School reform in a nutshell

Richard Lee Colvin, executive director of Education Sector, summed up the current debate over school reform quite nicely in a Q&A last week with Kyle Stokes of NPR’s State Impact Indiana.

Responding to a question about Indiana’s school voucher system, Colvin said: “You’ve really got a struggle here between folks who think the market is king and those who think good, common schooling experiences are important for democracy.”

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has put himself on the “market is king” side, not only with his support for private-school vouchers and more charter schools, but with his rhetoric. In his State of Education address this month, Bennett insisted that Indiana will improve education through “freedom, competition and accountability.”

Of course, it’s human nature to like it when the invisible hand of the market scratches your back, and to be upset when it slaps you in the face.

According to the Indianapolis Star, Bennett was peeved when Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White said recently that IPS would withdraw support from sports, band, choir and other extracurricular activities at the four schools – Emma Donnen Middle School and Arlington, Howe and Manuel community high schools– that the state is taking over and handing over to “school turnaround operators.”

White’s rationale: IPS will now be competing with those schools for students. Why should it provide activities that make the turnaround schools more attractive to students and their parents?

White said in an open letter to the community that he was dropping the idea of suing the state over the school takeover decisions. Instead, he said, IPS will focus on an effort to “create additional quality educational choices for students” through more magnet schools and programs.

In other words, if the state says competition is the key, bring it on.

White’ stance on extracurricular activities makes sense. The turnaround operators – for-profit EdisonLearning and Charter Schools USA and nonprofit EdPower – will apparently be awarded the state funding that would have otherwise gone to IPS for the support of the schools.

In Indiana, state funding typically pays for the bulk of extracurricular costs, including the salaries of coaches, band directors, etc. (Athletic ticket sales can help pay for uniforms, game officials and equipment, while upkeep of facilities is normally split between state funding and a school district’s capital projects fund, which is supported by local property taxes).

Why shouldn’t the turnaround operators be expected to provide their own extracurricular attractions, if they’re getting the state money that normally pays for such amenities?

And if Bennett truly believes that competition is the key to better schools, maybe he should welcome a competitive attitude from the IPS leadership.

State of the superintendent: triumphant

Scott Elliott in the Indianapolis Star used the right word to describe Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s State of Education address last week. “Bennett was triumphant about the state’s once-lagging education reform accomplishments in an emotional second annual State of Education address,” he wrote.

And why wouldn’t Bennett feel victorious? The Republican-controlled state legislature gave him and Gov. Mitch Daniels all the education reforms they asked for this year: the nation’s most far-reaching school voucher program, more charter schools, mandatory merit pay and performance-based evaluations for teachers and strict limits on teacher collective bargaining.

So Bennett was in a position to boast a little. And he could afford to be gracious, giving Indiana’s teachers some of the credit for improved test scores and better school grades under the state accountability system.

One problem with triumph, though: What do you do next? Bennett quoted Republican icon Ronald Reagan on the importance of painting with “bold, unmistakable colors.” But his proposals for future action seemed a bit, well, pastel.

Require every student to take an online course to graduate from high school. Give letter grades to school districts, not just to schools. Shorten the time frame for the state to take over schools that keep getting failing grades. Add multiple “count days” throughout the school year for the purpose of determining school enrollment and state funding.

They’re all ideas that are worth talking about, but nothing there seems likely to make a huge difference in the state of education.

The real issues, going forward, have to do with implementing the changes that the legislature passed this year. Where will schools find the resources to carry out fair and meaningful teacher evaluations? Will the state really start holding charter schools accountable for their performance? Will vouchers pull needed resources away from public schools? Will the voucher law hold up against a court challenge?

Most importantly, how will we know whether Indiana’s education reforms will do anything to help Hoosier students?

That said, Bennett’s passionate cheerleading for education in Indiana is something to applaud. And it’s noteworthy that 200 invited guests showed up for the speech to hear what he had to say. If nothing else, the state of education in Indiana is: closely watched.

Research: relationships trump ‘teacher excellence’

If you think the way to build a great education system is simply to hire more great teachers and school leaders – and get rid of those who aren’t great – read this article and think again.

