Politics & Policy

Cosby, the IPS board’s main dissenter, says she won’t run for re-election

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Board member Gayle Cosby speaks during an IPS school board meeting in May.

Gayle Cosby, often the lone of critic on the Indianapolis Public School Board of the district’s ambitious reform plans, today announced that she will not seek re-election.

The news has some asking if her departure at the end of 2016 will diminish open public discussion of doubts about the district’s fast pace toward a completely overhauled school system.

Cosby has tried the patience of some of her fellow board members, and some hinted the board might be better off without her. But community leaders who share some of Cosby’s concerns about the district’s planned changes — which include giving more freedom to principals, shrinking the central office and partnering more often with charter school networks — say a board without dissenters like Cosby cannot genuinely represent the families IPS serves.

“People are left out,” said Diana Daniels, Executive Director of the Indianapolis-based National Council on Educating Black Children. “There are (people) who are not in favor of charter schools, and their voice also needs to be heard.”

It’s certainly possible the election will produce candidates who are less strongly aligned to the board majority. Voting is months away and it’s not yet clear if the other three pro-reform incumbents facing election this year will run. Board member Sam Odle said he plans to run. Michael O’Connor, appointed to fill an unexpired term, has not yet decided. Diane Arnold also is undecided about her re-election plans.

If the last two elections are any guide, defeating candidates who back the current reform plan will be tough to beat. All of the winning candidates in 2012 and 2014 overwhelmingly outpaced rivals who expressed reservations about the district’s direction, fueled by unprecedentedly huge contributions from pro-reform groups and individuals.

Even Cosby got money from reform-minded organizations when she ran in 2012, calling for a change of direction for IPS. But as a board member, she grew increasingly critical of some policies supported by the rest of the board, particularly partnering with outside organizations to manage persistently failing IPS schools.

Cosby said her decision not to run was linked to starting a doctoral program in urban education. The board is too time consuming for her to commit to another four-year term, she said.

“I feel that my voice, in terms of raising some critical questions, has been very important,” Cosby said. “I’m hopeful that others will emerge in the election cycle for this year that will bring those same qualities to the table.”

But not everyone has appreciated Cosby’s point of view, or her approach to debating her fellow board members.

Board member Kelly Bentley, for one, said Cosby’s role as the primary voice of criticism is oversold. Other board members also ask tough questions, Bentley said, but they do so at school board meetings. Cosby often took to her personal blog to air her complaints.

“I’m not sure that it’s that much of a loss,” Bentley said. “We’re all asking those types of questions; we’re just not blogging about it.”

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan said she also is not worried about the board’s ability to hear all points of view. In fact, she thought changes on the board could improve discussions about the district’s future.

“If the trust level is improved, then perhaps the dialogue can be more robust,” she said.

But one former board member has her doubts.

Without the big political contributions that reform advocates have been getting, former IPS board president Annie Roof said she thinks it’s now impossible for opposition candidates to win school board seats. Roof lost her seat to Sullivan, who raised thousands of dollars more for her campaign in 2014. 

“When I ran the first time (in 2010), school board campaigns were funded by sitting around at a kitchen table,” she said.

But today, “money is very powerful,” Roof said.

Roof said she has no interest in running in 2016. The 2014 election was too stressful for her family, she said.

The high-cost of running for an IPS Board seat also worries Chrystal Ratcliffe, president of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP. Low-income citizens, like many families served by IPS schools, can’t raise the money to field a winning campaign, she said.

“Are poverty-stricken people going to have access to that kind of money? Where does that money come from?” Ratcliffe said. “We advocate for our poverty-stricken people, the people who are disenfranchised.”

The NAACP is not necessarily opposed to efforts to make big changes in IPS schools, Ratcliffe said. But she said parents and other community members need more opportunities to learn about the shifts on the horizon and give feedback before decisions are made.

“Those ideas are not getting around to the community the way they should,” she said. “Our communities are left out … of the decision making process as far as being able to give some insight on the experiences they’ve had that could maybe make this work better.”

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

essa watch

Growth plus proficiency? Why states are turning to a hybrid strategy for judging schools (and why some experts say they shouldn’t)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A compromise in a long-running debate over how to evaluate schools is gaining traction as states rewrite their accountability systems. But experts say it could come with familiar drawbacks — especially in fairly accounting for the challenges poor students face.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were judged by the share of students deemed proficient in math and reading. The new federal education law, ESSA, gives states new flexibility to consider students’ academic growth, too.

