Indiana's five biggest education stories of 2014

(NOTE: Chalkbeat Indiana will publish on a reduced schedule after today until Jan. 5. We will be republishing some of our favorite stories from 2014, so check back during the break to revisit some of our most interesting reporting of the year. During the break, our daily Rise and Shine feature and morning newsletter will also be on hiatus. We hope you’ll continue to join us in 2015 as we work to bring you even broader and more in-depth coverage of education in Indiana.)

From political battles at the Indiana Statehouse to major moves at Indianapolis Public Schools, 2014 was a big year for education in Indiana.

Here’s a recap of five of the most influential education news events of the year as Chalkbeat sees them. Do you agree or disagree? Tell us in the comments below!

1. Indiana Junks Common Core:

(Alan Petersime)

Early in 2014, Indiana became the first state to back out of its plan to follow Common Core academic standards, which in 2010 it had adopted along with 45 other states. Indiana had been one the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of Common Core. In four short years, everything changed. Common Core became embroiled in national politics and caught in the crossfire of decades-old philosophical debates about the best ways for children to learn. This spring, a bill to void the Common Core as the state’s standards passed the legislature and was signed by Gov. Mike Pence, earning praise for the governor from critics who distrusted the federal government’s endorsement of the standards. But the cheers subsided when drafts of the new standards were released. Common Core opponents complained that many of the standards were identical or nearly the same as Common Core. The quick change of direction on standards also knocked Indiana off schedule for connecting its new standards to state tests, creating new difficulties for schools trying to prepare students to pass those tests.
2. State launches first ever preschool pilot:

(Scott Elliott)

Pence pushed hard to get a small preschool pilot approved by the Indiana General Assembly in 2014. Most of the five counties participating — including Marion County — are poised to start serving children in January. Pence made beefing up state’s preschool investment the top priority on his education agenda for the legislative session, and got the program established despite serious doubts from some of his Republican allies in the legislature and a few setbacks that put the bill in peril. Meanwhile, the city of Indianapolis separately approved the framework for a $40 million public-private effort to expand preschool options for poor families in the city.

3. Glenda Ritz and Mike Pence take their battle to a new level: 

The distrust among Indiana’s top education leaders was obvious at nearly every Indiana State Board of Education meeting in 2014. Tensions that built after Pence created by executive order the Center for Education and Career Innovation in 2013, climaxed with battles over who was responsible for shortcomings that brought the attention of federal officials. The U.S. Department of education raised concerns in May that Indiana was not following an agreement under which it was freed from some sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law and set a short deadline to make fixes. After weeks of finger pointing, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s report was approved and the NCLB waiver renewed for another year. After constant complaints from Ritz that CECI was designed to usurp her power, Pence surprised everyone last month by announcing he would shut the agency down to assuage her fears. But that pledge came with a twist: He wants Ritz to give up her role as chairwoman of the state board. 4. A massive effort to overhaul teacher evaluations changed little: 

(Alan Petersime)

After the first school year under tougher new teacher evaluation rules, hardly any teachers were rated in the lowest category, results that mirrored the old system. Statewide just 219 educators were rated “ineffective” last May of 50,000 educators who were evaluated. In fact, nearly all rated educators — 97 percent — were classified in the top two categories as effective or highly effective. Legislators are weighing changes to the state’s teacher evaluation law, which was first passed in 2011, saying that the high scores suggest that the law does not go far enough to identify which teachers need help or should be removed.
5. IPS reveals financial stunner: 

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee sent a shock wave through the Indianapolis Public Schools community back in March when he revealed the $30 million deficit the district had been struggling with for nearly a year doesn’t exist. In fact, IPS ended 2013 with an $8.4 million surplus. Ferebee speculated that IPS’s prior administration “intentionally overstated expenses to protect our cash balance.” The revelation, which was met with skepticism from his predecessors, led the administration to change the way it reports and manages finances, with more detailed reports to the board and the public. Two outside audits of IPS’s operations revealed a recent history of poorly managed finances and an unsophisticated investment strategy for managing the district’s cash reserves.