A ‘scarlet letter’ for bad teachers?

Today Indiana residents can go to the State Department of Education website and learn which schools in their community have earned As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs from the state. In the future, will we be able to find out which teachers are rated as highly effective, effective, improvement needed and ineffective?

Probably, even though the state the law that prescribes a new system of teacher evaluation was supposed to prevent that from happening.

The law, Senate Enrolled Act 1, orders schools to adopt an evaluation system that rates all teachers by those four categories of effectiveness. It requires school districts to report aggregate data on their teachers’ ratings to the Department of Education once a year – i.e., how many are rated highly effective, how many are ineffective and so on. But those reports, the law says, may not include names or any other personally identifiable information regarding the teachers.

So we presumably won’t be able to get information about individual teachers from DOE officials, because they won’t have it. But can we get it from local school districts?

Maybe. If a school district has a list of teachers and their effectiveness ratings, it would be a public record. If we make a request under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act to inspect or copy the list, the district would arguably have to make it available. It wouldn’t appear to fall under any of the exceptions in Section 4 of the act, which lists types of records that don’t have to be made public.

School attorneys may dispute this. They could argue that evaluations won’t have to be disclosed because they are part of teachers’ personnel files. But even if they’re right, there are two ways in which some information about evaluations will become public.

First, SEA 1 specifies that teachers who are rated ineffective or improvement necessary may not receive any increase in pay. It’s well established that salaries for employees of public schools are public information. (Some newspapers make such data available online). Once the new law is in effect, we can compare any teacher’s salary for 2012-13 and 2013-14. If the teacher gets a raise, we know he or she was rated effective or highly effective. If not, we may surmise otherwise.

Second, SEA 1 says schools should avoid putting a student in a classroom taught by an ineffective teacher for two straight years. But if the school can’t avoid doing so – for example, the student had an ineffective teacher in third grade and the school has only one fourth-grade teacher, who is also ineffective – then the school must inform the student’s parents. There’s nothing to stop the parents from going public.

Interestingly, it’s not just teachers unions that think this is a bad idea. The National Council on Teacher Quality, in a lengthy report that largely praises Indiana and a few other states for their changes in teacher evaluation, calls this a “scarlet letter” approach and says it is bad policy.

“NCTQ thinks this does a tremendous disservice to the teaching profession,” the report says. “If a district has evidence that a teacher is ineffective, state policy should provide the means for the district to take the necessary steps to remove the individual from the classroom, not humiliate the teacher. Reporting on teacher effectiveness data by the state, district and school level is essential. But when it comes to accountability for ineffective teachers, sending a note home to let families know their child’s teacher is not so good is no solution at all.”


Good news from Raleigh

The big education-related story in this month’s elections came from Ohio, where voters repealed a law that limited collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees, including teachers.

But for this blog, the most significant election news was Kevin Hill’s victory in a run-off election for a school board seat in in Wake County, N.C. The outcome gave Democrats a sweep of this year’s board races and a 5-4 edge on the school board in Raleigh.

And it ousted the Republican majority that had dismantled Wake County’s brave and innovative socio-economic diversity policy.

It’s not yet clear whether the new board majority will bring back the old policy, which assigned students to schools in a way that avoided concentrating large numbers of poor children in the same buildings. Wake County school administrators are moving ahead with a neighborhood and “choice-based” student assignment plan adopted by the former Republican majority. Democrats say they’ll review the plan.

However that plays out, this is an outcome worth noting.

In an era when education “reform” is based on the idea that competition must drive improvement – that parents are out to get the best possible education for their own kids, whether through charter schools, magnet schools or vouchers, and never mind everyone else – the Wake County results can be interpreted as endorsing education as a community responsibility.

Fifty-seven years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional. But as UCLA’s Gary Orfield and his Civil Rights Project colleagues have shown, schools have become more segregated in the past generation, by race and especially by social class.

It may be that poverty will always be with us. But socio-economic segregation of schools is a result of choices – decisions by people of means to abandon the cities and public education, sure, but also political decisions about student-assignment plans and the boundaries of school districts and attendance areas. (Example: Bloomington, Ind., where one elementary school has 90 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches, while an elementary school with an adjacent attendance area has fewer than 20 percent of its students qualifying for lunch subsidies).

The voters of Raleigh have shown it’s possible to choose a different path.

Meanwhile, in Denver

Emily Sirota lost her race for a seat on the Denver school board – badly. She had attracted national media attention for her challenge to a “pro-reform” candidate backed by Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children.

Indiana’s NCLB waiver plan calls for letter-grade gains, quicker state intervention

All Indiana schools will be at or above average by 2020. That’s the thrust of the state’s application to the U.S. Department of Education for waivers from complying with the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The waiver application says that, under Indiana’s A-to-F school accountability system, every school will be expected to either earn an A or improve by two full letter grades in eight years. In other words, every school in the state will get a C or better. On the way to that goal, schools are supposed improve by at least one letter grade by 2015.

