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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Public records quest meets dead end

My obsessive quest to uncover the whole story behind the 2012 Christel House Academy grade-change saga has apparently come to an end. And not a happy one.

One year, one month and 22 days after I filed a public-records request, the Indiana Department of Education responded. “After review of your records request, it was determined the Department does not maintain the records you are requesting,” legal assistant Leslie-Ann James said via email.

Oh, well.

The request was for certain DOE staff emails concerning the A-to-F school grading system that was being rolled out in 2012. The goal was to figure out when and why the department got rid of a “ceiling” on the points schools could earn for English or math test scores or student growth. This has never been explained to my satisfaction.

Remember that Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco unearthed DOE emails last summer that showed then-Superintendent of Public Education freaking out because Christel House, a highly regarded Indianapolis charter school, was going to get a C under the new grading system. Department staff scrambled to make changes, and Christel House ended up with an A. Officials decided to ignore test scores for the school’s high-school students. But that only pushed its grade to a B.

How did it get to an A? Continue reading

Records request leads to wait

A year ago this week, I filed a public-records request with the Indiana Department of Education. I’m still waiting to see if I’ll get what I asked for.

Kelly Bauder, a state DOE staff attorney, admitted this week that the department has been running behind on responding to a trove of records requests. Two employees who were working on the task left the department, she said. A new legal assistant has been hired and is learning the ropes.

“We’re hoping to get caught back up in the next couple of weeks,” she told me.

My request was for copies of departmental emails from 2012 concerning changes in the state’s school grading system. The objective is to tie up a loose end to a story.

Last summer, Associated Press Reporter Tom LoBianco disclosed DOE emails showing how former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and his staff scrambled to tweak the system so Christel House Academy, an Indy charter school run by a Bennett political supporter, would get an A instead of a C.

Those emails showed the department decided not to count the performance of Christel House’s 9th and 10th-graders for accountability purposes. That boosted its grade from a C to a B. How did it get to an A? Thanks to Cynthia Roach, director of assessment for Indianapolis Public Schools, we learned the other change: getting rid of a “ceiling” on points awarded elementary schools for math or English test scores.

But it was never clear when, why and by whom that decision was made. Continue reading

Bennett wins in ethics settlement

Score one for Tony Bennett. The former Indiana superintendent of public instruction not only got off easy for violating state ethics rules, he also got out in front of the news coverage, almost making it seem he was exonerated.

Bennett agreed to pay a $5,000 fine for using state property for political purposes during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign. A report by Inspector General David Thomas said Bennett tracked political events on his state Outlook calendar and used state email for election-related communications, and his staff kept lists of donors on a state server.

The report said Bennett didn’t violate the ethics code by tweaking Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system so a charter school would get an A instead of a C. The school was founded and run by a prominent campaign donor to Bennett and other Republicans.

News of the ethics settlement broke Wednesday when someone leaked a copy to Stephanie Simon of Politico. That someone was almost certainly Bennett or a member of his camp. He’s the only character in this drama with a national profile and an interest in Politico’s influential readership.

And there’s a pretty good irony to that. Bennett’s supporters blame a leak from the staff of his successor, Glenda Ritz, for disclosing the departmental emails that led to the ethics investigation. A plausible interpretation for the political attacks being made against Ritz is that they’re payback for having derailed Bennett’s public-sector career.

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Bennett ethics case a fitting backdrop for Ritz-board spat

It’s an interesting coincidence that news broke of a settlement between Tony Bennett and the State Ethics Commission just as a another dispute between Glenda Ritz – Bennett’s successor as Indiana superintendent of public instruction – and the State Board of Education may be exploding.

The ethics commission opened an investigation of Bennett last year after Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco disclosed emails that show Bennett directed staff to do political work on state time. We won’t know details until Thursday, but Bennett’s high-powered lawyers announced the deal, so it’s likely he’ll face a wrist-slap or less.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s state board meeting could be the ugliest yet in a series marked by nearly open warfare between the elected Democratic state superintendent and the 10 board members appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. On the agenda:

  • A resolution that criticizes Ritz for her handling of Indiana’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law and seeks to elbow her aside for purposes of responding to a federal critique.
  • A proposal to change procedures so the state board and its staff, not just Ritz, will determine the time, place and agenda items for board meetings.
  • An item that says “initiate rulemaking on accountability.” This could mean almost anything, but one possibility is prescribing how schools evaluate teachers.

Ritz’s supporters, including the Indiana State Teachers Association, have been rallying the troops to attend the meeting and back the superintendent. Ritz issued a statement on the NCLB resolution, saying she’s asked Pence to pull it and warning it “will place our waiver in serious jeopardy.” Continue reading

The anti-Common Core election campaign that wasn’t

It’s been 19 months since Glenda Ritz upset Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, but some people are still struggling to make sense of the election. One tempting explanation: Voters punished Bennett for supporting the Common Core State Standards. From there, it’s a short step to imagining a campaign that didn’t happen.

You’ll see it in “The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar,” a Fordham Institute policy piece on state education departments. “Political backlash has often frustrated state efforts to adopt, protect, and implement the CCSS,” the report says. “Tony Bennett, Indiana’s chief, was defeated in an upset election by Glenda Ritz, who ran largely on an anti-CCSS platform.”

In fact, that didn’t happen at all. I wasn’t involved in Ritz’s campaign, but I paid pretty close attention. I don’t recall her raising Common Core as an issue, much less running “largely on an anti-CCSS platform.” But I don’t entirely trust my memory, so I reached out to people who were involved in the campaign, to the organization Republicans for Glenda Ritz, even to someone who is close to Bennett. They all agreed that Common Core wasn’t a point of emphasis for Ritz or much of a factor in the election.

Trish Whitcomb, Ritz’s campaign manager, said Ritz didn’t campaign against Common Core. The topic would occasionally come up at campaign events or on social media, she said; and Ritz would say Indiana had rushed to adopt CCSS in 2010 without much input and it would be appropriate to take another look.

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Detail still missing from Indiana grade-change story

John Grew and William Sheldrake provide the most complete account to date on how the Indiana Department of Education struggled to implement A-to-F school grading last year. They also offer solid recommendations as the state moves to a new system in 2014.

But their report doesn’t put to rest one question: When and why did former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff remove a “ceiling” on the grade points that schools could earn for math or English test-score improvement, a move that ended up raising grades for 165 schools? Did they make the change to boost the grade for Christel House Academy, a favored Indianapolis charter school? Or was it a broad policy decision that officials just forgot to make public.

The Grew-Sheldrake report says former DOE officials claim the decision was made before the State Board of Education adopted the A-to-F rule in February 2012.

“According to DOE management staff, the removal of the growth caps was indicated by the language of the final approved rule, but erroneously not implemented in the computer programming of the model,” the report says. “This mistake was found in the final weeks prior to the embargoed release of the grades’ data to the schools on September 19, 2012.”

It appears to be true that the ceiling was not included in the language of the rule. But here are three reasons to suspect the decision may not have happened the way DOE management staff say.

First, an FAQ page explaining the point ceiling remains on the Internet (See items No. 11 and 29). According to the page’s document information, it was created in March 2012, a month after the SBE approved the rule. Continue reading