The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of teacher evaluation in Indiana, part 1: A political battle

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here. This is the first of two parts on teacher evaluation. For Part 2, go here.)

Indiana teachers for the first time, all had their teaching rated — including a measure of their ability to raise student standardized test scores — and their pay raises and job security were affected by the result in the spring of 2014.

The result? Not much changed. As with prior systems, teachers were nearly all rated effective across the state.

In 2011, Indiana joined a growing number of states — now more than 35 — to require more stringent reviews of teacher performance when the legislature passed a series of education reforms pushed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, Republican legislative leaders and the state superintendent at the time, Tony Bennett.

It was part of a package of reforms, which also included limits on union bargaining, an expansion of charter schools and the creation of a new statewide private school voucher program. Passing those bills into law was a tough political battle, which saw thousands of teachers and other union members protest at the statehouse. Disagreements over education and labor policies even led Indiana’s Democratic legislators to leave the state for Illinois for several weeks as a way to try to stop the bills from moving forward. But in the end, all of them were passed into law.

Unlike other states, Indiana’s teacher evaluation law did not require a specific percentage of a teacher’s rating to be based on student test scores. It left that up to local school districts, but encouraged them to make test scores a “significant” factor. The law also allows local flexibility when creating evaluation systems. It calls for a state model system but school districts can choose whether to follow it, pick other approved models or to craft their own evaluation designs.

That could change. In 2015, the Indiana State Board of Education was considering giving guidance to schools for what percentage of a teacher’s rating should be based on test scores.

Since the beginning, Indiana’s effort to change evaluation has been at the center of intense political debate, with Democrats often at odds with with Republicans over policy, and teachers’ unions sometimes in disagreement with school district administrators over how the systems should work.

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Mitch Daniels (Photo by the Republican Conference)

But in some cases, there have been cooperative efforts to build the new systems.

The law’s requirements

Under Indiana’s law, teacher effectiveness is rated on a 1 to 4 scale. Factors that go into teachers’ ratings include observations of their teaching by administrators or other trained evaluators; state test scores and other factors that vary by school or depend on the subject taught.

Sanctions for teachers rated in the lowest categories are serious. An ineffective rating, a 1 on the scale, can be cause to fire a teacher immediately. Those who are rated in the next lowest category, a “2” or in need of improvement, can be dismissed if they fail to rise to a 3 or 4 after two years.

Merit pay

Under the law, teacher pay depends on their annual evaluation Districts can choose not to give raises to teachers whose ratings are less than 3. They may choose to give extra pay to those rated highly effective. Go here for an explanation of how evaluation connects to teacher pay.

The transition year

Despite the heated rhetoric during the political debate, there was much agreement in Indiana that evaluation should change.

Bennett argued that a study conducted by his department of a sample of Indiana school districts showed 99 percent were rated effective, which he termed a “statistical impossibility.”

Democrats and teachers union leaders, who opposed the bill, called for better evaluation, too, but wanted assurances the new systems would be fair to teachers.

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Tony Bennett (Photo by

After the law passed in 2011, the next school year was used to pilot evaluation models picked by Bennett’s education department.

The state-created model, known as RISE, was developed with assistance from The New Teacher Project. The state also offered districts the chance to use a nationally-known system called Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP. Three districts piloted evaluation systems had been locally created in Warren Township and Beech Grove schools in Indianapolis and Bremen Schools in northern Indiana’s Marshall County. The idea was to show different ways to approach evaluation. Districts around the state could use RISE or TAP, or they could copy the district-created models or even invent their own, so long as it fit the law’s requirements.

The flexibility led to a wide variety of approaches. Schools in Greensburg, about an hour south of Indianapolis, decreed that each teacher would be observed five times per year under RISE, three shorter visits by an administrator and two longer ones. But in Warren Township, which adapted a system it used for years to fit under the law’s requirements, full observations were to be twice a year for each teacher and short classroom visits could come as many as 20 additional times.

Implementation begins

After the pilot year, a lot changed in Indiana just before schools began to put their new systems into place, and the state began to take a somewhat different approach to evaluation.

It began with the upset election victory of Washington Township teacher Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, who defeated Bennett and became the new state superintendent at the start of 2013.

Ritz was not a fan of the RISE and sought to replace or revise it, which was a source of tension with the state board, which insisted on keeping the model.

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Glenda Ritz

Ritz, the former head of the teachers union in Washington Township, had been part of an Indiana State Teachers Association’s team that met with legislators in 2011 as they crafted the teacher evaluation law. She has said she strongly believes in good evaluation systems and praised the 2011 law’s intentions. Ritz said evaluation should be as much about training teachers to improve as about punishing those who are fall short by blocking pay raises, although she said she favored removing the lowest rated teachers from the classroom.

New system, same results

In April 2013, Indiana released the first evaluation scores for teachers under the new system, which showed very little had changed. Nearly all teachers were rated effective.

