Two strikes against Bennett reforms

It’s been a rough week for the Tony Bennett education reform agenda in Indiana.

Monday, the state House of Representatives voted unanimously to drop a requirement that teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores. And Wednesday, the State Board of Education voted to return the operation of four “turnaround academies” to public school districts in Gary and Indianapolis.

Both votes represented reversals of education initiatives that then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett championed in 2011.

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What a tangled web …

In 2012, the Indiana State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett chose Charter Schools USA to run three Indianapolis schools that the state had taken over after years of low test scores.

Thus began a complex tale replete with politics, money and head-spinning networks of relationships – with the fate of the schools, T.C. Howe Community School, Emmerich Manual High School and Emma Donnan Middle School, still in the balance seven years later.

The saga took another turn last week when the state board rejected an appeal by Indianapolis Public Schools to let the schools return to its fold as “innovation network” schools. Instead, it called for Charter Schools USA, through a nonprofit affiliate, to keep running the schools, now as charter schools.

The Indiana Charter School Board could decide Friday whether to award charters to the CSUSA affiliate, called ReThink Forward Indiana. If it does, ReThink will have yet another CSUSA-connected group, Noble Education Initiative, manage the schools. Continue reading

School turnaround five years later

It’s been five years since the Indiana State Board of Education took charge of five chronically underperforming urban public schools and handed them over to charter-school operators that were supposed to turn them around. How has that worked out?

Not very well, to judge by Indiana’s A-to-F grading system. Since the takeover, the schools have received two Ds and 18 Fs.

That’s a far cry from what Indiana education officials and the charter operators suggested would happen back in 2012. Scott Elliott, then with the Indianapolis Star, wrote at the time that he was “a bit surprised” the turnaround operators wanted four years to raise the schools’ grades to A or B.

In four years, they didn’t come close. Five years could still bring a different story — school grades for the 2016-17 school year won’t be calculated until this fall — but it doesn’t seem likely.

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State Board of Ed wants to expand takeover experiment

The State of Indiana took over the five “persistently failing” schools in 2011 and handed their operation over to charter school operators. How has that worked out?

Four of the schools still got Fs in the 2013-14 school grades that were released this fall. One inched up to a D. This is after two full years of the turnaround operators being in charge and promising results.

The state takeover was profoundly disruptive to children and to staff. In Indianapolis, lots of students initially left the schools. Turnaround operators reaped a windfall in state funding for children who no longer attended. For a time, they also picked up the lion’s share of School Improvement Grants.

Even so, one of the turnaround operators, Tindley Accelerated Schools, is now bailing on its agreement to run Arlington High School, sending it back to Indianapolis Public Schools. Another, Edison Learning, appears to be emerging from a nasty fight with Gary Community Schools over who’s responsible for what at Roosevelt Academy.

It looks a whole lot like the turnaround experiment, not the schools, has been a failure.

But the State Board of Education’s response is to decide Indiana needs more state takeover, not less. Under current law, the state can take over a school after six consecutive years of F grades. Wednesday, the board proposed changing the law to allow takeover after four straight years of Ds or Fs.

That just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

Money matters, apparently, for school turnaround

How much should Indiana spend to turn around a handful of its lowest-performing schools? Whatever it takes, members of the State Board of Education are suggesting. And that attitude may put them on a collision course with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz.

The issue took up much of Monday’s state board meeting, where representatives of Indiana TSOs – turnaround school operators – insisted on being first in line when the state Department of Education hands out federal grants this summer.

The board, then led by previous Superintendent Tony Bennett, decided in 2011 to turn several under-achieving Indianapolis and Gary schools over to TSOs: Charter Schools USA, Edison Learning and Indy nonprofit EdPower. The hand-off took place last fall.

Monday’s discussion focused on Section 1003(a) School Improvement Grant funds, which the state receives from the federal government and awards to local schools. Last year, under Bennett, more than half the money went to the five turnaround academies – presumably to help them get off the ground. Each of the schools got about $1.4 million, while a majority of schools that qualified for the grants received $5,000 each (see chart).

Board members said Monday they had made a commitment to the turnaround schools, and they leaned hard on Ritz to give the schools as much as they got last year.

