Indiana celebrates NCLB waiver win, but questions remain

Four months after Indiana was stunned to be put on a form of probation by the U.S. Department of Education, there was widespread relief today when federal officials approved the state’s request to extend a waiver that releases schools from possible sanctions under No Child Left Behind.

But there was also a sense that Indiana wasn’t entirely out of the woods yet. The extension is for less than a year — through June 30 — and federal officials still have questions, especially about the way the state evaluates its teachers and principals.

Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz both treated the news as a victory.

“The approval of Indiana’s waiver request is great news for Indiana students and schools,” Pence said in a statement. “It gives us the ability to maintain local control of how federal education dollars are invested and to maintain the use of Indiana’s A-F school accountability system. The waiver also allows school districts and teachers to educate students in a manner determined by Hoosier educators and families in their local communities.”

Ritz said the flexibility means schools can keep federal aid they now spend on learning supports for kids, such as extra help for those who fall behind and after school programs. NCLB requires the money to be spent on after school programs from outside vendors, but President Obama’s administration relaxed that rule.

“Now they can use dollars in best way to meet students needs with personnel who really know children,” Ritz said at a news conference Thursday.

As the school year goes along, Ritz’s team will work on a proposal for a longer extension. Indiana could seek up to a four-year renewal.

Although Ritz said the U.S. education department removed all conditions from Indiana’s waiver, it still expects the state to work with districts on improving the teacher and principal evaluation system.

“Teacher evaluations, school accountability, and interventions for struggling schools are top priorities in our state, and maintaining our waiver will allow us to continue improvement in each of these areas,” Betsy Wiley, president and CEO of Hoosiers for Quality Education, which lobbies for educational change, said in a statement. “Now it is time for Superintendent Ritz to turn her attention to finalizing assessments for the 2014-2015 school year.”

It’s still undecided how exactly the teacher evaluation system might change. Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, thinks it’s still early to assess a system that was only just put in place, and teachers are still figuring out the “full impact of what that meant.”

“Personally, I would like to see less emphasis on standardized testing in the evaluation, and more support in improving the system,” Meredith said. “What is it that the state is doing to support school systems and teachers who need improvement and additional training?”

Meredith said even good teachers can struggle in certain areas, such as classroom management, and that she’d like the state to look at that and find more and better ways to support professional learning and development, rather than punish teachers when their students have poor test scores.

The sentiment is echoed by Indianapolis Public School Board candidate Josh Owens, who thinks Pence and state officials should partner with ISTA and seek a delay of evaluations tied to student performance for a year to accommodate the quick turnaround teachers had to change curriculum in response to Indiana’s new academic standards. The state replaced its plan to use widely adopted Common Core standards in April, instead approving new Indiana-created standards for what is taught in every grade.

ISTA called last week for such a delay.

“Those of us advocating for reforms want to reward teachers for excellent classroom instruction, improving student results, and agreeing to teach in our most challenging schools,” Owens said in a letter. “Partnering with the ISTA on this reasonable request in the interim may provide the perfect opportunity to build better partnerships with our teachers as we look to create an accountability system that achieves real, sustainable results while supporting our teachers at the same time.”

Can today’s goodwill possibly also translate to friendlier relations to replace the tension among Ritz, Pence, the state board, education groups and others?

“I really hope this lets (Ritz’s) critics and (the Center for Education and Career Innovation) and the governor know that she’s got this,” Meredith said. “We need to trust her to go forward and work on her students’ behalf.”