Q&A

11 things former state superintendent Glenda Ritz wants you to know as she leaves office

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Glenda Ritz began as Indiana’s schools chief four years ago, buoyed by the success of an unexpected win.

But at her Statehouse office on Friday afternoon — her last day — it was quiet.

Although her administration was marred by political battles with Gov. Mike Pence and Republican lawmakers, as well as snafus with state tests and the distribution of Title I funding, Ritz was consistently held up as a champion for teachers and public schools.

Ritz rose to power in 2012 after an upset over then-superintendent Tony Bennett. Her campaign garnered the support of a number of educators as well as strong backing from the state’s teachers unions. While she has remained popular in many education circles since then, her loss in November to Yorktown superintendent Jennifer McCormick came as a surprise to teachers, policymakers and community members throughout Indiana.

On Friday, she sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about her time in office and her hopes for Indiana education in the future.

(This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.)

What are your plans now that you’re leaving office?

I think you can expect me to still be in the public education space. I don’t think I want to put that out there at this time.

I probably will be spending my time really figuring out what it is I’m going to do. I’m not a person who sits around. I can’t sit around doing nothing.

 

Do you think you’ll stay in politics in some way?

Even before I was superintendent, I was very involved here at the statehouse. So the public should expect me to stay involved as a public school advocate, because that’s important to me. I don’t think I will venture to say what my political aspirations will be, if any, because I didn’t get involved in this job because of politics. I’m an educator. I care about education policy and students.

What is a specific moment that stands out to you at a school or with a teacher, student or parent?

The most fun welcome that I received was a rural school. Their entire band met me at the front door and played for me as I walked in. And I’ve gotten the red-carpet treatment at some schools — they really rolled out a red carpet!

I visited some schools where a (state) superintendent had never showed up.

You were relatively unknown statewide before you ran for office. What do you think made you such a popular figure to begin with?

I think they saw my passion for public education. I wasn’t unknown here (at the statehouse). Out the field, through my teachers association, I was known for that work. But I think people saw passion for public education, and they had a belief in their public school teachers.

So when (teachers) went and said to people they knew in their communities, “This is who we want to be superintendent,” they said, “OK, I’ll go and vote for her.” Even across party lines.

What sides of you as an educator or a leader do you think people didn’t get a chance to see?

Many couldn’t see past the politics of who I was to really engage in the conversations about education systems and how we need to put certain things in place to be sure we’re serving kids. And that was new for me because I’ve always been in an education space where I was highly regarded because of my intellect and my ability to problem solve and my ability to put things in place.

When I grade kids on a project, I don’t grade on the end product. I grade on the process along the way, and that’s what they get credit for. I don’t think people got to see that (from me). They wanted to just see the outcome, and they didn’t want the outcome necessarily to be positive. I don’t think people got to see all the work that the (Department of Education) did. They just wanted to put the political spin on it all the time.

What do you want to say that you haven’t been able to say before?

I don’t think we left things on the table. I don’t feel like I left anything unsaid.

Probably what you’ll hear me talk about more going forward, especially with the national scene, will be vouchers and school choice. I implemented that school choice through the department. I was implementing something I don’t believe in. (But the department carried it out) it with fidelity and with transparency.

Let the facts speak for themselves. I did not really engage in the conversation in the statehouse regarding school choice and vouchers. But you’ll see me in that space now.

Do you think the changes you’ve made at the Indiana Department of Education will be lasting ones? Why?

Yes. What I think I’ve done is change the expectation of schools. Schools now expect to be supported by the Department of Education — not just monitored, but supported. And even if the new superintendent changes the model in which she provides support, I feel the field and the schools will expect it of her.

I spent a great deal of time and found money to supply online reading for every family in the state of Indiana. We’ve had access to these online books for four years now. So hopefully that will continue.

What do you worry most about when you look at Indiana education going forward?

It’s individual students having access to the resources that they should, no matter where they live. And that it’s all about meeting their needs. But it’s individual students getting what they need that worries me. And that the adults who create the systems don’t really get down to that. Systems seem to be created for adults rather than children.

What do you think the biggest problem facing Indiana education is?

Politics. That’s pretty succinct. Politics. The General Assembly is gearing up to make this position appointed. I’m an educator, but (education) is the most important driver of your economy. Having a viable citizenry who are going to be able to go right into the workforce.

Not having continuity in your educational programming, or it being driven from a political point, will not be in the best interest of students. When superintendents are appointed by a political body, they are there for a political will, and they can be dismissed. They are beholden to no one. When you’re appointed position you don’t have any allegiance to anyone, and you can just leave or be told to leave.

I strongly feel that this position should always be elected. Education is one of those things that people should care most about and and should want to vote (for). If I had my druthers it would be an elected position and it would be nonpartisan.

Do you have any advice for state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick?

