Indiana kindergarten funding still falls short of costs

Full-day kindergarten funding for Indiana schools is expected to be $1,190.60 per student for the 2011-12 school year, the Indiana Department of Education announced this month.

That’s a little more than the $1,030 per student that schools received last year. But it’s nowhere near enough to cover the difference between half-day kindergarten, which the state funds, and a full-day program.

That means many parents can expect to again pay fees if they enroll their children in full-day kindergarten, just as they have in the past.

When Gov. Mitch Daniels announced increased funding for full-day kindergarten in April, the headline over his news release said, “Governor calls for increased education funding, completion of full day kindergarten.” The Republican-controlled legislature boosted annual funding for full-day kindergarten to $81.9 million from $58.5 million.

Some people thought that meant the program would be “fully funded” – but no. The increase enabled some school districts that hadn’t offered FDK in the past to provide it. But per-student funding increased by only about 15 percent.

Most Indiana schools spend around $6,000 per student to fund their operations. At that rate, you could argue the cost difference between half-day and full-day kindergarten is about $3,000 per student. The state grant covers less than half of that.

Some districts have used grants and federal funds to provide free full-day kindergarten in high-poverty schools and for low-income parents. But many have charged fees for parents who can afford it, and they’re likely to continue to do so. (In the Monroe County Community School Corp., the fee last year was $1,300).

The Indiana Constitution calls for a “general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.” Nothing says the state has to fund kindergarten. But as the constitution suggests, free public education for all is an ideal that’s worth trying to accomplish. For young children, we’ve still got a way to go.

Are IPS schools improving or stagnating? Test scores tell conflicting stories

To hear Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White tell it, the district’s Arlington, Broad Ripple, Howe and Washington community high schools are well on their way to educational success.

White says passing rates on state tests improved this year by 21 percentage points at Washington, 9 points at Howe and 7 points at Arlington. And Broad Ripple, a performing-arts magnet school, had some of the best results in the IPS district. White said its passing rate for algebra rose to 83 percent in 2011.

But the Indiana Department of Education says the schools have failed to turn themselves around. They are among only seven schools that have earned the lowest possible grade in the state’s Public Law 221 accountability system for six straight years – making them subject to being turned over to school management companies.

Both IPS and DOE are looking at state test scores. But they’re looking at scores for different groups of students, and they’re looking at them in different ways, resulting in very distinct conclusions about how the schools are performing.

White bases his claim for improvement on high school students’ scores – the performance of 10th-graders on Algebra and English end-of-course assessments. He’s comparing preliminary reports of ECA results from 2011 with those from 2010. (The state hasn’t yet released official 2011 ECA results).

But IPS in recent years added grades 6-8 to Arlington, Broad Ripple, Howe and Washington, converting them to “community high schools.” The Department of Education is including the ISTEP-Plus scores of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in its calculations, along with the ECA scores of 10th graders. Continue reading

Cheating scandals: Who will be next?

The news about the cheating scandal in Atlanta’s public schools just keeps getting worse. Teachers changed students’ answers on standardized tests from wrong to right, according to a state investigation. Students were allowed to look up answers or copy from classmates. Administrators created a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” and pressured teachers to cheat.

Coming on the heels of revelations of possible cheating in Washington, D.C., and alongside concerns from Pennsylvania and other states, the news raises obvious questions: Could it happen here in Indiana? Has it happened here already?

“Because of Atlanta, the media and policymakers are going back and looking at concerns raised about their states,” Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing told the Associated Press. “This is the top issue. When you see a story like this and see the incredible impact of the confessions, you start to look and say, ‘Hey, is there something comparable going on here?’ ”

Officials with the Indiana Department of Education are taking the idea seriously.

They recently asked CTB McGraw-Hill, the state’s primary testing contractor, to conduct an “erasure study” to look for suspicious trends of wrong answers being corrected on state tests, as happened in Atlanta, D.C. and Philadelphia.

Back in the spring, officials announced that department staff would make unannounced school visits during the March 2011 ISTEP-Plus tests, to make sure test security protocols were observed.

And a March 30 memo to the State Board of Education recounted 11 “recent violations of proper testing procedures.” Most involved teachers who devised lessons based on actual content of state exams, or who encouraged students to change answers from wrong to right.

In response, the state board gave preliminary approval in July to a rule intended to put in place stronger test-security procedures and establish procedures and penalties for security breaches. The action started a process of review and comment that will lead to adoption of the proposed rule as state law.

ISTEP-Plus is Indiana’s high-stakes test, but until now, the stakes have been high for schools but not for individuals. That’s about to change. Soon third-graders will be retained if they don’t pass the state reading test. Teachers’ salaries and job-retention prospects will depend partially on student test scores.

When there’s pressure to do whatever it takes to raise test scores, it’s not surprising that some folks will do, well, whatever it takes.

Test score success: Lessons from Lafayette?

Forget charter schools and voucher schools and waiting for Superman. The heroes of K-12 education in Indiana are the teachers – and the students! – of two public elementary schools in Lafayette.

