Regulations proposed for virtual schools

New accountability could be coming to Indiana’s online K-12 schools. A State Board of Education committee is recommending stricter oversight, limits on growth and class size and other measures targeting “virtual schools,” most of which are charter schools.

The board will consider the proposals today. Most would require action by the Indiana General Assembly, which begins its 2019 session in January.

The committee on virtual schools was created in response to low tests scores and other issues at virtual charter schools. In one example, a Chalkbeat Indiana investigation found that Indiana Virtual School graduated few students, had a student-teacher ratio of over 200-to-1 and paid millions of dollars in rent and management fees to a business run by its founder. Continue reading

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Teacher pay tops union’s legislative agenda

Indiana educators watched quietly last spring as teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona staged rallies, protests and even walkouts for higher pay. Look for that to change next month when the Indiana General Assembly convenes for its biennial budget-writing session.

The Indiana State Teachers Association released its 2019 legislative agenda Monday, and boosting teacher pay is at the top of its priority list.

Teresa Meredith

Teresa Meredith

“At the end of the day, it’s about compensation,” said ISTA President Teresa Meredith.

The teachers’ union bolstered its case with the release of a poll that found more than 80 percent of Hoosiers favor increased school funding if the bulk of the money goes to the classroom. Over 70 percent of poll respondents said schools are underfunded and teachers are underpaid.

Indiana schools haven’t caught up from funding cuts in the recession of the late 2000s, and teachers and students have borne the brunt of the penny-pinching. Average teacher salaries have declined 15 percent in the past 15 years after adjusting for inflation, according to a Vox analysis.

“Some teachers haven’t seen a meaningful pay increase in 10 years,” said Meredith, whose union represents teachers in most Indiana school districts.

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Proposal would move away from school grades

Indiana would eliminate A-to-F school grades from its accountability system for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act under a proposal from the Indiana Department of Education. Does that mean school grades would go the way of the one-room schoolhouse? Not yet; grades will still be part of the separate state accountability system. But the department’s proposal is a step in the right direction and away from this overly simplistic way of evaluating and labeling schools and school districts.

Indiana StatehouseThe proposal, an amendment to Indiana’s ESSA plan, is open for public comment until Dec. 21. Once it’s submitted by the state, hopefully in January, the U.S. Department of Education will have 90 days to decide whether to approve it.

The amendment would replace A-to-F grades for federal accountability with a system that places schools and districts in one of four categories: “exceeds expectations,” “meets expectations,” “approaches expectations” and “does not meet expectations.”

Like the current system, it would put the heaviest weight on student performance and growth on standardized tests. But it would increase the weight given to other indicators, such as high-school graduation rate, language proficiency of English learners and absenteeism. It would also consider progress schools are making in closing achievement gaps for subgroups – students of color, poor children, students with disabilities, etc. – addressing a flaw in Indiana’s current accountability system.

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Do A-to-F grades leave some students behind?

A key element of federal education law since 2002 has been the idea that K-12 schools should be held accountable not only for the performance of their entire student population but for subgroups of students – students of color, poor children, students with disabilities and so on.

But there’s debate over whether Indiana’s accountability system under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act is really doing that. The state tracks and reports the performance of subgroups at the school and district levels, but the results don’t have any impact on overall school grades.

An analysis from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C., policy and advocacy organization, argues that Indiana and 11 other states are missing the boat by not including subgroups of students in their school grades or evaluations.

“Research has shown that simply reporting on performance doesn’t have the same impact as reporting and also holding schools accountable for those results,” said Anne Hyslop, an assistant director of the alliance. “We’re more likely to see improvement when there are consequences.” Continue reading

Touting school grades bolsters dubious policy

Those of us who advocate for public schools tend to blame outside forces when we lament the move to grading schools on an A-to-F scale. In Indiana, we may blame former Gov. Mitch Daniels, former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, state legislators, business groups and others.

MCCSC bannerBut public schools and school districts have helped validate this questionable policy. When they brag about their own grades, they’re endorsing the system as a measure of school quality.

Some of what they’re doing is old-fashioned public relations. At a time when public education is under attack, schools and districts can point to high grades to defend their reputation. “See?” they’re saying. “Our schools aren’t ‘failing’ like some of those public schools you hear about.”

And as public schools compete for students with charter schools and private schools, they are likely trumpet any endorsement they get. After all, charter schools are doing it – for example, here and here and here.

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Why not grade all schools on growth only?

Most Indiana schools earn A-to-F grades on a formula that gives equal weight to performance and growth on standardized tests. But schools in their first three years of operation – most of which are new charter schools and Indianapolis or Gary “innovation network” schools – can have their grades calculated on growth only, with no consideration of performance. Those schools have an advantage.

As Dylan Peers McCoy of Chalkbeat Indiana pointed out, it means you can’t use the grades to compare schools in a district like IPS. “Of the 11 out of 70 Indianapolis Public Schools campuses that received A marks from the state,” she wrote, “eight were graded based on growth alone.”

So why not grade all schools on growth only, not performance? It seems like that would make a lot of sense. In any given year, schools may not have a lot of control over where their students start out in their math and reading performance. What matters is, do schools help students grow?

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Elections brought mostly good news for education

Last week’s election results were mostly positive for education. Not entirely – there were definitely a few missed opportunities. But the news was more good than bad.

Close to home, voters in the Indianapolis Public Schools district approved a referendum to raise property taxes and increase school funding by $272 million over eight years. Most of the money will go to operating expenses, including long-overdue teacher raises; some will fund building improvements.

This is a big deal. IPS has struggled for years with declining enrollment and reduced state funding. Officials were reluctant to try to raise property taxes for fear voters would shoot down the measure. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce first called for a smaller increase, then got on board.

Around the state, eight school funding referendums were approved and four were turned down. That’s a worse success rate than schools have achieved in recent years, as officials have become more cautious and savvy in asking for tax increases. In May, voters approved 12 of 12 referendums.

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