“If you have a strategic priority and you don’t fund it, that’s dereliction of duty,” said David Shane. Continue reading

Where did the students go?

Something is missing from the Indianapolis Star’s story on Sunday celebrating the “turnaround” success at the city’s Emma Donnan Middle School:

About 500 kids.

The story, headlined “The taming of a long-troubled school,” contrasts the relatively calm 2012-13 year with the reported chaos of previous years at the school. The state took over Emma Donnan from Indianapolis Public Schools in 2012 and turned its management over to Florida-based Charter Schools USA, designated a “turnaround school operator.”

“Over the past 10 months, CSUSA created an environment where once fearful students felt safe,” writes the Star’s Robert King. “And it brought back some of the things that define a school but had lone gone missing,” like a student council, yearbook and athletic teams.

King credits the new management, fewer students and “strong support for a group of young, idealistic teachers” as reasons for success. But you have to read deep into the story to learn we’re talking about a lot fewer students. Enrollment dropped from nearly 900 to fewer than 400 when CSUSA took over.

What happened to the other 500 students? How did the state-brokered turnaround help them? One student tells the Star: “The bad kids from last year, they weren’t here?” Where were they? Was their education being turned around?

Enrollment dropped at Emma Donnan, but funding didn’t. Continue reading

Vouchers, takeovers – updates on ‘reform’

School’s out for the summer, but the news marches on concerning what’s euphemistically referred to as education reform.

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story last week about school voucher programs helping reverse enrollment declines at Catholic schools. Reporters Stephanie Banchero and Jennifer Levitz focus, naturally, on Indiana.

In particular, the story centers on St. Stanislaus, the only Catholic school left in East Chicago, Ind., whose enrollment grew by 38 percent last year due to vouchers. “God has been good to us,” says principal Kathleen Lowry, neglecting, apparently, to give thanks to Gov. Mitch Daniels, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, who sprung the voucher program on an unsuspecting public in the 2011 legislative session.

“The most impressive gains for Catholic education have happened in Indiana, where the nation’s largest voucher system rolled out last year,” the WSJ says. “More than 2,400 children used state-issued vouchers to transfer from public to Catholic schools. Another 1,500 used vouchers to move to other religious or private schools.”

One rationale for vouchers is that they offset the damage to Catholic education done by the expansion of charter schools. Some parents send their kids to Catholic schools not for religion, but for an alternative to the local public schools. If that’s all you want, why not opt for a charter school, where taxpayers pay the freight.

A recent analysis by the consulting firm Praxis Insights found that charter schools were a “significant and growing factor” behind the decline in Catholic school enrollment in New York. Continue reading

Reporting project raises questions about ‘school turnaround’

Monday’s meeting of the Indiana Select Commission on Education spotlighted the “school turnaround” efforts that the state Department of Education has been applying to low-performing schools.

But a recent article in Education Week raises questions about the approach that Indiana has adopted at the urging of the U.S. Department of Education. Written by Alyson Klein, the article was produced with help from the Hechinger Report and 18 news organizations, including the Indianapolis Star.

Klein writes that there have been mixed results from school turnaround since the Obama Administration “supercharged” the effort with $3 billion in School Improvement Grants targeted to schools that had failed for years to improve test scores. Some schools that have implemented turnaround approaches have seen improvement, while others have gotten worse.

“They mandated these models before they even researched them,” complains Keith Rheault, retired Nevada superintendent of public instruction. “We’re testing it out.”

As a condition for getting SIG money, the feds require schools to adopt one of four models:

// Transformation – replace the principal, implement a research-based instructional program, extend learning time, change governance structure.
// Turnaround – replace the principal, get rid of at least half the school staff, implement research-based instruction, extend learning time, changing governance structure.
// Restart – turn the school over to a charter-school operator or education management organization.
// Closure – close the school and send the students elsewhere. Continue reading

Taking the pulse of a turnaround/takeover at an urban middle school

Indianapolis Star reporter Robert King and photographer Kelly Wilkinson should have a great time with a project that has them spending this academic year at Emma Donnan Middle School.

Not only is the school being turned around by the Indianapolis Public Schools system – it’s also being taken over by the Indiana Department of Education and turned over to Charter Schools USA, a politically connected, for-profit education business based in Florida.