Murdock Elementary and Thomas Miller Elementary both achieved eye-popping improvement in their students’ ISTEP-Plus scores, which were announced this week by the Department of Education.

At Murdock, 84.7 percent of students passed both the English and math sections of the test in spring 2011, up from 53.8 percent the previous year. At Thomas Miller, the pass rate increased to 85.9 percent from 61.5 percent.

And these are low-income schools, with 85-90 percent of their students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches – the kind of student profile that often produces ISTEP passing rates of under 50 percent.

How did they do it? According to the Journal and Courier newspaper, Lafayette School Corp. officials decided two years ago to devote all their federal Title I funding to the schools with the neediest students and worst performance record, Murdock and Thomas Miller — and to supplement it with federal stimulus money.

They hired more staff and reduced class size, putting two teachers in every classroom. At Thomas Miller, the school day was lengthened by an hour. Parents had to sign school-support contracts; if they didn’t, their children were sent elsewhere. Murdock implemented a “countdown” curriculum that emphasized testing and focused attention on ISTEP. The principal and a counselor met individually with every student to update them on their progress and encourage them to do well on the state tests. Continue reading

Righters knead editors? Parish the thought

Scott Elliott has a nice story in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star about the fact that the teaching of cursive handwriting is disappearing from elementary schools. It’s thoroughly reported, balanced, informative and nicely written. There’s just one problem, and probably not one that Elliott could do anything about.

In the print edition of the Star, the story starts with an anecdote –- in a font designed to look like handwriting — about a retired teacher who fell in love with cursive writing in the third grade. Now, it says, “she shutters at the thought that cursive might be … an endangered species.”

She shutters at the thought?

Elliott no doubt knows the difference between shuddering and shuttering. So, probably, does the graphic artist who designed the feature for Star’s front page. And we all make mistakes.

But remember that, just last month, Gannett Co. dumped 26 newsroom employees at the Star, including 12 copy editors, as part of a nationwide cost-cutting move. Star publisher Karen Crotchfelt told the Indianapolis Business Journal that most stories would simply get fewer edits as a result.

According to Star reporter and News Guild president Bobby King, the paper’s editor, Dennis Ryerson, insisted to the staff that eliminating a layer of copy editors wouldn’t hurt the quality of the news product – “something that seems truly an incredible statement to this reporter, who’s had his bacon saved more than once by a rim editor who’s caught a misspelled name or an errant fact before it could find the light of print,” King wrote on the guild’s blog.

Catching mistakes before they get to print isn’t glamorous work, but it’s crucial to a newspaper’s credibility. One hopes that publishers and editors would understand that.

Education researchers: Current ‘reforms’ will produce few gains in achievement

Indiana University education professors Jonathan Plucker and David Rutkowski offer up some hard truths about current education “reforms” in a recent Education Week column.

While supporters tout the reforms as silver bullets, they say, the “dirty little secret” among researchers is that the changes almost certainly will have little effect on student performance.

“Volumes of nonpartisan research over the past 20 years suggest that most reforms (e.g., vouchers, charters, merit pay) have marginal effects on student achievement,” they write. “Reforms that show benefits usually produce effects that are so small they call into question the enormous resource and opportunity costs of the interventions. Put simply, most education reforms are not effective, and those that show even a sliver of potential are very inefficient.”

The point about resource and opportunity costs is significant. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett spent political capital pushing through an education agenda that lacked broad public support. Continue reading

Lawsuit challenges Indiana voucher law

Judges have already blocked the implementation of anti-abortion and anti-immigrant laws approved this spring by the Indiana legislature. Will the school voucher law be next? We could find out soon.

Twelve Indiana citizens sued Friday in Marion County to challenge the voucher law, which Gov. Mitch Daniels, state Superintendent Tony Bennett and Republican legislators rammed through the legislative process despite no evidence of broad support. The complaint may be spearheaded by the Indiana State Teachers Association, but the plaintiffs are a diverse group: three clergymen, a couple of college professors, a school superintendent, a principal, teachers and parents whose kids attend both public and parochial schools.

They argue that the voucher program, which provides taxpayer funding for parents to transfer their children from public to private schools, including religious schools, violates three sections of the state constitution:

— Article 8, Section 1, which says the state must provide “a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”
— Article 1, Section 4, which says that “no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent.”
— Article 1, Section 6, which adds that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

“This use of taxpayer funds is incompatible with the provisions of the Indiana Constitution to safeguard Indiana citizens’ freedom of conscience by ensuring that they are not compelled, through the taxes they pay, to support religious institutions, ministries, and places of worship against their consent,” the lawsuit states. “And it is contrary to the Constitution’s directive that the General Assembly provide for the education of Indiana children through ‘a general and uniform system of Common Schools.’”

A 40-page legal brief, filed with the lawsuit, fleshes out the argument and seeks a preliminary injunction to bar the voucher law from taking effect.

On the surface, the second and third arguments would seem almost a slam dunk. Continue reading