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.

on the record

‘We need an opposite narrative’: Chancellor Betty Rosa on her year of trying to reshape New York’s education debate

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

Betty Rosa, New York’s Board of Regents chancellor, came into power during a period of dramatic change.

Pushed by Obama-era policies, the state spent years engaged in an all-consuming campaign to fundamentally rethink education. Officials adopted new learning standards, a different teacher evaluation system, and made it tougher to earn a high school diploma — before the agenda ran into a wall of parent, teacher and union anger.

In the past year and a half, there has been a big shift in focus. The state’s Common Core learning standards are being revised, certain standardized tests no longer factor into high-stakes teacher evaluations (for now, anyway), and officials found new ways to help students graduate.

At the center of this turn is Rosa, who was elected last March. Her first day as chancellor, she expressed sympathy for the movement to boycott state tests and said she wanted to move away from “so-called … reform.”

Rosa’s critics have accused her of lowering standards. It’s a narrative she finds frustrating, she told Chalkbeat in an exclusive interview about her first year in the post. She wants to combat that criticism with an “opposite narrative,” she said.

“Just because you raise the bar [does not mean] the student can jump over that bar without building the steps to get them there,” Rosa said. “For me, it’s more important to build those steps.”

Rosa seems likely to continue the policy shift she has championed. Simply focusing on test scores or graduation rates is “very narrow,” she said, and at the last Board of Regents meeting, she defended the decision to drop one of four teacher certification requirements, an academic literacy skills test.

As the state creates a plan under the new federal education law, it has also begun to rethink how to define schools as “good” or “struggling.” It’s something Rosa told Chalkbeat she is taking seriously and could shape New York’s education policy for years.

In a wide-ranging interview, Rosa assessed her year as chancellor, talks about the future, and delves into other hot-button issues like charter schools, school segregation and Cuomo’s free college tuition plan.

When you took over as chancellor last year, you said you wanted to move away from “so-called … reform.” What did you mean by that? Has it happened?

The whole emphasis [is] on teaching and learning, on instruction versus the test-based accountability, which I found to be very narrow.

Remember we were transitioning from No Child Left Behind to ESSA and I think that has given us an incredible opportunity to really begin to incorporate the voices of the communities, the teachers, the parents, the legislators … Our ESSA plan and our accountability and assessments [have] really given us an opportunity to rethink how in New York state we want to see our accountability and our assessments.

You have been asked a lot about whether you have lowered standards. I want to ask this: How do you think you have raised standards in the past year or how do you want to raise standards in the future?

I want every single child to aspire to their highest level with all the support systems in place. I think that what people [call] lowering standards [are just] multiple ways of getting there. There are people who take a train to work, there are others who bike to work. I think we have a very narrow sense of what it means to raise standards. … Just because you raise the bar [does not mean] the student can jump over that bar without building the steps to get them there. For me, it’s more important to build those steps.

I’ve never sat at that table and said that I expect less for my students in this state, so I think it’s more of a narrative that’s out there. We need an opposite narrative to [promote] the exciting and innovative work that we’re doing in terms of this board. We are building on a lot of the good work that has happened. The difference, I think, is that we are also, like any good organization, we take stock. So after you’ve done something, you evaluate it and you say, ‘Is this is working?’ And if it’s not, let’s figure out what we need to do to ensure that we’re moving in a positive direction.

When you talk about ‘building those steps’ for students to reach a certain standard, what does that mean? Is that different from raising standards?

Standards are standards. I don’t even understand this notion of raising standards. If all of us agree that these are good, solid standards, and that is what is being taught … then we say, “How do we get there?” To me, the how-do-we-get-there are the opportunities, the resources, the AP classes, the opportunities for extended day, the opportunity for kids who are acquiring the language to have additional types of instruction or models. Those are all part of the equation. We shouldn’t have two separate conversations.

I find it so frustrating when people say you’re lowering the standards. Could you define what you mean? Because obviously, when we look at kids who have an IEP [individualized education program], and they … may have issues with processing, well you know what? If a kid has been evaluated and has issues with processing, we need structural strategies to address those needs and that’s very different … [than], let’s say, for a student that may be in an AP class.