It’s a high bar, maybe, but more realistic than the 2002 NCLB act’s requirement that all students be proficient on state tests by 2014.

The Department of Education invited states to apply for waivers while Congress appears stuck over reauthorizing NCLB, the latest incarnation of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Indiana is one of 11 states that met the Nov. 14 deadline for a first round of applications. (Indiana’s application can be downloaded from the department’s NCLB flexibility website).

The state says the single accountability system spelled out in the waiver request will eliminate the confusing mismatch between the federal law’s expectation that schools make “adequate yearly progress” each year and Indiana’s Public Law 221 program, in which schools get letter grades.

The request goes hand-in-hand with a couple of state rule changes now being considered by the State Board of Education. One sets new criteria for awarding letter grades to schools and districts. The other makes it easier for the state to intervene in under-performing schools.

Currently, the state can take over schools and hand them over to “turnaround school operators” if the schools get an F for six straight years. Under the proposed changes, the state can take over if a school gets an F for four straight years or an F or D for five straight years.

In place of AYP, adequate yearly progress, the new system makes use of AMOs, annual measurable objectives, that schools will need to achieve in order to make the expected grade improvements.

In place of No Child Left Behind’s attention to test scores for an array of subgroups Continue reading

Teacher evaluation: It’s a race, but to where?

New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip visited Tennessee recently to check on that state’s implementation of performance-based evaluations of teachers. What he found wasn’t pretty.

Principals bogged down by non-stop evaluations, paperwork and micro-managing by the state. Teachers judged on student test results in subjects they don’t teach. Lousy morale all around.

“I’ve never seen such nonsense,” Will Shelton, principal of Blackman Middle School in Murfreesboro, told Winerip. “In the five years I’ve been principal here, I’ve never known so little about what’s going on in my own building.”

After winning a half billion dollars in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition last year, Tennessee rushed to implement a system that bases 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations on student test scores. It’s apparently easier said than done.

“Because there are no student test scores with which to evaluate over half of Tennessee’s teachers — kindergarten to third-grade teachers; art, music and vocational teachers — the state has created a bewildering set of assessment rules,” Winerip writes. “Math specialists can be evaluated by their school’s English scores, music teachers by the school’s writing scores.”

After recounting several examples that sound flat-out absurd, he adds, “This would all be hilarious, except these evaluations can cost people their jobs.”

Probably Winerip could have found some principals – and maybe even some teachers – who like what Tennessee is doing. A New York Times editorial, also last week, insisted that Tennessee officials “must resist any backsliding” on teacher evaluation. And business leaders have come out strongly against tweaking the law to make it more workable, according to the Nashville Tennessean.

Tennessee may be leading the race to test-based teacher evaluation, but many other states are following close behind – including Indiana with its implementation of Senate Enrolled Act 1. So it makes sense to follow what’s going on in Tennessee, good or bad.

The Indiana State Department of Education’s teacher evaluation model, called RISE, says 35 percent of some teachers’ evaluations will be based on improvement in their students’ scores on standardized tests. Teachers in subject areas that aren’t covered by state tests will have 20 percent of their evaluation based on meeting “student learning outcomes” and 5 percent based on school-wide success.

Six Indiana school districts are piloting RISE and other teacher evaluation models this school year. Other districts will have to start implementing new teacher-evaluation schemes in 2012-13.

RISE may sound reasonable, except that 1) Research casts doubt on whether tests scores can be reliably used to make high-stakes decisions about teachers (The august National Research Council says don’t do it); and 2) it seems questionable that Indiana school principals, or their designees, will have the time and resources necessary to carry out the extensive teacher evaluations called for by the system.

And as teacher-evaluation guru Charlotte Danielson warned at a school-reform conference this week in Indianapolis, teachers who are penalized as the result of unfair evaluations are likely to sue. “And they’ll probably win,” she said, according to the Indianapolis Star.

Indiana moving forward on letter-grade criteria for schools

Schools are complex institutions, serving diverse constituencies and charged with a wide range of objectives. So it’s no wonder Indiana education officials are finding it a challenge to develop an A-to-F grading system that fairly evaluates schools – and that people can understand.

The State Board of Education last week approved a proposed rule that sets out the new grading standards, which are designed to replace both Indiana’s old Public Law 221 accountability system and the “adequate yearly progress” standard in the federal No Child Left Behind law.

For elementary and middle schools, the new system is fairly straightforward. Schools get basic scores for the percentage of their students who pass state math and English tests. From there, they can gain bonus points or be penalized, depending on students’ test-score “growth” from year to year and other factors. Add up the points and you get a grade.

