Lots of B’s for Indiana school districts

The Indiana Department of Education released A-to-F grades for school districts this week, and 60 percent of districts were awarded B’s under the new grading system.

That’s probably about right. All the evidence suggests most public school districts in Indiana are doing a pretty good job. But if we’re honest, most could probably all do a little better.

School district A banner

Some school districts may need to change their branding as a result of new district grades.

One of the most consistent findings of the annual Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa Poll of the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools is that people are more likely to give their local schools a B than any other grade. And those are the schools that the public knows best.

The whole idea of labeling schools and school districts with letter grades still makes little sense, however. It’s quite likely that school districts that received A’s, for the most part, are no “better” than those that got B’s. And those that got C’s are no worse.

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School legislation grew from chat at county fair

This is how lawmaking is supposed to work. It starts with a friendly talk with a constituent at the county fair and moves on to legislation given a positive reception in a Senate committee. If things go the way they should, it will end up with a new law that provides modest but important help for public schools.

Senate Bill 30 would require the Indiana Department of Education to report to school districts twice a year on the number of local students receiving tuition vouchers and the private schools they attend. Introduced by Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, it’s scheduled for consideration today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

The idea was hatched last summer, when Koch ran into Laura Hammack, the newly appointed superintendent of the Brown County School Corp., at the school district’s popcorn booth at the Brown County Fair in Nashville.

“It was like 8,000 degrees outside and we were covered in popcorn grease,” Hammack recalled.

Koch asked about school issues, and Hammack said she was concerned the district was losing students and, as a result, losing state funding.

“The outgoing superintendent had shared that he expected us to be down about 40 students,” Hammack said. “That would have been a big hit, but in reality we were down 100 students last fall compared to the prior year. That generates a loss of just over a half million dollars to our general fund.”

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Governor wants to appoint state superintendent

Gov. Eric Holcomb says he wants Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction to be appointed by the governor, not elected by the voters. It’s not the worst education proposal we’re likely to hear this legislative session. But it’s up to Holcomb to make a case for the change.

His fellow Republicans raised this idea in 2012, after Democratic Glenda Ritz upset Republican incumbent Tony Bennett in the superintendent election. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce made appointing the schools chief part of its 2014 legislative agenda. But changing the law when there was a Republican governor and a Democratic superintendent would have been a slap in the face to the voters who favored Ritz. Republicans rightly recognized that.

In November 2016, voters chose Holcomb as governor and Republican Jennifer McCormick, over Ritz, as state superintendent. According to the Indianapolis Star, House Speaker Brian Bosma will sponsor legislation that will let the governor appoint the superintendent in 2021, after McCormick’s term ends.

Indiana is one of 13 states that elect their chief state school officers, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. In 15 states, governors appoint the schools chief. In 22, the position is appointed by the state board.

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ISTA priorities go beyond state budget

Improved school funding is at the top of the Indiana State Teachers Association’s 2017 legislative agenda. But it’s not all about the money. Also high on the list are supporting students who experience childhood trauma or developmental delays and helping teachers get better at what they do.

The ISTA also wants to put less emphasis on standardized tests, hold schools harmless for low grades until testing glitches are sorted out, improve teacher salaries and check the growth of private school vouchers and charter schools.

ISTA President Teresa Meredith answers questions.

ISTA President Teresa Meredith answers questions.

“All of these proposals are part of putting kids first in Indiana, making kids our first priority,” said ISTA president Teresa Meredith, who unveiled the agenda Wednesday at the Statehouse while appealing to lawmakers to focus on the more than 90 percent of Indiana students who attend public schools.

A top ISTA priority, Meredith said, is helping schools implement “trauma-informed care,” which recognizes and responds to the impact that adverse childhood experiences – such as abuse or neglect, family violence, substance abuse, mental illness and divorce — can have on development. The ISTA wants the legislature to create a safe and supportive schools program and fund training grants for educators.

Meredith cited reports that 26 percent of children experience a traumatic event before age 4 and research that finds childhood trauma linked to poor school outcomes, later mental health and substance abuse issues and a shorter life span. Continue reading

Public schools and investing in all our children

Everyone who cares about education should read this Indianapolis Star guest column by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Edward Curtis IV.

Headlined “Why we love our D-rated school,” it explains why Curtis sends his two elementary-age children to their neighborhood public school, regardless of test scores and school grades. The decision, he says, reflects his family’s deepest hopes for all children, not just their own.

“My choice is based not only on our family’s ethics, but also on calculated self-interest,” he writes. “We act out of our deepest values while also providing our kids with great opportunities by sending them to a multiracial, multireligious, multilanguage, working-class school.”

Curtis describes the joy that he sees when he visits the school’s classrooms and attends after-school activities. He celebrates that his children are learning by experience to live in a world that includes poor people, people of color, refugees and families that are learning to speak English.

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School grades still reflect student demographics

It was true five years ago and it’s still true today. The grades that Indiana assigns to schools say more about the students the schools serve than how effective the schools are.

A change in the grading system this year was a step in the right direction, but not a big enough step to make the grades fair or credible. Schools that get high grades are still more likely than not to serve few students from poor families. Those that get low grades are almost certainly high-poverty schools.

The idea that a simple A-to-F grade would provide meaningful information about something as complex as a public school was always silly. But basing grades primarily on standardized test scores, as Indiana has done, means the grades will be not only misleading but harmful to schools that struggle to improve.

Indiana changed its formula this year so that grades would be based equally on test-score performance and test-score growth. The result seems to be that a few affluent schools got Bs rather than As, and some schools with low tests scores may have bumped their grades to a D or a C via growth. But the overall trend still holds.

One way to look at this is divide Indiana’s public and charter schools into quartiles by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute did this in 2012 to show the tight fit between school grades and poverty. I did the same thing in 2013 and 2014. Continue reading

Teacher bonus inequity shouldn’t be a surprise

State legislators suggest they’re shocked – shocked! – to learn the $40 million Teacher Performant Grant program they created is mostly rewarding teachers who work in wealthy school districts.

“The original concept was to recognize outstanding teachers, not just outstanding districts,” House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, told the Indianapolis Star. “When we drafted it we didn’t think the gap would be as large,” Sen. Ryan Mishler, R- Bremen, who helped create the program, told WFYI News.

Really? Because it was entirely predictable that this would happen.

Gov. Mike Pence proposed the program, and legislators approved the formula that spells out how the grants are distributed. The primary way that schools qualify for the grants is if at least 75 percent of their students pass the state’s ISTEP exams. If at least 90 percent of students pass, they get larger grants. If schools qualify, they get money for each student who passes a test.

We’ve known for a long time that passing rates on standardized tests are much higher in affluent schools than in schools that serve lots of poor students. For high-poverty Indiana schools, a 75 percent passing rate is something to dream about – especially since ISTEP got a lot tougher in 2014-15.

Schools can also qualify on the basis of graduation rates or year-to-year improvement in ISTEP passing rates. Using improvement is supposed to help equalize funding, but it doesn’t have much effect. Continue reading