ILEARN results show pandemic had an impact

The Indiana Department of Education released 2021 ILEARN assessment results Wednesday for students in grades 3-to-8. I don’t want to read too much into standardized test scores, especially during a pandemic, but here are some thoughts.

COVID-19 clearly impacted learning, as everyone expected it would. Between 2019 and 2021, the share of students who scored proficient on the tests declined by about 8 percentage points in English/language arts and by about 11 percentage points in math. The share of students who were proficient in both English/language arts and math declined from 37.1% to 28.6%. (The test wasn’t given in 2020).

This isn’t entirely an apples-to-apples situation, and the department cautioned against comparing 2019 and 2021 scores. For one thing, the 2019 scores included only students who were enrolled at the same school for 162 days, while the 2021 scores apparently included all students who were tested. State officials said they’re thinking of 2021 as a “new baseline” for measuring future improvement.

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Douglass’ speech should be in school libraries

Did you know that Indiana schools are required to keep a copy of Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” in their school libraries? I wonder how many schools actually do this. And how many Hoosier teachers assign their students to read or hear Douglass’ powerful words.

The speech, delivered 169 years ago today, is one of 15 “protected writings, documents and records of American history or heritage” identified in Indiana law. The expected documents are on the list: the U.S. and Indiana constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, etc. But it also includes Douglass’ speech, Chief Seattle’s letter to a U.S. president (which may be apocryphal) and abolitionist David Walker’s “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.”

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (National Park Service image).

Indiana Code 20-30-5-3 says teachers and school officials may post and read from these documents without fear of censorship. It says students have a right to study them and cite them in their schoolwork. And it says school libraries or media centers “must contain in the facility’s permanent collection at least one copy of each writing or document” on the list.

Surprisingly, the requirement for possessing the documents applies not only to public and charter schools but to private schools that accept state-funded tuition vouchers. (That’s in Indiana Code 20-51-4-1). For the most part, Indiana legislators have bent over backward to impose no requirements on the private, mostly religious schools that receive vouchers.

As I wrote a year ago, I didn’t learn about Douglass’ speech in school (or for a long time afterward), and I was amazed by his scorching rhetoric. Much as the New York Times’ 1619 Project centers the story of slavery in its framing of American history, Douglass turned the tables on America’s Independence Day celebration, speaking from the perspective of a slave.

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Indiana’s demagogue-in-chief

If an issue is ripe for demagoguery, Todd Rokita will be on it like a dog on a bone. The phony outrage over what schools teach about race was made to order for the Indiana attorney general.

Rokita came out Wednesday with a “parents bill of rights” that purports to educate parents about their right to understand and be engaged in their children’s education. That sounds reasonable; but for Rokita, it’s an excuse to dive into a culture war.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita

Predictably, he jumps on the right-wing bandwagon to attack critical race theory and the 1619 Project. Never mind that K-12 schools almost never teach CRT, a theoretical framework for examining the role of race in society that may be taught in law or graduate schools. Or that the 1619 Project is exactly what it claims to be: an attempt to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Rokita lists six “rights” for parents with regard to their children’s education: the right to question school officials, to question the school’s curriculum, to expect schools to comply with the law, to participate in setting state academic standards, to review instructional materials and to run for school board.

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1619 project affirms American ideals

I read the 1619 Project when it was published in 2019, and I thought it was one of the most powerful collections of writings about America that I had ever encountered. I reread parts of it this week, including Nikole-Hannah Jones’ lead essay, and I still feel the same way.

I’ve been mystified to see the project turned into a political lightning rod. Following the lead of Donald Trump, critics argue it is racially divisive, anti-white and anti-American, and that it seeks to make us ashamed of our country. (None of that is true). Some legislators want to outlaw teaching it in schools.

The 1619 Project: New York Times Sunday Magazine cover.

I can only assume that these people are making their arguments in profoundly bad faith, manufacturing outrage for the 2022 elections. As Notre Dame professor John Duffy writes, many of the critiques seem “cynically opportunistic – gasoline poured into the trash can fires of the culture wars.”

