PDK poll offers answers but leaves questions

Parents and the public favor racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, and they don’t put much stock in using standardized tests to measure school quality. At least that’s what they told the pollsters who conducted the 49th annual Phi Delta Kappa Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward the Public Schools.

But if that’s the case, why do so many affluent parents get up in arms over proposals to desegregate their neighborhood schools. Why do we accept the idea that property values are higher where schools are whiter and test scores are better?

Are the poll respondents just giving answers that make them sound reasonable? Or do a majority really embrace values of tolerance and diversity. As always, the poll provides a lot of information but leaves plenty of questions for us to debate.

Results of the PDK poll were released this week. On diversity, it found that 70 percent of parents say they would prefer for their child to attend a racially diverse school, and 61 percent prefer an economically mixed school. A majority of the public said racial and economic diversity is good for schools.

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District size study should get scrutiny

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce is sparking important discussion with a recent study of the relationship between school district size and student performance. But the study shouldn’t stand as the last word on the subject. And the chamber’s spin – suggesting it proves bigger school districts are better, up to a certain size – shouldn’t go unchallenged.

Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research conducted the study for the chamber. It concludes that, on average, students in districts with over 2,000 students have higher test scores and access to more advanced and varied courses than students in districts with fewer than 1,000 students.

Over half of Indiana’s school districts have fewer than 2,000 students and nearly 20 percent have fewer than 1,000 students. Many are contiguous to other small districts. The implication is that small districts should look for opportunities to consolidate. Probably some of them should.

But in some cases, the performance differences between large and small school districts aren’t very large. And they aren’t at all consistent. You can’t draw a straight line that correlates school district size with various measures of student performance.

Districts with between 2,000 and 3,000 students – the supposed sweet spot for operational efficiency – have the highest average SAT scores and some of the highest ISTEP passing rates. But bigger districts, with over 5,000 students, have higher passing rates for Advanced Placement exams. And the state’s smallest districts, with under 1,500 students, do best on English-language arts end-of-course tests.

Chris Lagoni, executive director of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, said the lack of consistency and the relatively weak correlation between district size and student performance suggest we should hesitate to create state policy based on the study. He said the focus on averages masks a lot of variation among small and large districts. Continue reading

Link between vouchers, segregation gets welcome attention

White citizens across the South resisted after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that “separate but equal” schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. Most resistance was futile, but Prince Edward County, Va., came up with an approach that endured.

“The white elite of Prince Edward County defied the Brown decision by closing the entire public school system and diverting public education funds into vouchers to be used at a segregated private academy that only white students could attend,” Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, writes in Dissent. “As the battles over the implementation of Brown played out, African-American students were denied access to education for five years in a row.”

As Casey explains, the story didn’t end there. Prince Edward County set the stage for the “school choice” ideology that has been embraced by President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Betsy DeVos.

Economist Milton Friedman, the intellectual father of the voucher movement, gave a nod to vouchers-for-segregation in his influential essay “The Role of Government in Education” – written in 1955, the year after the Brown decision. Friedman wrote in a footnote that he deplored discrimination and segregation but deplored “forced unsegregation” even more.

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School turnaround five years later

It’s been five years since the Indiana State Board of Education took charge of five chronically underperforming urban public schools and handed them over to charter-school operators that were supposed to turn them around. How has that worked out?

Not very well, to judge by Indiana’s A-to-F grading system. Since the takeover, the schools have received two Ds and 18 Fs.

That’s a far cry from what Indiana education officials and the charter operators suggested would happen back in 2012. Scott Elliott, then with the Indianapolis Star, wrote at the time that he was “a bit surprised” the turnaround operators wanted four years to raise the schools’ grades to A or B.

In four years, they didn’t come close. Five years could still bring a different story — school grades for the 2016-17 school year won’t be calculated until this fall — but it doesn’t seem likely.

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New exam brings lower proficiency for English learners

Indiana educators expected English learners to struggle with a new language proficiency assessment given in spring 2017. But they were surprised students struggled as much as they did.

“We knew there would be a higher standard,” said Emily Schwartz Keirns, ELL manager for Fort Wayne Community Schools. “What we didn’t anticipate was that the difference would be as dramatic as it was.”

Dramatic is the word. In 2016, 23 percent of the Fort Wayne district’s ELL students scored proficient on the previous version of the exam, which is called WIDA ACCESS. In 2017, the number fell to 1.7 percent.

That mirrored statewide results: 26.2 percent of Indiana’s ELL students were proficient in 2016, but only 2.3 percent were proficient this year.

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