Jonathan Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University, had a hand in developing the new K-8 grading system. He said it meets three of his major criteria: 1) the letter grades are easy to calculate and explain; 2) the underlying statistical metrics are sound; and 3) it’s possible for schools to improve their grades by focusing on performance.

“So my take-away from this experience is that the K-8 model is better than what we have currently,” Plucker told School Matters by email.

He is less familiar with details of the model for high schools, and it’s there that the state seems to be struggling to get things right.

Under the model that the board approved last week, high schools will be graded on passing rates on state tests, graduation rates, and a category called college and career readiness, which includes AP and IB test results and completion of college credits and career/ technical certifications. The college and career readiness part will be phased in over several years, which means that most of the weighting will initially be on test scores and graduation rates.

Test-based accountability is a problem for high schools, however, because Indiana has standardized tests for only two high-school level courses — English 10 and Algebra I – which are taken each year by a small minority of students. But attempts to add other factors to the grading formula have been criticized for making the system too complicated.

“In systems such as these, accuracy usually equals complexity, which equals ‘hard to explain to people,’” Plucker said. “It’s a very troubling paradox.”

The Board of Education’s vote last week sends the proposed grading rule to the State Budget Agency for a cost-benefit analysis. Then the board will conduct a public hearing on the rule, possibly in January, with final adoption likely in February or March.

Indiana’ expansive – and expensive – first-year voucher program

Indiana taxpayers are paying $16.2 million this year for a voucher program that sends children to private schools, almost all of them religious schools, according to data released last week by the Indiana Department of Education.

That’s not an add-on cost for taxpayers. Rather the funding is being taken away from public schools and given to private schools. Under the Indiana program, parents who make up to 277 percent of the federal poverty level, and who transfer their kids from public to private schools, qualify for vouchers.

The Department of Education boasted in a news release that Indiana has the “most expansive first year voucher program in the country,” with more than 250 schools and almost 4,000 students participating – “a diverse and robust cross-section of families and schools in every region of Indiana.”

It’s a stretch, though, to suggest the schools represent anything close to the state’s diversity. Only about five are non-religious schools. A rough count suggests that about 180 are Catholic schools, 20 are Lutheran schools and most of the rest are nondenominational or Evangelical Christian schools – some of which use textbooks infused with political and religious extremism.

It’s also doubtful that vouchers are greatly expanding choice for most parents. If you live in South Bend, you have your choice of a dozen Catholic schools, but nothing else. Gary, one of the largest cities in the state and surely one where educational alternatives would be welcome, has exactly one voucher school, Ambassador Christian Academy. And it’s doing a bang-up business: It’s serving 110 voucher students and taking in nearly $500,000 in public dollars, both tops in the state.

In Marion County, of 473 students who are receiving vouchers, it appeared that only one was attending a non-religious school, the Indianapolis Star reported. Many rural areas and small towns, not surprisingly, don’t have any voucher schools nearby.

There’s a reasonable argument that the voucher program violates the Indiana constitution; a lawsuit challenging the program is slowing making its way through the courts. But even if it doesn’t, there’s reason to question the policy of giving public money to private entities, few strings attached.

Private schools that accept vouchers have to administer state ISTEP-Plus exams to their students and report the results. But unlike public schools, they don’t have to share detailed information about how they spend money and how much or how little they pay teachers and administrators. They are free to discriminate in admissions on the basis of religion, disability status, or simply because a student isn’t a “good fit.”

The state’s position seems to be that private schools can operate how they want, teach what they want, and admit the students they want. As long as they give state tests and persuade parents to pull their kids out of public schools, they’re welcome to our money.

At a time of ever-increasing accountability for traditional public schools and charter schools, that seems an odd stance to take.

A spreadsheet of state data on voucher schools, students and funding is here: 111103_Voucher Data

Research: Investing in pre-kindergarten pays dividends

A new report from the Center for Public Education suggests that Indiana is failing its youngest citizens by refusing to develop high-quality, public pre-kindergarten programs.

The research report, “Starting Out Right: Pre-K and Kindergarten,” says students who attend both pre-k and kindergarten fare significantly better than those who don’t on third-grade reading tests, an important predictor of future academic success. It also finds that, facing a choice between providing pre-k and full-day kindergarten, states would do better to expand access to pre-kindergarten programs.

Students who attend both pre-k and half-day kindergarten do better than those who attend full-day kindergarten but not pre-k, the report says. The gains from pre-k are especially strong for children from low-income families, blacks, Hispanics and English language learners.

The report draws on a federal data base that tracked more than 21,000 children from kindergarten through eighth grade. The Center for Public Education is an initiative of the National School Boards Association.

The author of the report, senior policy analyst Jim Hull, says the paper shouldn’t be read to endorse a move away from full-day kindergarten.

