Waldorf schools: ‘nonreligious’?

Indiana law says charter schools must be “nonsectarian and nonreligious.” Do Waldorf schools meet the test? It’s a serious question, one the folks at Ball State University should weigh as they decide whether to approve a charter for Green Meadows School, a proposed Waldorf school in Bloomington.

As Emily Chertoff reports in the Atlantic, Waldorf education was developed nearly 100 years ago by Rudolf Steiner, a German proponent of the esoteric belief system called theosophy. Steiner eventually founded his own offshoot, anthroposophy, to explore ways the living could enter the “spirit world.”

“Many of the methods used at Waldorf today (for instance the movement exercises and the use of music) are rooted in Steiner’s belief that schools need to cultivate spirit — the medium for contact between the living and the dead,” Chertoff writes in a bemused and mostly uncritical article.

Green Meadows, in its charter proposal, makes numerous references to Steiner and his ideas, promising a “spiritual” approach to schooling that teaches “reverence” for nature, people, plants and animals and feeds the “divine spark” in every person.

Not surprisingly there are Waldorf critics who say this is religion and doesn’t belong in public schools. One of the most vocal groups is California-based People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools, which stops short of calling Waldorf “a cult” but says that “Waldorf teachers often behave in cult-like ways.” Continue reading

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Indiana Senate Democrats: Time to talk about pre-K

Let’s hear it for the Indiana Senate Democrats. They may be few in number, but that’s not stopping them from putting forward ideas and acting as if they should be taken seriously.

Last week, caucus leader Tim Lanane rolled out a proposal for universal, state-funded pre-kindergarten. Lanane admitted the idea isn’t likely to be approved in 2014, which isn’t a state budget year. But he told the Indianapolis Star that he wants to start a conversation, and now is the time to do it.

Republicans have a super-majority in both the Senate and the House, so any pre-K program will need GOP support to pass. Last year, when state business and media leaders were sounding off about the importance of high-quality preschool, the House approved a state-funded pilot pre-K program. It got derailed in the Senate because of concerns about its $7 million price tag.

But the bill the House passed wasn’t a public pre-K program but a voucher program that would have given state money to private and church-based preschools. It would even have provided another entryway to Indiana’s controversial K-12 voucher program.

Senate Democrats want to create a program in which local school districts can work with the Indiana Department of Education to open pre-K classrooms, with funding from the state. Continue reading

Political context explains shaky support for Common Core

One of the great mysteries of education politics is the way the near-universal support for the Common Core State Standards has come under siege, primarily from the tea-party right but also from the left. Jeremy Anderson, president of the Education Commission of the States, made some sense of it this week in a policy chat sponsored by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

Anderson pointed out that most of the governors and chief state school officers who were behind the Common Core movement are no longer in office. They’ve been replaced by newbies who don’t have ownership of the standards and, in some cases, are worried about political blowback. And state legislators, who weren’t much involved in the Common Core push to begin with, have had their heads spun by the dizzying storm of claims and counterclaims about the standards.

More than half the states elected new governors in 2002, Anderson said; and 25 of those governors were re-elected in 2006. Others, like Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, were elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2008. Those governors and their chief state school officers were the constituency for Common Core. Under the No Child Left Behind law, they watched their states try to measure progress against a mish-mash of standards, some rigorous and some not. They decided a national effort was in order.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers announced plans for Common Core in 2009, and 46 states almost immediately signed on. But it would take several years to create the standards, and several more to phase them in. They wouldn’t take effect until 2014.

“That’s the reality of what we deal with in education,” Anderson said. “These things take time. It’s a culture change.” Continue reading

Detail still missing from Indiana grade-change story

John Grew and William Sheldrake provide the most complete account to date on how the Indiana Department of Education struggled to implement A-to-F school grading last year. They also offer solid recommendations as the state moves to a new system in 2014.

But their report doesn’t put to rest one question: When and why did former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff remove a “ceiling” on the grade points that schools could earn for math or English test-score improvement, a move that ended up raising grades for 165 schools? Did they make the change to boost the grade for Christel House Academy, a favored Indianapolis charter school? Or was it a broad policy decision that officials just forgot to make public.

The Grew-Sheldrake report says former DOE officials claim the decision was made before the State Board of Education adopted the A-to-F rule in February 2012.

“According to DOE management staff, the removal of the growth caps was indicated by the language of the final approved rule, but erroneously not implemented in the computer programming of the model,” the report says. “This mistake was found in the final weeks prior to the embargoed release of the grades’ data to the schools on September 19, 2012.”

It appears to be true that the ceiling was not included in the language of the rule. But here are three reasons to suspect the decision may not have happened the way DOE management staff say.