This is an approach that some advocates and researchers have long pushed for, saying that is a better way to judge schools that serve students who start far below proficiency.

But some states are proposing measuring academic growth through a hybrid approach that combines both growth and proficiency. (That’s in addition to using proficiency metrics where they are required.) A Chalkbeat review of ESSA plans found that a number of places plan to use a hybrid metric to help decide which of their schools are struggling the most, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The idea has a high-profile supporter: The Education Trust, a civil rights and education group now headed by former U.S. Education Secretary John King. But a number of researchers say the approach risks unfairly penalizing high-poverty schools and maintaining some of the widely perceived flaws of No Child Left Behind.

These questions have emerged because ESSA, the new federal education law, requires states to use academic and other measures to identify 5 percent of their schools as struggling. States have the option to include “academic progress” in their accountability systems, and many are doing so.

This is a welcome trend, says Andrew Ho of Harvard, who has written a book on the different ways to measure student progress. Systems that use proficiency percentages alone, rather than accounting for growth, “are a disaster both for measurement and for usefulness,” Ho said. “They are extremely coarse and dangerously misleading.”

Under a growth-to-proficiency model, Student A would be considered on track to proficiency by grade 6 based on the growth from grades 3 to 4, but students B and C would not. (Image: Ho’s “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models”)

States that propose using this hybrid measure — commonly called “growth to proficiency” or “growth to standard” — have offered varying degrees of specificity in their plans about how they will calculate it. The basic idea is to measure whether students will meet or maintain proficiency within a set period of time, assuming they continue to grow at the same rate. Schools are credited for students deemed on track to meet the standard in the not-too-distant future, even if the students aren’t there yet.

This tends to rewards schools that serve students who are already near, at, or above the proficiency standard, meaning that schools with a large number of students in poverty will likely get lower scores on average.

It also worries researchers wary of re-creating systems that incentivize schools to focus on students near the proficiency bar, as opposed to those far below or above it. That phenomenon has been observed in some research on accountability systems focused on proficiency.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” said Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability. He has argued that policymakers should try to ensure ratings are not correlated with measures of poverty.

Researchers tend to say that the strongest basis for sorting out the best and worst schools (at least as measured by test scores) is to rely on sophisticated value-added calculations. Those models control for where students start, as well as demographic factors like poverty.

“If there are going to be high stakes — and I don’t suggest that there should be — then the more technically rigorous value-added models become the best way to approach teacher- and school-level accountability,” said Ho.

A large share of states are planning to use a value-added measure or similar approach as part of their accountability systems, in several cases alongside the growth-to-proficiency measure.

Some research has found that these complex statistical models can be an accurate gauge of how teachers and schools affect students’ test scores, though it remains the subject of significant academic debate.

But The Education Trust, which has long backed test-based accountability, is skeptical of these growth models, saying that they water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency.

“Comparisons to peers won’t reveal whether that student will one day meet grade-level standards,” the group’s Midwest chapter stated in a report on Michigan’s ESSA state plan. “This risks setting lower expectations for students of color and low-income students, and does not incentivize schools to accelerate learning for historically underserved student groups.”

In an email Natasha Ushomirsky, EdTrust’s policy director, said the group supports measures like growth to proficiency over value-added models “because a) they do a better job of communicating expectations for raising student achievement, and b) they can be used to understand whether schools are accelerating learning for historically underserved students, and prompt them to do so.”

Of the value-added approach, Ushomirsky said, “A lower-scoring student is likely to be compared only to other lower-scoring students, while a higher-scoring student is compared to other higher-scoring students. This means that the same … score may represent very different amounts of progress for these two students.”

Marty West, a professor at Harvard, says the most prudent approach is to report proficiency data transparently, but to use value-added growth to identify struggling schools for accountability purposes.

“There are just too many unintended consequences from using [proficiency] or any hybrid approach as the basis of your performance evaluation system,” he said.

“The most obvious is making educators less interested in teaching in [high-poverty] schools because they know they have an uphill battle with respect to any accountability rating — and that’s the last thing we want.”

This story has been updated to include additional information from Education Trust.