In her own words: Glenda Ritz talks reading, testing and failing schools

Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz rejected the policy of her predecessor, Tony Bennett, when it comes to persistently low scoring schools. She doesn’t want to close them or have the state take them over.

Instead, her plan is to create a statewide system of coordinators aimed at providing supports and rallying local communities that she believes will be more effective than intervening to make dramatic change in the schools.

Ritz, who is sometimes criticized by her political opponents for lacking vision for how to improve schools in Indiana, laid out her views in a 90-minute interview with Chalkbeat on Oct. 29 at the central library in a program sponsored by WFYI. The entire interview has now been posted online. On politics, Ritz said she won’t back down in her fight against the Indiana State Board of Education and other foes.

On policy, she explained how she sees education in Indiana. In the following excerpts, Ritz discusses her goals — emphasizing reading, changing state testing and redefining the Indiana Department of Education’s role to build a statewide support system for troubled schools:

On reading, Ritz said she wants to use her position to promote it at home through her new Hoosier Family of Readers program, which uses community organizations like libraries, after school programs and summer camps to send that message:

“It is the key indicator for success in any kind of coursework. Good readers become good writers and communicators. A lot of kids do not have traditional families. Perhaps mom and dad aren’t involved in reading in the home. We can’t go outside of school make a child read. We can enforce some of that in the school walls.” “It’s been great to start to get that ball rolling and make literacy a part of what we do. For a long time it’s not been about kids learning to read so much as it is about keeping them reading. We are getting partners all over the place that want to work with kids and want to make sure they are reading.”

A proposal by Ritz to change Indiana’s third-grade reading exam, which can keep kids who fail from advancing to fourth grade, from a typical standardized test to a reading level test was tabled this summer by the Indiana State Board of Education:

“The third grade reading test came out in April of 2012 and everybody needs to understand that’s why I got in the race to be superintendent. When that test came out and it was going to be the premise in Indiana that we can teach reading through an assessment rather than having good instructional data to inform that decision that was kind of the line in the sand for me.” “Literally, in the state of Indiana, the only reading information that we have is the pass-fail grade three test. We need to have literacy data. I think it’s embarrassing to the state of Indiana that we don’t have reading information on our students, the key indicator of success on our coursework.” “Instead of a pass-fail assessment, I want to have a growth assessment so that we know where students are performing. Methodology of that has improved greatly since we instituted ISTEP and there are all types of assessments out there that are easy to give and don’t take a lot of time so we can know where kids are reading and move them toward where they need to go.”

Ritz said she often asks students if they know their reading levels:

“Students need to know their reading levels. I had the opportunity to meet with some ninth to 12th graders in a hands-on algebra program. I said to them, how many of you know your reading lexiles? Lexile is a measure of reading that schools use trying to use their own growth measure to see what that is. Almost all the hands went up. Then I said, how many of you can tell me what Lexile you need to be college and career ready? Not a single hand went up.” “I told them it was 1300 lexile. You should have seen the looks in their eyes, You could tell on their faces they weren’t close to that. They raised their little hands and said, what can we do about this Mrs. Ritz? I wasn’t a big poster person but I had one poster on my wall that said, “Ten ways to be a better reader: Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read.” It’s that simple.”

Ritz spoke of her conflict with the state board, which has declined to discuss changing the third grade reading test:

“During that conversation I had a board member say how does this fit into the bigger picture of assessments? I took that back and thought about that. How does it fit into the bigger picture? We could perhaps get this rule change (third grade reading requirement) or not, changing the type of test. But in the scheme of things it really is part of the big picture of the overall assessment that we do in the state of Indiana.” “I  have a very strong need to have reading be measured. And so I’m hoping that is going to happen and as a result of that we may need to repromulgate that rule, third grade reading, to make that happen. But I am going to be promoting that we have measures of assessment at the state level for reading, I talk to anybody and everybody about that. Having reading measures at the state level could substantially improve our education system in Indiana with a total focus on literacy, which in my personal opinion is why we have so many students not doing well.” “I’m adamant. I’m just going to keep pushing. It should be K-12. There should not be a teacher who doesn’t know the reading level of a student entering their classroom. It’s that simple, It doesn’t take much to measure it.”

