Analysis

Glenda Ritz leaves office with an unexpected legacy: An energizing leader but also a one-hit wonder?

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Glenda Ritz address Democrat supporters as she concedes the race for Indiana superintendent on Tuesday night.

Late Tuesday night, after the GOP had swept most of Indiana’s Election Day races, Republicans watched the last big undecided race closely until they got the result they wanted there too — Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz had gone down in defeat.

For so many Indiana Republicans who had predicted that she he wouldn’t last beyond one term, the verdict was in. They had been right all along that she lacked staying power.

But Ritz’s legacy as a political leader isn’t so simple.

Four years ago at this time, in the days after the 2012 election, everyone involved in Indiana politics was trying to figure out what to make of Ritz’s upset win over then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett.

Her most energetic supporters declared her victory the start of a grassroots movement that eventually would roll back the controversial changes that Bennett had advanced including an expansion of school choice and a system of using student test scores to hold teachers and their schools accountable for student success.

His critics believed he had harmed public education and rallied around Ritz as the antidote.

But Republicans dismissed the idea that Ritz was anything more than a a one-hit wonder.

They thought Bennett’s sometimes pointed criticism of public schools, and especially public school teachers, had simply rubbed too many people the wrong way. They didn’t believe for a minute that Ritz, a classroom educator her whole career who ran an vastly under-funded and under-the-radar campaign, was ready to manage the Indiana Department of Education. Nor did they think the kindly teacher, who one Republican leader noted derisively was a librarian in her last school job, would be able to trade punches in the cage match that statehouse politics can often be.

So now that’s Ritz has been ousted by Republican Jennifer McCormick, superintendent in Yorktown and a career educator with no experience in state government, is it fair to consider Ritz a flameout? That question has a more complicated answer.

For all the energy that ultimately coalesced around Ritz as a political figure — a statehouse rally to support her when Republicans wanted to strip her power drew a raucous crowd in 2015 — the idea that she would lead a political movement certainly fizzled.

By her second year, some of her key Democratic allies in the state legislature lost their seats. When her supporters tried to unseat Republican House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, he easily won re-election. Ritz’s own campaign last summer to run for governor against her nemesis, incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Pence, failed so badly to catch on that she called it off after just 10 weeks.

Finally Ritz’s bid for a second term as the state’s top election official re-election campaign crashed and burned, too.

Despite all that, Ritz made a name for herself in Indiana politics well beyond her shocking upset of Bennett and could well have a second life in politics if she decides to run for another office.

Over her four years, Ritz emerged as an unexpectedly potent political player who often shrewdly outmaneuvered her foes.

Emails leaked from her office so embarrassed Bennett that he abruptly left his new job as education commissioner for the state of Florida, then was forced to pay a $5,000 fine for violating Indiana election law and the one-time national school reform darling all but disappeared from the political scene.

When she felt Republican political pressure went too far, she filed lawsuits against her fellow state board members and walked out of a state board meeting.

Efforts by Pence to work around Ritz also didn’t last.

For example, in 2013 he created the Center for Education and Career Innovation — which Ritz derided as a shadow organization to undermine the Ritz-led education department — in 2013 but then abandoned that effort and dismantled it a little more than a year later.

Even the legislature’s ballyhooed Republican effort to force Ritz out as the chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education was softened so it would not take effect until after her term ends in 2017.

Ironically, it’s McCormick, her Republican successor, who will have to live within the new confines of those changes.

For much of her term, Ritz was the most recognizable Democratic voice battling back against Republican policy ideas, and her fans loved her for it.

It’s not clear what’s next for Ritz. She hasn’t said anything about her future plans. She could simply go back to working in the classroom. At age 62, she could retire, as many educators her age do. But she’s also younger than both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, so a return to politics is certainly not out of the question.

Whatever happens to Ritz though, teachers and her other supporters aren’t likely to embrace the Republican policies they’ve so strongly opposed. The question: Will a new leader emerge to lead the fight against them?

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.