Money matters, apparently, for school turnaround

How much should Indiana spend to turn around a handful of its lowest-performing schools? Whatever it takes, members of the State Board of Education are suggesting. And that attitude may put them on a collision course with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz.

The issue took up much of Monday’s state board meeting, where representatives of Indiana TSOs – turnaround school operators – insisted on being first in line when the state Department of Education hands out federal grants this summer.

The board, then led by previous Superintendent Tony Bennett, decided in 2011 to turn several under-achieving Indianapolis and Gary schools over to TSOs: Charter Schools USA, Edison Learning and Indy nonprofit EdPower. The hand-off took place last fall.

Monday’s discussion focused on Section 1003(a) School Improvement Grant funds, which the state receives from the federal government and awards to local schools. Last year, under Bennett, more than half the money went to the five turnaround academies – presumably to help them get off the ground. Each of the schools got about $1.4 million, while a majority of schools that qualified for the grants received $5,000 each (see chart).

Board members said Monday they had made a commitment to the turnaround schools, and they leaned hard on Ritz to give the schools as much as they got last year.

“If you have a strategic priority and you don’t fund it, that’s dereliction of duty,” said David Shane. Continue reading

Surprise! Indiana students among world’s best in math and science

The basic assumption behind education reform in Indiana – the belief that drives high-stakes testing and accountability focused on students, teachers and schools – is that our public education system isn’t very good. Or at least that it isn’t what it ought to be.

But what if the assumption is wrong? Here’s some evidence that it is: Hoosier eighth-graders posted some of the world’s best scores in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which compared math and science achievement for students in 63 countries.

If Indiana were a country, it would have ranked with some of the world’s leaders.

The TIMSS results were analyzed in a policy brief produced in March by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University and written by David Rutkowski, Justin Wild and Leslie Rutkowski of the IU School of Education. But the report received almost no media attention.

“The only message we’re ever getting, and the impetus behind all this testing that we’re seeing, is that our schools are failing,” Leslie Rutkowski said last week. “We’re really not doing that badly.”

TIMSS measures how well students are learning an internationally accepted curriculum in math and science. It’s given every four years to students in fourth and eighth grades. The last round of testing was in 2011 –- significantly, before Indiana’s high-profile education reforms, including private-school vouchers, more charter schools and test-based teacher evaluations, took effect. Continue reading

PISA testing glitch a lesson for Indiana

Back in 2006, there was an apparently minor glitch in administering the Programme for International Student Assessment, a system of student tests given by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Some U.S. reading-test booklets were misprinted and included confusing directions.

The result: The OECD didn’t even report PISA reading scores for the United States. Officials reasoned the scores wouldn’t be valid and they shouldn’t put out bad results.

Leslie Rutkowski, an assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Education and an expert on statistical modeling, brought up the PISA experience in connection with the problems Indiana experienced with its 2013 ISTEP-Plus exam. Testing was plagued by disruptions traced to the computer servers of CTB/McGraw-Hill, Indiana’s test contractor.

“I feel like that is such a telling anecdote,” Rutkowski said. “PISA is low-stakes: The test doesn’t have consequences for students or for schools. And for something as small as a printing error to invalidate the results … that was something that really resonated with me.”

ISTEP, by contrast, is a high-stakes test – all the more reason there needs to be full confidence in its results. “We’re making decisions about whether a child graduates, whether a teacher keeps her job, whether a school stays open” on the basis of test scores, Rutkowski said. “If the data is questionable in any way, I don’t think we can use it.”

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz appears to agree. The state Department of Education contracted with the New Hampshire-based National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment to determine if ISTEP results are valid. Continue reading

Obama would give Indiana $62.4 million for pre-kindergarten

Indiana would get would $62.4 million to provide high-quality preschool to 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families in the first year of President Barack Obama’s Preschool for All program, according to information released this week by the U.S. Department of Education.

The state would also get $8.5 million for home visits to families with young children by nurses, social workers, parent educators and other professionals. And the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program, serving children from birth to 3, would be expanded.

How likely is this to happen? Probably not very, even though evidence is overwhelming that early childhood education is a good investment, and the concept has had strong support from the state’s business community and civic leadership. Remember that the Indiana legislature couldn’t agree on even a modest pre-kindergarten pilot program this year, even though its leadership insisted that getting children off to a good start should be a priority. Continue reading

Where did the students go?

Something is missing from the Indianapolis Star’s story on Sunday celebrating the “turnaround” success at the city’s Emma Donnan Middle School:

About 500 kids.

The story, headlined “The taming of a long-troubled school,” contrasts the relatively calm 2012-13 year with the reported chaos of previous years at the school. The state took over Emma Donnan from Indianapolis Public Schools in 2012 and turned its management over to Florida-based Charter Schools USA, designated a “turnaround school operator.”

“Over the past 10 months, CSUSA created an environment where once fearful students felt safe,” writes the Star’s Robert King. “And it brought back some of the things that define a school but had lone gone missing,” like a student council, yearbook and athletic teams.

King credits the new management, fewer students and “strong support for a group of young, idealistic teachers” as reasons for success. But you have to read deep into the story to learn we’re talking about a lot fewer students. Enrollment dropped from nearly 900 to fewer than 400 when CSUSA took over.

What happened to the other 500 students? How did the state-brokered turnaround help them? One student tells the Star: “The bad kids from last year, they weren’t here?” Where were they? Was their education being turned around?

Enrollment dropped at Emma Donnan, but funding didn’t. Continue reading