As if hanging out for a year with a bunch of 14-year-olds weren’t stimulating enough …

Emma Donnan is one of five under-performing schools that the State Board of Education, acting on the recommendation of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, decided this week to place under the control of “turnaround school operators.” The others are IPS Manual and Howe high schools, also being turned over to Charter Schools USA; IPS Arlington High School, which will be run by charter operator EdPower; and Gary Roosevelt Academy, which goes to EdisonLearning.

IPS, meanwhile, is going to court to challenge the takeover of Howe and Arlington and the assignment of “lead partners” to Broad Ripple and Washington high schools, all four of which were recently been converted to “community high schools” serving students in grades 6-12. IPS Superintendent Eugene White argues that the Department of Education inappropriately included test scores from middle-grades students who were new to the schools when it awarded them Fs this year in the state’s PL 221 accountability system, triggering the state takeover.

But back to Emma Donnan Middle School and its seventh- and eighth-graders.

As King reports, IPS is doing what you’re supposed to do to turn the school around. It brought in a new principal, Brian Burke, and gave him the authority to remake the school. He got rid of two-thirds of the staff, replacing them with teachers who were selected in part for being passionate and caring about children.

Those teachers now will spend the year preparing to turn the school over to Charter Schools USA.

There’s a very real possibility that, after knocking themselves out to help a challenging group — more than 80 percent of Donnan students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a quarter are in special education and over 10 percent speak a primary language other than English – these teachers will be shown the door.

And Charter Schools USA will take credit for the progress that they made.

As Scott Elliott reported in the Star, state board member Neil Pickett suggested Monday that maybe the new principal and teachers should keep their jobs if Emma Donnan makes significant progress this year. But Richard Page, Charter Schools USA’s vice president for development, said the company typically replaces school leadership and most of the staff when it takes control of a school.

The Star’s series on Emma Donnan has so far set the stage. First of all, an urban middle school is a different creature than IPS School 61 kindergarten, where King produced a compelling series of stories in 2010-11. Next, King profiled several of the new Emma Donnan teachers: the committed, enthusiastic Teach for America recruits; the seasoned veteran ready for a new challenge.

But will commitment, enthusiasm and caring make a difference? Are the Emma Donnan teachers working together to continually assess every student’s progress and make sure none is falling behind? What are school administrators doing to ensure a safe, supportive environment where learning can take place? Are parents encouraged to celebrate their children’s success?

What does principal Brian Burke’s formula of “a firm hand with discipline, daily remediation for struggling students and ongoing training for the staff” look like in practice?

Equally compelling is the question of how the teachers – and the students — will respond as Charter Schools USA gets ready to take over and implement its own educational model.

There may be no better place for enterprising journalists like King and Wilkinson to spend the 2011-12 school year. But for students and teachers? Well, we’ll be reading about that.

Are IPS schools improving or stagnating? Test scores tell conflicting stories

To hear Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White tell it, the district’s Arlington, Broad Ripple, Howe and Washington community high schools are well on their way to educational success.

White says passing rates on state tests improved this year by 21 percentage points at Washington, 9 points at Howe and 7 points at Arlington. And Broad Ripple, a performing-arts magnet school, had some of the best results in the IPS district. White said its passing rate for algebra rose to 83 percent in 2011.

But the Indiana Department of Education says the schools have failed to turn themselves around. They are among only seven schools that have earned the lowest possible grade in the state’s Public Law 221 accountability system for six straight years – making them subject to being turned over to school management companies.

Both IPS and DOE are looking at state test scores. But they’re looking at scores for different groups of students, and they’re looking at them in different ways, resulting in very distinct conclusions about how the schools are performing.

White bases his claim for improvement on high school students’ scores – the performance of 10th-graders on Algebra and English end-of-course assessments. He’s comparing preliminary reports of ECA results from 2011 with those from 2010. (The state hasn’t yet released official 2011 ECA results).

But IPS in recent years added grades 6-8 to Arlington, Broad Ripple, Howe and Washington, converting them to “community high schools.” The Department of Education is including the ISTEP-Plus scores of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in its calculations, along with the ECA scores of 10th graders. Continue reading