Improving relationships and communication within schools holds more promise than focusing on the effectiveness of individual teachers and principals, writes University of Pittsburgh professor Carrie R. Leana, describing research that she and colleagues have conducted over the past decade.

“The results of our research challenge the prevailing centrality of the individual teacher and principal leadership in models of effective public education,” Leana writes in Stanford Social Innovation Review. “Instead, the results provide much support for the centrality of social capital — the relationships among teachers — for improving public schools.”

Leana’s findings contradict three widely accepted ideas: 1) “human capital,” individual teacher effectiveness, is key; 2) outsiders, whether state curriculum experts, leadership academy graduates or Teach for America recruits, know best; and 3) principals should be “instructional leaders” who coach teachers on how to teach.

“Unfortunately, all three beliefs are rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research,” she writes. They constitute an ideology of school reform. “And although this, like all ideology, may bring us comfort in the face of uncertainty and failure, it is unhelpful and perhaps dangerous if it leads us to pursue policies that will not bring about sustained success.” Continue reading

Taking the pulse of a turnaround/takeover at an urban middle school

Indianapolis Star reporter Robert King and photographer Kelly Wilkinson should have a great time with a project that has them spending this academic year at Emma Donnan Middle School.

Not only is the school being turned around by the Indianapolis Public Schools system – it’s also being taken over by the Indiana Department of Education and turned over to Charter Schools USA, a politically connected, for-profit education business based in Florida.

As if hanging out for a year with a bunch of 14-year-olds weren’t stimulating enough …

Emma Donnan is one of five under-performing schools that the State Board of Education, acting on the recommendation of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, decided this week to place under the control of “turnaround school operators.” The others are IPS Manual and Howe high schools, also being turned over to Charter Schools USA; IPS Arlington High School, which will be run by charter operator EdPower; and Gary Roosevelt Academy, which goes to EdisonLearning.

IPS, meanwhile, is going to court to challenge the takeover of Howe and Arlington and the assignment of “lead partners” to Broad Ripple and Washington high schools, all four of which were recently been converted to “community high schools” serving students in grades 6-12. IPS Superintendent Eugene White argues that the Department of Education inappropriately included test scores from middle-grades students who were new to the schools when it awarded them Fs this year in the state’s PL 221 accountability system, triggering the state takeover.

But back to Emma Donnan Middle School and its seventh- and eighth-graders.

As King reports, IPS is doing what you’re supposed to do to turn the school around. It brought in a new principal, Brian Burke, and gave him the authority to remake the school. He got rid of two-thirds of the staff, replacing them with teachers who were selected in part for being passionate and caring about children.

Those teachers now will spend the year preparing to turn the school over to Charter Schools USA.

There’s a very real possibility that, after knocking themselves out to help a challenging group — more than 80 percent of Donnan students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a quarter are in special education and over 10 percent speak a primary language other than English – these teachers will be shown the door.

And Charter Schools USA will take credit for the progress that they made.

As Scott Elliott reported in the Star, state board member Neil Pickett suggested Monday that maybe the new principal and teachers should keep their jobs if Emma Donnan makes significant progress this year. But Richard Page, Charter Schools USA’s vice president for development, said the company typically replaces school leadership and most of the staff when it takes control of a school.

The Star’s series on Emma Donnan has so far set the stage. First of all, an urban middle school is a different creature than IPS School 61 kindergarten, where King produced a compelling series of stories in 2010-11. Next, King profiled several of the new Emma Donnan teachers: the committed, enthusiastic Teach for America recruits; the seasoned veteran ready for a new challenge.

But will commitment, enthusiasm and caring make a difference? Are the Emma Donnan teachers working together to continually assess every student’s progress and make sure none is falling behind? What are school administrators doing to ensure a safe, supportive environment where learning can take place? Are parents encouraged to celebrate their children’s success?

What does principal Brian Burke’s formula of “a firm hand with discipline, daily remediation for struggling students and ongoing training for the staff” look like in practice?

Equally compelling is the question of how the teachers – and the students — will respond as Charter Schools USA gets ready to take over and implement its own educational model.

There may be no better place for enterprising journalists like King and Wilkinson to spend the 2011-12 school year. But for students and teachers? Well, we’ll be reading about that.