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. Until 2008-09, the only state test their students took was the Graduation Qualifying Exam, given in 10th grade when students were just settling in to their high school. In 2009-10, the testing shifted to end-of-course assessments for 10th-grade English and for Algebra I, which is usually taken no later than ninth grade.
In other words, school accountability results for high schools are based on tests taken by about 25 percent of the students, and after they’ve spent only a year or two at the school.
If state takeover is a good thing, would it make more sense for the state to take charge of the elementary and middle schools that send students to high school unprepared to pass state tests?
Under state law, the State Board of Education must conduct public hearings and decide whether to intervene in schools that are placed in the lowest accountability category for six straight years. That’s what the state board is doing this summer for schools in Indianapolis, Gary, South Bend, Hammond, East Chicago, Fort Wayne and Marion.
The board can force the schools to close or merge with higher-performing schools. It can impose changes in school operations and personnel. Or – and this is the option that’s getting the most attention – it can hand the schools and their funding over to private “school turnaround operators.”
State education officials have been negotiating with between three and five prospective school turnaround operators. They refuse to say which companies are in line for taking over which schools. But Scott Elliott reports in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star that one prospective turnaround operator is for-profit EdisonLearning, formerly Edison Schools Inc., a pioneer at making money on education.
Coincidentally, the Newark Star-Ledger mentioned Edison last week in a story on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s effort to call in private turnaround companies to take over failing schools in that state.
“When Edison Schools Inc. lobbied for a contract to take over 20 failing schools in Philadelphia, the for-profit company promised greater academic achievement and a lower per-pupil cost than what the state could provide,” the Star-Ledger’s Ginger Gibson wrote. “The results Edison Schools achieved did not match its pitch. One study found students in the company’s schools scored no better on standardized reading and math exams than their peers in other city schools.”
Meanwhile, the leadership of the Indiana Department of Education’s school turnaround initiative is turning over just as key decisions are being made. The department announced last week that Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, the DOE director of school turnaround, is leaving for an administrative job with Warren Township Schools in Indianapolis. Her replacement is Jim Larson, a teacher at the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, an Indianapolis charter school.