Future of Schools

Why Indiana matters when it comes to education

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
A new charter high school is planned for the East side of Indianapolis.

(NOTE: Much has changed since this post was first published in October of 2013. This post has not been updated to reflect those changes but the “basics of” stories linked to below have been updated.)

People know cities like New York City, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., are hotbeds for educational change.

But do they know about Indianapolis? They should.

From vouchers to charter schools, Common Core to A through F grading, there is a lot going on here.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about every one of the issues listed below to give Chalkbeat readers a thorough understanding of what’s going on here in Indiana. As those stories are posted, I’ll connect them via links to the bullet points below. So check back here frequently for a guide to the basics of major education issues in Indiana.

But back to the core question — why Indiana? Of all the cities across the country that Chalkbeat could have expanded to, why did we choose to come here?

The fact is, Indianapolis, and Indiana generally, has begun to rival those other places mentioned above that everyone knows about when it comes to education — not to mention other emerging centers for education experimentation like Colorado and Tennessee —  as one of the most interesting places to watch.

While Indiana has plenty of the elements of what’s come to be known as “education reform” movement — school choice, standards reform and a rethinking of teacher training and instructional methods — it’s also taken some unique approaches that have distinguished it from other places.

Indianapolis, as a city and state capitol, likes to think of itself as an innovation center. That attitude has carried over to its view of educational change. For instance, Indianapolis is unusual in that its mayor plays an ever-increasing role in education, but does it by sponsoring charter schools, not by running the school district, as other cities have tried.

The progenitors of mayor charter school sponsoring have since birthed another major new educational player in the city and state. The non-profit group, The Mind Trust, created a rare example of an education entrepreneur fellowship, which aims to fund the development of innovative educational ideas on the condition that the entrepreneurs try their new ideas first in Indianapolis.

Since 2010, the state has seen a run of major legislative reforms in education and fierce battles over who controls the state education department and the Indianapolis Public School Board. Among the major issues the state continues to grapple with are:

  • Vouchers. Indiana’s three-year-old voucher program was just expanded and has grown faster than any voucher program in history to second largest in the U.S. this year. It will likely be No. 1 in the nation in 2014.
  • Charter schools. In 2011, the state expanded sponsoring authority, which has helped attract new players to the state like Carpe Diem from Arizona, and spur replication of high-performing, locally-run charter schools. Explosive growth of charters appears to be just around the corner.
  • Teacher evaluation. Another major 2011 law completely overhauled the process by which teachers performance is reviewed, adding student test scores as a factor and tying evaluation results to pay raises and even job security. In 2014, teachers will feel those effects for the first time.
  • Merit Pay. The new evaluations also will lead to new pay systems in Indiana school districts that will allow for the best rated teachers to be paid more and the lowest rated to be blocked from receiving more pay.
  • State Takeover. Indiana is a rare example of a state that took direct control of five failing schools in 2012, handing them over to be run by private companies or non-profits.
  • Unions. Changes in labor law have limited unions to bargaining just on pay and benefits while narrowing the negotiating window to 60 days between Aug. 1 and Oct. 1. That’s one of several challenges facing the Indiana State Teachers Association.
  • Common Core standards. Indiana was an early adopter of Common Core standards in 2010 but lawmakers in 2013 ordered a reconsideration, with a year of study and debate that culminated in a vote by the state board of education to replace the standards in 2014.
  • New Indiana standards. In place of Common Core, Indiana created its own new standards in early 2014 and now teachers are scrambling to prepare students for new 2015 tests based on them.
  • Indianapolis Public Schools. The state’s poorest and second largest school district has undergone a transformation since the start of 2013, with a new, reform-oriented school board that has replaced the superintendent and is aiming for more changes. New Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is working on his plan for how to approach all the district’s issues.
  • Tony Bennett. The hard-charging, charismatic Bennett was the aggressive face of school reform as state superintendent from 2008-12 before his stunning defeat to underfunded and lesser known school teacher Glenda Ritz. Bennett left Indiana to lead the education department in Florida but resigned less than a year into his term following a controversy after his email directives to staff from Indiana were published. Bennett has said he is considering a move back to Indiana.
  • Glenda Ritz. The only Democrat currently holding statewide office, Ritz has crossed swords with Republican leaders, some of whom have taken steps to limit her power and control over the Indiana Department of Education. She may be in a fight for her political life when the legislature begins its work anew in January.
  • Testing. In a debate that is tied to the Common Core, Indiana must decide in 2014 whether to replace or alter its glitch-plagued state test, ISTEP, to conform to college and career-ready standards. At the same time, Ritz is urging a reform of the state third grade reading test from a pass-fail design to an exam that establishes a student’s numerical reading level.
  • A to F grading. Letter grades for schools based on state test scores were new to Indiana in 2011 and the grading system was changed in 2012 to add growth measures based on student test score gain. More changes are in the works as schools await 2103 grades later this fall.
  • Early Childhood Education. Indiana is one of only nine states that provides not direct state aid to help children attend preschool. It also is among about a third of states that does not require kindergarten. But recent efforts aimed at increasing the state’s commitment to early childhood education have had some success.
  • School Funding. Indiana is unusual in that funding to operate schools comes entirely from the state. Local property taxes are only used for specific needs, like busing and school construction. That means the ongoing debate over who gets what, and how much, mostly happens in the politically-charged environment of the statehouse.
  • Mike Pence. As governor, he’s pushed for career and technical education, school choice and changes to standards and tests.
  • Township schools. Indianapolis has eight township school districts that together enroll a large majority of the city’s public schools but their successes and challenges are often overlooked.
  • NCLB waiver. Indiana is one of many states that has signed a waiver agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that guides some state policy, especially when it comes to standards, tests and helping schools with the lowest test scores improve.
  • English language learning. Indiana has seen huge growth in the enrollment of children in schools who are still learning English as a second language but the state, and some schools, have been slow to adapt to better serve them.