“Especially for traditional disadvantaged groups, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten are investments that pay remarkable dividends not only for schools, but for communities,” Hull writes. “We should strive to give all children access to both high-quality pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten. The research is clear that this is the best option.”

The Indiana legislature this year boosted funding for full-day kindergarten with the intent of making it available in all public school districts. However, the state doesn’t fully fund full-day kindergarten, with the result that parents often have to pay for the program.

And Indiana is one of only 10 states that don’t provide public pre-k programs, according to data from the National Institute for Early Education Research. Florida, the supposed model for the education reforms championed by Indiana Superintendent of Public Education Tony Bennett, provides public pre-k for 68 percent of its 4-year-olds, according to NIEER.

Bennett told a Bloomington audience last month that Indiana really ought to expand access to pre-k, but there’s no money right now to do so. But as Kara Kenney of WRTV in Indianapolis reported, Indiana was one of only 15 states that chose not to apply this fall for federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants ranging from $50 million to $100 million to expand early-learning opportunities.

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Alex Damron told Kenney it would have been a waste of effort to apply, because Indiana wasn’t going to win. But if Indiana isn’t in a position to compete for funding to expand early-learning programs, the question is: Why not?

Indiana’s teacher evaluation law: some promise, lots of peril

A policy brief released last week by the Center on Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University spells out a number of reasons to be concerned about Indiana’s new teacher-evaluation law.

The law, Senate Enrolled Act 1, requires annual teacher evaluations that rely significantly on student test results. All teachers will be put in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, improvement needed and ineffective. Compensation and tenure will be tied to the evaluations, and teachers in the two lower categories won’t get raises and may be at risk of losing their jobs.

The law requires schools to start implementing the new evaluation and merit-pay system in 2012-13. But as the authors of the CEEP report, Rodney Whiteman, Dingjing Shi and Jonathan Plucker, point out, this won’t be easy, and there are bound to be unintended consequences.

Here are a few of the issues that they highlight:

— Tying teacher evaluations to student performance may seem like a no-brainer. But in fact, there’s not much evidence that you can accurately attribute student test scores, or even improvement in test scores, to the effect of a single teacher. Standardized tests are designed to measure whether students meet grade-level standards, not how much they improve from year to year. And can schools develop tests that measure teacher effectiveness in subjects like art, music and physical education?

Research has shown that students learn best when teachers collaborate and share expertise. But most schools will have a limited amount of money available for raises, and it must all go to teachers rated effective and highly effective. “This creates an indirect competition for compensation and an incentive to out-perform colleagues,” the brief says. “Teachers may begin viewing their materials and techniques as proprietary intellectual property and elect to not share that property with their competitors.”

— Finally – and this may be the biggest issue – where will schools will find the time, resources and expertise to design and implement annual evaluations that are fair and meaningful? SEA 1 is an “unfunded mandate,” the authors say. At a time when most Indiana school districts are pinched for money, they may have pull some of their best teachers out of the classroom to develop and carry out evaluations; either that or hire outside experts, at considerable cost.

The brief concludes, “If done correctly, with sufficient time, finances, and people, changing teacher evaluation can be a powerful reform in public education.”

That’s a mighty big if.

Putting a good face on NAEP results

It was refreshing to see Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett taking a glass-is-half-full approach to reporting Indiana’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A state Department of Education news release pointed out that Indiana students continued to score above the national average on NAEP, also called the Nation’s Report Card. “Our educators, students and parents should be encouraged by these results,” Bennett said.

Of course this year’s results are little different from the previous NAEP scores for 2009. And Gov. Mitch Daniels, in his 2011 State of the State address, used those scores to argue that Indiana schools were failing and in need of drastic reform. Daniels claimed that “only one in three of our children can pass the national math or reading exam” and that Hoosier students “trail far behind most states and even more foreign countries on measures like excellence in math …”

About one-third of Indiana students score “proficient” on NAEP, but that doesn’t mean the rest of them don’t pass. According to education historian Diane Ravitch, a former member of the NAEP board, proficient is equivalent to an A or a strong B+ on the exam.

NAEP tests a representative sample of fourth-graders and eighth-graders in math and reading. Indiana fourth-graders did pretty well in math: Their average score was 4 points higher than the national average, they significantly trailed students in only six states, and fully 87 percent scored at the “basic” or higher level – essentially a passing score.

In the other areas, fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math and reading, Indiana was right in the middle –- we trail many, but not most, of the other states.

There are some reasons for seeing the glass as half empty, however. Average scores for black and Hispanic students continued to be significantly lower than those for non-Hispanic whites. Only 44 percent of black fourth-graders, for example, scored at basic or higher in reading, compared to 74 percent of white fourth-graders. Most discouraging, the test-score gaps between whites and minorities, and between middle-class and poor, have changed little since the 1990s.