Charter-school ‘evaluation’ reads like boosterism

The State Board of Education released its first report on Indiana charter school outcomes this month. The report includes a lot of information, but overall it reads more like pro-charter advocacy than the “formal evaluation” the state legislature requested.

The report claims to compare charter schools with public schools serving similar students and concludes that “brick-and-mortar” charter schools generally do a better job. But it uses a questionable methodology and leaves out important details and performance criteria. Tellingly, it cites pro-charter sources as authorities and unquestioningly adopts talking points about “innovation” and “autonomy.”

The report sets the tone at the start, boasting that “leading experts rank Indiana No. 1” for charter schools. But the only expert it cites is the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an organization that exists to promote charter schools and that gives Indiana A’s for its charter school support.

“The way it leads off, grading the law — it definitely comes across as kind of a cheerleading piece,” said Indiana University education professor Chris Lubienski, who reviewed the report last week.

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Indiana NAEP gains may be misleading

Indiana’s eighth-grade reading scores appear to be a bright spot in the mostly drab results of the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress. But on closer inspection, maybe not.

Indiana was one of 10 states that boosted eighth-grade reading scores between 2015 and 2017. But the improvement may be misleading, Indiana University professor Sarah Theule Lubienski said. Grade-retention policies that Indiana implemented five years earlier may have removed the lowest-achieving students from the group, leaving a stronger-than-normal class.

“I’d like to think this is a real gain, that the students in eighth grade were reading better,” said Lubienski, a professor of math education and an expert on NAEP. “But I worry we may have just lost our most struggling readers in that cohort.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, given every two years to a sample of students in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, measures math and reading performance in fourth and eighth grades. At the national level, the latest scores changed little from 2015.

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Schools still unequal 50 years after King’s death

Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. On this painful anniversary, we miss his vision and moral clarity as much as ever.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Library of Congress photo

King was in Memphis to support union sanitation workers who were striking for a living wage and safe working conditions. He was also launching a national Poor People’s Campaign to fight poverty. Today, unions are under attack in the courts and statehouses, and the social safety net is shredding.

The president of the United States was elected in part by appealing to resentment of racial progress and social change. His base doesn’t flinch at expressions of racism, misogyny and religious bigotry.

And then there are the schools.

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Reports show Indiana school funding lagging

Recent reports on state education funding suggest Indiana is slipping when it comes to providing fair and adequate support for public schools.

Exhibit A, and the most discouraging example, is an annual report by researchers at Rutgers University and the Education Law Center. The report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card,” evaluates states on four measures of how they fund schools.

Indiana gets a C in the report for “funding distribution,” a measure of whether states provide additional funding for high-poverty school districts. That’s unfortunate, because Indiana used to consistently get A’s in the category. It used to do a better job of sending more money to the neediest districts.

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Comment period wrapping up on A-to-F rule

There’s nothing more snooze-inducing than the adoption of state administrative rules. It features technical language, choreographed hearings, public comment periods, legalistic processes – and a sneaking suspicion that the people making the rules have already decided what will happen.

But rules can be important: case in point, the new school accountability rule that the Indiana State Board of Education is in the process of approving. It will set criteria for awarding A-to-F school grades and ultimately have a big influence on the reputations of schools and communities.

So it’s good that some of the people who will be most affected by the rule – teachers, school administrators and school board representatives – have been making clear what they think is wrong with the proposal the board is considering:

  • They say a plan to put less emphasis on test-score growth and more on test-score performance will handicap high-poverty schools and provide an inaccurate picture of school effectiveness. The board’s proposal would cap math and language-arts growth points for elementary and middle schools and eliminate growth as a factor in high-school grades.
  • They worry that adding accountability for science and social studies could lead to more emphasis on testing and test prep if it isn’t handled properly.
  • They question details of the state’s move to a national college-admission exam, like the SAT or ACT, to measure of high-school performance. One official pointed out that students who aren’t college-bound may not take the test seriously, but schools will be judged on their scores.
  • They ask how the accountability rule, including the requirement of SAT or ACT exams, will mesh with new high-school graduation pathways requirements that the board has adopted.

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Indiana teacher pay shrinking

Average teacher salaries in Indiana have declined by over 15 percent in the past 15 years after adjusting for inflation. That’s according to an interactive analysis produced last week by Alvin Change of Vox, drawing on data from the National Education Association.

Indiana’s pay cuts, Chang writes, are “worse than the nation as a whole, where teachers have had their pay cut by an average of 3 percent when we adjust for inflation. And since 2010, teachers in Indiana had their pay cut by 9.7 percent.”

They’re also worse than in West Virginia, where low pay and a lack of raises touched off a two-week teacher strike that pushed state officials to approve a 5-percent raise for educators. Clearly, lagging teacher pay is an issue across the country. The West Virginia strike could be a harbinger of things to come. Kentucky or Oklahoma could be next.

Chang quotes the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to explain what has happened:

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Secrecy provisions in ‘distressed schools’ bill go too far

Indiana lawmakers may have been trying to do the right thing last week when they created a way for financially struggling school corporations to avoid being flagged for takeover by the state. But they went too far when they made those procedures secret.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to create new exceptions to the state’s public records and open meetings laws, limiting public scrutiny of efforts by local and state officials to turn around a school corporation’s finances before it gets placed on a state watch list.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

As Steve Key of the Hoosier State Press Association pointed out, this isn’t just bad public policy – it’s likely to be counterproductive by blocking public participation in important government decisions.

“To me it’s puzzling,” he said. “It doesn’t allow people in the community to support their school district or push the administration and the school board to turn things around before it gets worse.”

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