Money money

IPS superintendent’s pay check goes up — even as test scores go down

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

The same day the public learned that test scores fell at the vast majority of Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee got a $26,999 bonus.

Since arriving in Indianapolis in 2013, the polarizing superintendent has reduced the size of the central office, increased flexibility for principals and pioneered new ways of partnering with charter school managers to turn around failing schools.

The changes have all been made in the name of improving the lowest-performing schools in the district.

But three years later, the administration has little concrete evidence that the reforms are working. For the second year in a row, test scores fell in the district. Scores were down around the state but IPS scores dropped farther.

Across the state, the number of 3-8th grade students who passed the math and reading tests fell by 2.1 percentage points, while the passing rate in IPS fell by 3.7 percentage points.

That didn’t stop the school board from voting unanimously Thursday night to approve Ferebee’s annual performance bonus. The superintendent could have gotten as much as $35,000, but the board chose to give him 77.1 percent of the money.

The pay is based on performance criteria that Ferebee and the board had agreed to last year. The 10 goals include redesigning and expanding district magnet schools based on demand and student results, creating autonomous schools and improving student graduation rates and IREAD scores.

School board president Mary Ann Sullivan acknowledged that the extra pay came on the same day the public learned of the drop in ISTEP scores but defended the district’s radical approach to improving schools.

“The strategies that we are engaged in as a district are long-term strategies, and we don’t expect quick fixes,” Sullivan said. But she added, “We do expect fixes.”

Like many Hoosier superintendents, Ferebee was dismissive of the low and declining ISTEP passing rates in the district. He said the test is not reliable and the 2016 results are not comparable to prior years.

“We will not use this to beat on our teachers and our principals,” he said. “We are going to be smart about how we measure progress, and we are not going to knee jerk to results that we don’t have a lot of confidence in.”

But while Ferebee is quick to minimize the significance of the ISTEP scores, critics of the administration’s strategies for improvement say the decline in scores is evidence his approach is not working.

David Greene, President of Concerned Clergy, said the test has flaws but it does offer some useful information. He called on the district to start an open discussion with parents and community members about how to improve schools.

“If we are not seeing student achievement … we have a problem,” Green said. “We don’t need to mask that problem. We need to be upfront and honest and everybody needs to work on it.”

Update: This story was updated to include Ferebee’s performance metrics, which were provided by the district after the story was published.

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:

rules and regs

State shortens length of ‘gag order’ on teachers discussing Regents questions online

PHOTO: G. Tatter

After pushback from teachers, the State Education Department has changed a new provision that temporarily prohibits teachers from discussing Regents exam questions online.

The original rule stated that teachers could not use email or a listserv to discuss test questions or other specific content with other teachers until a week after the exam period ended on June 23. As Chalkbeat reported Tuesday, teachers objected, arguing that they sometimes needed to discuss questions in order to properly grade the tests or to challenge questions that seems unfair.

Under the change, tests taken between June 13 and June 16 can be discussed online beginning June 23. And for those taken between June 19 and June 22, teachers can discuss content online beginning June 27.

According to education department officials, the provision was intended to ensure that testing material did not spread online before all students had completed their exams, particularly among schools that serve students with special needs, who qualify for multiple-day testing.

“We believe that nearly all students who are testing with this accommodation will have completed their exams by these dates,” Steven Katz, director of the Office of State Assessment, wrote in a memo to school principals and leaders.

Still, longtime physics teacher Gene Gordon and former president of the Science Teachers Association of New York State noted that, to some extent, the damage was done since the amendment to the rule came out only after many teachers had already graded their exams.

“It did not have any real effect,” Gordon said.

The New York State United Teachers — which criticized the new provision on Tuesday as a “gag order” and called for its repeal — called the amendment a “clear victory” for educators. Still, NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn told Chalkbeat, “it clearly will be more helpful in the future than this year.”