Poverty has a dramatic effect on reading scores, Ritz said:

“If we did a succinct analysis of the students economic level of the kids that aren’t passing that IREAD I bet we would find they fall into that category of the kids that have moved to several schools over several years (or) that they came to us in first grade. Remember, Indiana has an attendance age of 7. So we get first graders in all the time who have not been to kindergarten, not been to a quality preschool, who have not had home support with literacy and language development and they are two years behind before they even enter our school.”

When it comes to failing schools, Ritz argues that the best way to improve them it to connect them with resources and support:

“In order to envision changing a system of support, I actually had to reorganize the department of education. We have created the Division of Outreach for School Improvement. I have 13 coordinators out in the state of Indiana among the nine different regions currently. They are hired from within the region in which they live. As a result they are knowing their schools and their principals, specifically the focus and priority schools — those schools that have received grades of D or F — because those schools are the largest focus and priority for the department to make sure we are getting the right supports to them.” “So now that in itself isn’t a novel idea. What is a novel idea is actually tying it to school improvement. Every school has a school improvement plan and goals and information they have to gather. We are going to be putting that this year into an electronic template and for the first time we are going to be able to pull up from around the state of Indiana and find where the needs are, collectively.”

Ritz used technology as an example of how the outreach system can help schools:

“All students in the state of Indiana, regardless of the schools they go to, should have Wi-Fi access and a device to access it, whether they bring it from home or the school supplies it. For the first time we are going to be able to pull that up geographically and see who does not have that in place. When they don’t have it in place, if it’s a large issue, that’s going to drive our legislative agenda. It’s going to take bigger money, bigger buy-in to make sure something happens.” “If it’s a regional issue, it may drive our grant writing. I have a large grant writing department on purpose so we can seek out funds to make sure we can get things going. If the issue is more local oriented, we are going to be talking to the movers and shakers and decision makers in the area, talking to businessmen and talking with people who can figure out how we can get this resource to the kids in that community. It’s very important we have that equity.”

How will Ritz approach schools that continue to fail to the point where they may require state intervention?

“Title 1 is the division of the (U.S.) Department of Education that uses those federal funds to actually bring about school improvement. Those funds are going to be utilized in a way that really has substantial pieces to making improvement. My department OK’s those.” “We are going to be very active in making sure what is there is actually going to bring about some improvement. We have guidelines through the Title 1 process and, depending on how many years a school is in a priority focus, there are changes that should be made and should be happening — like, for instance, change in leadership. There are very specific things and interventions that should be occurring that perhaps, in some cases, are not occurring.” “I do not want students sitting in a school that is not functioning properly. But I’m also, at the same time, going to put in all the supports necessary to make it happen. That’s talking to whoever and however to get it done. That is part of what the coordinators do. They have meetings with schools that are part of the focus and priority schools to be sure we are always moving to where we need to go. Through the school improvement process they have been disconnected a long time. We are connecting them. The school improvement process and the connection piece now are going to be intertwined to move forward what should happen.”

Finally, Ritz gave some thought about the idea of school turnaround efforts, which for Bennett sometimes meant state takeover of local schools:

I am all for schools turning themselves around but not to the detriment of kids. We want schools to turn around and I want the department to have a very active role in doing that. The department, prior to my tenure, had five people going out to all of these priority schools, about 300 of them, and spending a little bit of time looking at their plans and then leaving. No direction, no oversight, things weren’t happening.” “I have 20 people dividing that work, We are seeing schools way more often. We are having connections with them because we are living where the schools are located. We’re making those connections happen and getting support pieces when needed. We’re making sure we’re going to provide what needs to be provided. I’m just insistent about that.”