodin, on the one hand, and Republican Rep. Robert Behning and Scott Jenkins, education adviser to Gov. Mitch Daniels, on the other.

These folks don’t seem happy to be on the same stage together.

OK, maybe it’s not Wisconsin, where one state judge claims to have been choked by another during the tense stand-off over Gov. Scott Walker’s union-bashing measures. And where small-town elected officials are being heckled and harassed by their friends and neighbors.

But the Indiana House, at least, is a far cry from the convivial lawmaking body that it was just a few years ago.

Watch Jenkins get ready to pounce when Goodin says it’s “more than disingenuous” for Daniels to claim he was fully funding full-day kindergarten, even though the scant funding for the program means parents will still have to pay for it. Jenkins shoots back that it’s not disingenuous, it’s “just a difference in philosophy” on how to get more kindergartners in school for the entire day.

Possibly the most instructive moment in the forum comes when IU education professor Jonathan Plucker asks the legislators to name one mistake their own caucus made during the session.

Goodin and Behning pretty much ignore the question. If House Democrats made a mistake, Goodin says, it may have been in coming back from their five-week walkout in Illinois. Behning then relentlessly lectures Goodin and his fellow House Democrats for leaving — apparently his own caucus’s performance was flawless.

Democratic Sen. Vi Simpson and Republican Sen. Dennis Kruse, on the other hand, answer the question. Simpson says Democrats made a mistake by not pressing their own ideas about education reform. Kruse says Republicans erred by pushing a controversial right-to-work bill through a House committee – the move that prompted House Democrats to flee to Illinois.

Goodin attributes the conflict to two conflicting philosophical views about education: One side (Democrats) sees the public education system as an asset. The other (Republicans) sees it as a liability.

Here’s another way to look at it.

One side favors a public education system, funded by the public, accountable to the public, transparent and capable of serving all students. In this view, if the system isn’t working for everyone, it’s up to the public – through elected school boards, legislators, etc. – to fix it. This side would argue that such a system has worked well for America, and it deserves a chance to continue.

The other side favors an education marketplace, publicly funded but driven by choice and competition, with parents choosing the best “product” for their own children regardless of what’s best for everyone else. In this view, educational “entrepreneurs” will produce the best offerings to meet the needs of (most) students, as determined by their parents.

For now, at least, the latter view seems to have the upper hand.

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Dispute may be brewing over when Indiana schools must implement new evaluations, merit pay

The debate over whether to enact Senate Enrolled Act 1, Indiana’s new teacher-evaluation and merit-pay law, ended in late April when Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the legislation. But the debate over how and when the law will be implemented is still to come.

One likely point of contention: When will the provisions kick in for school districts that approved valid, long-term teacher contracts before SEA 1 took effect?

The Monroe County Community school board, for example, approved a four-year contract with its teachers’ union in early April. The contract provides a 1-percent pay increase for teachers in 2011-12 and specifies that salary negotiations may be “reopened” in subsequent years.

It’s generally agreed that the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from nullifying valid contracts. So the provisions of SEA 1 that clash with existing contracts – typically, provisions that specify how teachers are evaluated and how their raises are determined — won’t come into play until the existing contracts expire.

But when do the contracts expire? According to the Indiana Department of Education, if a school district and union “reopen” their contract to negotiate money matters, the old contract is finished. A change in pay or benefits makes for a brand new contract – and the district must then comply with SEA 1.

The DOE spells out its position in an FAQ: See Question 2.

But Lisa Tanselle, a staff attorney with the Indiana School Boards Association, says school law experts don’t all agree with the department’s position. Continue reading

State takeover of ‘failing’ schools: Why just high schools?

Here’s a question that rarely seems to be asked about the impending state takeover of Indiana’s chronically low-performing schools: Why is it that, of 18 public schools at risk of being taken over by the State Board of Education, 17 are high schools?

Have all the bad K-12 teachers somehow gravitated to the upper grades? Is there something about high schools that just attracts lousy leaders? Are students who did just fine in elementary school and middle school giving up when they hit ninth grade?

Or is it possible that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Indiana’s system for determining which schools are “failing”?