The same expectation [is] there for both children, they just have a different way of internalizing the information and so the strategies are not the same.

A lot of times when we talk about opportunities to learn, you’re talking about curriculum, you’re talking about resources. Those things often take funding, but that’s not something you can control as head of the Board of Regents.

I beg to differ on that because we do work with state aid and we set priorities.

In fact, as policymakers, we are very actively involved in saying these are the areas that we are very concerned [about] and we want to make sure that these are the areas that we get funding in order to move the educational agenda for the state forward. … We’re not making policy in isolation.

You have been critical of state tests and graduation requirements as they currently exist. Those are the two most typical ways to judge student progress. So how do you think we should we judge student progress instead? Is it about improving those metrics, or using different metrics, or some combination?

If the only metrics that we use are [the ones] you just mentioned, then … that definition that you just gave is a very narrow [one].

I’m sure that’s not why you went to school and all of us went to school. That was not the only things that mattered to your parents, my parents and most people. The truth of the matter [is], education is very complex and very comprehensive.

If students go to a school, they do projects, they do internships, they engage in a year-long or sometimes even longer process. Some of them go abroad, the very lucky ones who can take another language and another culture. There is so much more to education than just a one, multiple-choice moment in time. That is one aspect. I’m not saying it isn’t important. What I am saying is it’s one variable in measuring success and that’s why I’ve been critical. We need multiple perspectives on measuring a student’s success.

So what yardstick should we be using? What multiple measures should count?

When you went to school, you obviously took classes. You got grades in your classes, right? If you didn’t live in New York, maybe you didn’t take Regents exams, but the fact of the matter is, there were pop quizzes, there were monthly tests, there were end-of-the-year tests, there were projects that you worked on. There were multiple ways that your teachers knew that you had been successful in acquiring the materials. So all I’m saying to you is that, I want the system to think about [that].

Last year, you said that you were “very concerned” that some charter schools are not serving students that represent their communities. But at the last meeting, the Board of Regents approved 16 out of 17 charter schools for renewal. Do you feel that, as a board, you are being tough enough on charter schools? Can we expect something different in the future?

The team [at the State Education Department] that has been looking at these charters has really been doing an incredible job in visiting [and] looking at the data. … They’re giving us more and more metrics on the charters as they’re coming through. We’ve been able to not only look at the landscape of where they reside, the kinds of students [and] the population in terms of how they’re doing.

In addition to that, I think that more and more charter schools have been much more responsive to the issue of taking on more English Language Learners, more students with special needs.

So I personally feel very proud of the work that’s been done to move this issue, in terms of our charter SED group. The work that they’ve been doing to really be responsive to the board and be responsive to the public.

New York state schools are some of the most segregated in the country. Is the amount of segregation in state schools acceptable to you? If not, what do you plan to do about it?

I don’t think segregation would be acceptable, honestly, to anybody.

We want to create a diverse culture that really is accepting of differences [and] sees it as a strength … A world-class community is one that believes in tolerance, believes in using the strengths of the various groups and the contributions, so I do think that moving into a much more diverse school system is a major strength for our state and my hope is that we are working on this. I know that many communities are developing plans to address this. New York City is also working on this. This is not only for this board — and I will speak for this board and this commissioner — this is critical to the strength of this state.

Are you working on it?

I can’t even imagine anybody not working on this. Let’s put it that way. This is a universal challenge to all of us, whether it’s work that you do in your own community, work that we do on the Board of Regents, work that we do as educators. I work on it even as a professor, who teaches research … I can’t imagine not thinking about working on this every single waking moment.

The legislature is currently deciding whether to adopt Governor Cuomo’s free college tuition plan, but some have criticized it for not providing enough help to low-income students. What do you think about the plan? Do you see a role for the Board of Regents in helping students stay in and finish college if this plan passes?

I think it’s an overall great promise. And we use the word promise. I think that the concept is a good one, but that we all know that the devil’s in the details … We’re hopeful. I think [the Regents] will wait to see what happens and we will continue to figure out what role we will play in supporting his proposal.

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, as well as eight lawmakers with deep experience shaping education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”