I don’t know that I will leave her with advice. I wanted to have a very smooth transition, which was not afforded to me. I wanted to make sure that the operation of the schools was going to continue very smoothly when I left.

She’s a highly capable superintendent. She’s highly intelligent, so I hope that her focus is going to be on service to our schools and our students, and not the politics.

Do you have any regrets?

I wouldn’t call anything a regret. I would say sometimes you wish you’d taken this decision path, rather than this decision path, but no matter what decision path you take, it leads you to another one.

I don’t deal in what did happen, I deal in where are we going. And you’ll probably see that in anything that I do, that I’m always moving forward.

Every Student Succeeds Act

New federal rules are pushing Indiana to explore giving state tests in Spanish

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Kindergartners Ivania, left, and Jackie work on reading and writing with their teacher, Liz Amadio, at Enlace Academy.

Native Spanish-speakers could soon have an opportunity to take Indiana state tests in their first language.

Indiana education officials are proposing offering future state math and science tests in Spanish — and possibly other languages — as part of their plan to comply with new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

Supporters of native language tests say, among other benefits, they can be far less jarring for children than sitting them in front of a test written in a language they can’t understand.

“The whole thinking is (English-learners) would do better if we’d give them access,” said Trish Morita-Mullaney, a researcher and professor at Purdue University who specializes in English language learning. “We don’t want you sitting blankly in front of an English test, we want you to at least have an opportunity to do well.”

The proposal says the translated tests could be available as early as spring of 2019, in time for the first administration of ILEARN, the test currently in the works to replace ISTEP.

While state officials said they’d focus on Spanish, the state’s ESSA plan says they anticipate adding three others to the mix. One option could be Burmese, which has a strong presence in four districts across the state, including some in Marion County.

About 72 percent of Indiana students learning English speak Spanish at home. Overall, Indiana’s 50,677 English-learners speak more than 270 languages, representing the second-fastest growing English-learner population in the entire country.

Morita-Mullaney said she is happy to see Indiana explore native language tests, but she hopes they take it slow and learn from of others. Some past mistakes include trying to test in too many languages (a costly, time-consuming endeavor) and trying to make the new tests happen before proper vetting and before schools collect input from students and families.

California, Texas, New York and Oregon have all, at some point, given native language tests, Morita-Mullaney said. And while it’s not a new idea, it’s still fairly uncharted territory. Based on a 2016 report from Education Week, fewer than 12 states test in languages other than English. Some states, like Florida, are trying to eschew the native language requirement altogether.

But one big piece missing from Indiana’s plan, Morita-Mullaney said, is how the state plans to ensure the test measures what the state intends it to measure — known in the test design world as “construct validity.”

Put another way, if a student is taking a math test in English, but they are fluent in Spanish, is the test measuring how well they know math, or how well they know English? That specific idea is part of the rationale for using native language tests, but there’s a related problem, Morita-Mullaney said: If a native Spanish-speaker is taught math in English, and tested in Spanish, is that also a fair and accurate test?

“If the original instruction was in English, what guarantee do we have that they actually understood it?” Morita-Mullaney said. “Are we testing the language, are we testing the content or both? That component is not in the (state plan).”

A way around this dilemma is through dual language instruction, where students are taught both in English and another language. But while those classes are growing in popularity, they make up a small minority of programs in schools, and many of them are designed to serve students who already know English, rather than students who need support in English and their home language.

Hopefully, Morita-Mullaney said, Indiana will try out native language tests first for small groups of students to make sure they truly provide an advantage to English-learners and function as intended. And ideally, she added, that would come with a renewed investment in bilingual education.

“It’s a wonderful effort, but I remain concerned that we have not examined construct validity,” she said. “But I don’t want construct validity to be used as an argument to not do it … there’s so much we don’t know, and there’s so many states that have done this the wrong way. We need to learn from their pitfalls.”

The move toward using native language tests is indicative of a larger trend of inclusivity in ESSA. Before, students learning English tended to be an afterthought in state education policy. Now, not only are native language tests on the table, but English-learners also have a larger piece of the state’s A-F grade formula.

“This is the first time (English-learners) have had a prominent place in our accountability system,” said Maryanne McMahon, an Indiana State Board of Education member and assistant superintendent in Avon.

There are also safeguards in place in the new rules to ensure even top-rated schools are taking care to educate all students. Going forward, schools could be be singled out for extra support from the state not just if they are rated a D or an F, but also if smaller groups of students, such as English-learners, are struggling.

“You can still have an A-district not meeting EL goals,” Morita-Mullaney said. “People think, ‘We’re an A, we’re good,’ but what it does is it masks disparities. So when you start to look more closely, you see that they’re an A-district, but gee, their English-learners are doing crummy.”

The state is on track to submit its ESSA plan to the federal government in September, and the state board is set to discuss the issues further next month.

Read more about Indiana’s ESSA journey here.

 

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.