Statewide just 219 educators were rated “ineffective,” representing less than 0.5 percent of the 50,000 educators who received ratings. In fact, nearly all rated educators — 97 percent — were classified in the top two categories as effective or highly effective. About 10 percent of educators were not rated for reasons such as not completing the year due to maternity leave or retirement.

Indianapolis Public Schools, the state’s largest district, just five educators were rated ineffective. (Find each school’s data here.) The results placed renewed scrutiny on how prepared school principals were to administer it and prompted debate about whether the results made sense or under estimated the number of struggling teachers.

Similar results were posted in 2014, leading some critics to call for changes, arguing that such few low rated teachers did not match with the reality.

-Updated December 2015

The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.

2016 Indiana governor race

The basics of Eric Holcomb on education: Moving past the policy wars

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The 2016 Republican nominee for Indiana governor Eric Holcomb.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for governor when it comes to education. A more detailed story about Eric Holcomb’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about John Gregg, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

Eric Holcomb has promised to be different from his predecessor when it comes to education if elected governor.

The Republican candidate says he’ll avoid the loud political fights that defined Gov. Mike Pence’s battles with Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

But Holcomb’s education policies are largely in line with Pence’s.

The Republican candidate took Pence’s place on the ballot in July after Pence dropped out of the race to join Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as his vice presidential running mate.

As a result of his late entry into the race, Holcomb’s education policies are less detailed than his opponent, Democrat John Gregg who is making his second run for governor after losing a close race to Pence in 2012.

Holcomb has also never before been elected to public office. So, unlike the former House speaker Gregg, he has little track record of votes or positions on the issues.

But in interviews, Holcomb, 48, has emphasized a desire to work more collaboratively with the next superintendent — Ritz or her Republican opponent, Jennifer McCormick — to try to move on from the many battles between Pence and Ritz.

Holcomb also says he wants a better state test to replace ISTEP, but he has struggled to explain how his vision for the exam would be different from the much maligned test that the state has used in recent years.

Early lessons and role models

Holcomb’s mother was a teacher, so he spent hours at her side when she was grading papers, both at home and after school. He credits her as his earliest example of work ethic and the value of learning.

After graduating Pike High School in Indianapolis and Indiana’s Hanover College, he spent six years in the Navy and then got involved in politics. For the next 20 years, Holcomb worked for Indiana Republicans, but nearly all of his work was out of the public eye.

He started out as an aide to Indiana congressman John Hostettler before first dipping his toe into politics with an unsuccessful run for congress in 2000.

He served as a campaign adviser to Mitch Daniels during Daniels’ first run for governor in 2003 then stayed on, working in the Daniels administration for seven years.

In 2010, Holcomb took over as state Republican Party chairman, a job he held for three years before leaving to become chief of staff to Repbulican U.S. Sen. Dan Coats.

Holcomb attempted his second run for office in 2013 when he ran for his boss’ seat after Coats announced his retirement, but ended up dropping out of that race when Pence offered him the lieutenant governor job in March.

If Holcomb wins the election on Nov. 8, it will be his first elective victory, so voters don’t have much a personal record they can review. It’s not clear how closely Holcomb will follow the lead of the two Republican governors he served, both of whom shaped a more aggressive Republican education strategy that included more test-based accountability for teachers, students and schools, and support for expanding vouchers and charter schools.

A different tone at the statehouse

Despite his connections to Daniels and Pence, Holcomb has said he wants to set a new tone as governor that would be more cooperative than during the education battles of the last two administrations.

Under Daniels, the state expanded charter school sponsoring, launched the state private school voucher program, established an A-F school grading system and put in place a tough new teacher evaluation system.

After Ritz, a Democrat, scored an upset win in the 2012 superintendent’s race, Pence moved aggressively to block the policy changes she proposed.

The cumulative effect left many teachers feeling weary of politics and unfairly attacked.

From his introduction as a gubernatorial candidate, Holcomb has pledged to take steps to improve the relationship with the state superintendent and show more overt support for teachers.

Big differences with Democrats remain

On policy, Holcomb and Ritz are still far apart. Consider:

Testing. Ritz wants to junk the state’s ISTEP exam in favor of a series of smaller tests that could be scored more quickly and the results returned faster to teachers to use in the classroom. She has argued her approach would reduce test anxiety around the once-a-year exam for students and make the exams more useful.

Holcomb insists the state test should only be given once a year. He also has called for the scores to be delivered to teachers more quickly but has not explained how to do that while keeping the same basic design as ISTEP.

School choice. Holcomb describes himself as a strong supporter of school choice programs, like charter schools and vouchers. And he said he wants the state to take action to try to improve schools with persistently low test scores, even if it’s not necessarily through controversial state takeovers of local schools that the state tried under Daniels.

Preschool. Even where he agrees with Ritz and Gregg — that the state should expand its preschool pilot program — Holcomb takes a different approach. He said he does not think the state should offer to pay for preschool for any four-year-old who enrolls as Ritz and Gregg have proposed, just those from poor families. He also envisions a slower expansion of the five-county pilot that serves about 1,500 poor children today, perhaps a few more counties at a time.