An ambitious initiative by the New York Times, the 1619 Project aimed to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” It examines 400 years of history through the prism of race and racism, starting with the arrival in 1619 of the first Africans brought as slaves to what would become the United States.

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Voucher program is state-funded religious education

Remember when Indiana Republicans said vouchers would let disadvantaged students find alternatives to “failing” public schools? Times sure have changed. Advocates no longer pretend Indiana’s voucher program is about improving education. It’s about funding private religious schools, plain and simple.

For evidence, see this article in Today’s Catholic, a publication of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Joseph Brettnacher, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese, explains the benefits of a voucher program expansion that state lawmakers approved this year:

“The most important aspect of the choice expansion is that more families will have the ability to send their children to faith-based schools, where students can develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ within his mystical body, the Church,” Brettnacher says. “Our goals for students are to create disciples of Jesus Christ, help them fulfill their destiny to become saints and reach heaven.”

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Some truths should make us uncomfortable

Give credit to the Carmel High School students who stood up to the community members who think they shouldn’t be exposed to hard truths about race in America. That takes courage in a district where only 7% of students are Black or Hispanic.

According to the Indy Star, five students took to the mic at a recent Carmel Clay School Board meeting to defend the district’s efforts to be more inclusive about race, gender and other factors.

“They shared what it’s like to be a student in Carmel and stressed their support for the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work happening in the district,” reporter MJ Slaby wrote. “The students said it fosters understanding and helps to provide representation to all students.”

You’d think supporting equity and inclusion would be a no-brainer, but it’s not. In several Hamilton County school districts – Carmel, Hamilton Southeastern, Westfield-Washington and Noblesville – residents have turned out at board meetings to voice objections.

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Vaccine refusal has consequences

Not surprised but disappointed. That’s my reaction to the news that we probably won’t reach “herd immunity” for COVID-19 anytime soon. And that we may never reach it.

For much of the past year, experts were saying we could reach herd immunity, the stage where the virus stops actively spreading, when 70% or so of the population was vaccinated or immune from having had the infection. We hoped schools could return to normal by this fall, after a year and a half of disruptions.

As Shari Rudavsky writes in the Indy Star, herd immunity was the Holy Grail, the prize that would let life get back to routine. Now it seems to be out of reach. Health officials no longer promote the idea.

What happened? One factor was the rise of more contagious variants of the coronavirus that causes the disease. That meant more vaccinations would be needed to reach herd immunity. But another factor, and the one that’s truly disappointing, is that many Americans refuse to get vaccinated.

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IPS, Gary dominate charter school demographics

Two themes jump out from Indiana Department of Education demographic data on charter school students in Indiana. First, it’s a tale of two cities – or, more accurately, a tale of two districts.

Over half of Indiana’s nearly 45,000 charter school students live in the Indianapolis Public Schools and Gary Community Schools districts, even though those districts account for fewer than 5% of the state’s students. State charter school data are overwhelmingly skewed by what happens in those two districts.

Second, Indianapolis’ approximately 50 charter schools enroll higher percentages of Black and economically disadvantaged students than IPS schools – even though IPS has significantly more Black students and students from low-income families than most districts in the state.

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Referendums give districts an edge on teacher pay

The Indiana legislature is calling on school districts to spend at least 45% of their state funding distributions on teacher salaries. Some districts will find it easier to meet the goal than others. One reason: referendums that let districts supplement state funding with local property taxes.

According to a December 2020 report from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission, teacher salary costs as a share of state funding vary widely. In 2020, they ranged from about 30% in some districts to over 60% in others.

The report found that 109 of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts paid less than 45% of their state funding for teacher salaries in 2020. (The figures are in Appendix 15). Those districts will have to increase teacher salaries – in some cases, significantly – or cut other spending to meet the legislature’s target. Collectively, they fell $52.4 million short of paying enough for teacher salaries in 2020.

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