Indiana education reforms: research-based … or not?

Are the education reforms that the Indiana General Assembly approved really “based on substantial research,” as the state Department of Education claimed in a recent message? Or are they faith-based, relying on an ideology that says the market is good and unions are bad?

It’s easy to be cynical about vouchers, charter schools and merit pay – and to assume the Mitch Daniels-Tony Bennett agenda is simply about paying off business supporters and busting teachers’ unions.

But listen to Gov. Daniels tear up as he celebrates his legislative successes at a bill-signing ceremony for Senate Bill 1, the teacher merit-pay bill. He seems to truly believe he is doing what is best for children. (And never mind that he repeats, yet again, the bogus claim that teacher quality is 20 times more important than any other factor in student learning).

Still, research or faith, that’s the question.

School Matters asked the Department of Education to cite research showing that: 1) merit pay will benefit students; 2) more charter schools will benefit students; 3) vouchers will benefit all students, not just those who transfer to private schools; and 4) collective bargaining for teachers hurts students.

To their great credit, the DOE media folks replied with an extensive list. We’ll summarize, providing links so you can judge for yourself:

Merit pay – The department provided references to studies and white papers on this topic, but none showed evidence that a U.S. merit-pay system, on its own, had produced improvements in learning. A number of the links show that teaching matters; well, no one argues that it doesn’t. Several came from Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and the Colorado-based National Center for Education Policy, both adamant foes of merit pay based on test scores. There’s a study that shows small student improvement from the TAP system, which includes merit pay; another that shows benefits from teacher bonuses for school-level improvement, a cross-national study of merit pay, and a study from India.

DOE made no reference to recent studies from New York and Tennessee that showed no positive effects from merit pay.

Charter schools – The department cited the Stanford CREDO study that found charter schools in Indiana produce slightly more improvement in test scores than traditional public schools. But that study doesn’t argue for increasing the number of charter schools, as provided for in HB 1002. The author said Indiana charter schools may do well because only a few organizations have been allowed to award charters and the schools are well regulated.

Vouchers – The “research” cited is a series of talking points straight from the Foundation for School Choice, a voucher advocacy organization, and a book from the libertarian Cato Institute. Not mentioned were studies and reports that found little or no academic benefit for students in voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Collective bargaining – There’s a Brookings Institution paper that calls collective bargaining an “anachronism” and advocates its overhaul; a couple of studies that suggest getting rid of collective bargaining reduces teacher absenteeism; and a study from New Mexico that finds bargaining agreements helped high-achieving students and hurt low-achieving students.

So what does one make of all this? The studies on vouchers and charter schools are, at best, mixed. And there’s no evidence that implementing merit pay or weakening unions has helped students, possibly because it hasn’t been widely tried or possibly because it’s just not a good idea.

As school-reform advocate Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute has written, “To a frustrating degree, the conclusions one draws from the educational-performance evidence depend on which experts one trusts.”

You can pick your studies and argue that maybe, just maybe, schools will improve under the changes Indiana has adopted. But to think the legislation is sure to make a significant, positive difference for students – well, that takes a leap of faith.

A funding slope, but not a cliff

Eric Knox of Support Our Schools has written a helpful analysis of Indiana’s budgetary and school-funding problems and their implications for the Monroe County Community School Corp. It’s posted on the Bloomington Online community forum.

His key point: The so-called “cliff effect” – the impact on education and other programs from the state’s loss of $2 billion in federal stimulus funds – may not be the problem that MCCSC Superintendent J.T. Coopman and other school officials have sometimes suggested. “The State of Indiana has a self-inflicted budget problem, but there is no $2 billion ‘funding cliff’ and 2012 is likely to be better than 2011,” writes Knox, who relies on budget data from Purdue professor Larry DeBoer’s website.

It’s true that Indiana was awarded $2 billion in federal stimulus dollars in 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the state has been using that money to balance its budget during the economic downturn. The money has been used to fund both education and the Medicaid health-care program. But by design, the funding was “front-loaded” — about half was budgeted in the first half of 2009 and Indiana’s reliance on stimulus is being gradually phased out.

In other words, the big drop in stimulus funding has already happened, and the decline is leveling out as the money nears zero. Continue reading