Consider this: There are 1,129 public elementary schools in Indiana, along with 348 public middle schools and junior high schools and 385 public high schools. None of those elementary schools has been designated for five consecutive years for “probation,” the lowest category in Indiana’s Public Law 221 accountability system and the trigger for state takeover. Only one middle school has.

But 17 high schools – about 1 in 20 – have been in the lowest category for five consecutive years.

In 2009-10, 49 percent of Indiana high schools fell into the probation category. That compares with 8 percent of middle schools and 4 percent of elementary schools.

PL 221 categories are based on two criteria: the percent of students who pass ISTEP-Plus exams and the school’s year-to-year improvement in ISTEP passing rates. And for high schools, especially, that’s a questionable gauge of effectiveness.

In elementary and middle schools, all students in grades 3-8 take annual state exams in math and language arts. With a concerted effort, those schools will occasionally make enough improvement to escape a designation of probation.

But in high schools, it’s different. Continue reading

Indiana’s ‘freeway’ to accreditation for private schools

When Indiana adopted a “freeway schools” law in the mid-1990s, it was billed as a way to free public schools from burdensome regulations. Schools – or even entire school corporations – could get a pass on rules concerning curriculum, textbooks, etc., in exchange for signing a contract with the state to achieve and maintain high levels of performance.

But the program evolved into something very different: A way for private schools, especially religious schools, to be accredited by the state without meeting the same requirements as most public schools.

A list provided by the state Department of Education shows there are now 141 freeway schools . Almost all are private. Judging by their names, all but a dozen or so are religious schools.

Accreditation is a nice stamp of approval. But with the state’s new voucher law, it’s something more. Private schools that are accredited – including those that are accredited as freeway schools – can qualify for government-funded tuition vouchers for students who transfer from public schools.

This came to mind last week when the agenda for the State Board of Education included approval of freeway-school petitions from seven schools, six of them Christian schools. Continue reading

The debate on tying test scores to evaluations: teachers vs. policy analysts

The New York Times did a “room for debate” feature this week on the growing practice of using student test scores to evaluate teachers. And it included a couple of teachers among the eight people selected to debate the issue – something that seems to almost never happen when education policy is discussed.

Not surprisingly, the teachers weren’t exactly crazy about the idea.

“This testing-students-to-grade-teachers initiative is not coming out of what people who actually work with children in schools know,” writes New York City teacher Francesa Burns. “It is not even research-based … Instead, the plans are based on politics and sound bites, corporate sleight of hand … and high talk. In short: nothing.”

Molly Putnam, a high-school teacher in Brooklyn, says the money going to develop more tests should instead “be spent on methods that have been proven to improve teacher quality and retention rates — like intensive student teaching and training in lesson planning, instruction and classroom management. A culture change would also mean having principals and senior teachers become even more engaged in mentoring and guiding younger teachers.”

A couple of policy analysts, Kevin Carey of Education Sector and Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute, argue that it only makes sense to use test scores to gauge how well teachers do their job. Carey approvingly cites a recent National Education Association policy statement that allows for using “valid, reliable, high quality standardized tests” to help evaluate teachers.

But another analyst, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says using centralized, bureaucratic tests to evaluate teachers is like “attacking a fly with a sledgehammer.” His alternative: Give principals the power to fire bad teachers and increase pay for good teachers. “If we can’t trust school leaders to identify their best and worst teachers, then the whole project of school reform is sunk,” he says.

Indiana will use test results as a “significant” part of teacher evaluations beginning with the 2012-13 school year. But the state has a long way to go to figure out how this will work. To that end, the Department of Education chose six school districts – Bloomfield, Greensburg, Fort Wayne, Beech Grove, Bremen and Warren Township (Indianapolis) – to test out the new evaluation systems in 2011-12.

“Things are changing in Indiana in education,” Bloomfield superintendent Dan Sichting tells Bethany Nolan of the Bloomington Herald-Times. “Some people would argue it’s changing for the better, others not for the better. But if we sit back and don’t participate, we’re not going to have any kind of input in what the final product will be.”

Note to journalists: It could make an interesting project to follow one of those districts over the next year and track the results, good or bad, of changing how teachers are evaluated.