First, an FAQ page explaining the point ceiling remains on the Internet (See items No. 11 and 29). According to the page’s document information, it was created in March 2012, a month after the SBE approved the rule. Continue reading

Ritz to speak Monday in Bloomington

The first eight months in office have been eventful for Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz. There should be a lot to talk about when she visits Indiana University Bloomington Monday for a policy chat.

The session, sponsored by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, starts at 2 p.m. in the Georgian Room of the Indiana Memorial Union. Jeremy Anderson, president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, will moderate.

Ritz, of course, pulled off a shocker by upsetting incumbent Tony Bennett in the November 2012 election. Republican Bennett had a 5-to-1 spending advantage and support from the likes of Jeb Bush and Michael Bloomberg. Ritz had a grassroots movement of teachers and parents on her side.

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing since she took office in January.

// State ISTEP-Plus exams were plagued by computer interruptions in the spring, delaying results and throwing a wrench into school and teacher evaluations.

// The legislature mandated a “pause” in implementing the Common Core State Standards, putting Ritz in the middle of a nasty fight between supporters and opponents of the standards.

// Controversy erupted over the state’s A-to-F school grading system when the Associated Press revealed that Bennett and his staff manipulated the system to boost a charter school’s grade.

// Gov. Mike Pence created a Center for Education and Career Innovation, a new agency that appears to take responsibility for education policy away from Ritz. Ritz said she wasn’t told in advance about the move.

// State Board of Education members, appointed by Pence and his predecessor, Mitch Daniels, regularly balk at Ritz’s recommendations and seem to be taking over some of the superintendent’s budgetary and policy responsibilities.

All this puts Ritz in a tight spot. She has tried to nudge the state away from the hard-nosed approach to education reform that Bennett favored. But to a certain extent, she has to get along with the Republicans who run state government. It should make for an interesting policy chat on Monday.

Rothstein: March ‘had it right’

Organizers of the 1963 March on Washington were correct to call for immediate desegregation of the nation’s schools and neighborhoods, Richard Rothstein writes in an Economic Policy Institute report.

The marchers, he says, “did not need to be told what a half century of social science research has confirmed – schools cannot fulfill their potential so long as African Americans are segregated, as (Martin Luther) King put it, into ‘a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.’”

But instead of pushing integration, the federal government in the 1960s backed “compensatory education”: more money for schools serving poor and minority children. Rothstein argues that today’s education reform ideology, focused on test scores, teacher effectiveness and choice, follows a similar track. It promotes a false dream that, if we just get the accountability factors right, we can have schools that are separate but truly equal – or at least equal enough.

The report runs nearly 20 pages and covers a lot of ground. Here are a few highlights:

The March on Washington didn’t integrate the schools, but it did help trigger the well-known study of the nation’s schools by sociologist James S. Coleman, who expected to find that funding discrepancies accounted for the achievement differences between black and white students. In fact, Rothstein writes, the study found that funding didn’t make as much of a difference as expected.

What did make a difference was integration, but only where black children were integrated into majority middle-class schools. In other words, the priorities of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had been correct: To improve black student achievement, the nation must improve socioeconomic conditions for black families, as well as implement integration not only by race but by social class.

But the Johnson and Nixon administrations buried the report’s findings. Courts ordered busing to integrate urban schools, but the approach was eventually abandoned.

Attempts to raise achievement solely by improving ghetto schools continue to date, with disappointing results. It remains the strategy of contemporary reformers, and its continued failure leads, inevitably, to conclusions that public education itself has failed and must be dismantled.

Rothstein points out that black students have made remarkable academic progress, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Black fourth-graders improved their scores by a full standard deviation over a generation: “an improvement rate rarely encountered in any area of human performance.” How did this happen? Rothstein doesn’t claim to know, but he suggests possibilities: higher educational attainment for mothers, smaller family size and improved health care. He says policymakers have been “shockingly incurious” about the trend, and it hasn’t been widely studied.

He says critics of schools are missing the boat by fixating on the black-white achievement gap. The gap is shrinking, but it continues because white students also are making progress. “It is hard to see how improvement for both whites and blacks can be deemed evidence of school failure, but by focusing on the gap rather than real improvement, most policymakers draw such a conclusion,” he writes.

Yet there is one indicator that’s clearly going in the wrong direction.

Isolation of black students, particularly of low-income black students, in predominantly black and low-income schools, is increasing … When low-performing students are concentrated in the same schools, it is more difficult to raise their achievement than when these children are integrated into the middle-class population. … Children learn less from each other if few come from homes where large vocabularies and more complex language are used and where they were often read to when young.

Rothstein’s report appeared last week as part of a series marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and its uncompleted agenda. “By stressing integration as the most important goal of education improvement, the March on Washington had it right,” he concludes. “It is appropriate not only to commemorate this resolve but to renew it.”