That’s just a taste of what you’ll read about here at Chalkbeat. Check back here frequently for more.

 

study up

Do community schools and wraparound services boost academics? Here’s what we know.

At Gompers Elementary Middle School in Detroit, where the city health department and the Vision To Learn nonprofit announced a partnership to provide free eye exams to 5,000 children in 2016. (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District)

New York City has been trying to help struggling schools by partnering them with nonprofits that provide counseling and health services. A Detroit school recently added a washing machine to make sure students have clean clothes. A Tennessee superintendent just petitioned the state for more funding to offer similar help to students and families.

The strategy, often referred to as the “community schools” model or “wraparound services,” has been embraced by districts across the country. It also makes intuitive sense to help kids in class by directly dealing with out-of-school factors, like poverty, that affect learning.

So do school-based efforts to counter the harmful effects of poverty lead to measurable academic gains?

Here’s what we know: Research shows that these efforts often do help learning, but in a number of cases they don’t seem to have any effect — and it’s not clear why efforts sometimes succeed and sometimes don’t.

The impact on academics is promising

Child Trends, a research group, recently compiled and analyzed the results of 19 rigorous studies that tried to isolate the effects of efforts to improve students’ mental and physical health, offer counseling services, add after-school programs, provide direct social services to families in need, and other similar programs.

Examples include the national Communities in Schools and Boston’s City Connects programs, which place site coordinators in schools to connect students and families to those resources.

When looking at the effect of wraparound services on grades and test scores, those 19 studies come to a mix of positive and inconclusive findings. Results were a bit more positive in math than in English, which is common in education research.

There was also variation within programs, like Communities in Schools, which has become the most evaluated wraparound-style initiative. Separate studies have shown that the program produced test score gains in Chicago and Wichita, but not Austin or Jacksonville. A recent national evaluation focusing on Texas and North Carolina found a mix of outcomes.

One notable finding: across the 19 studies, there are virtually no cases where students appear to do worse thanks to the programs, the review notes. The researchers conclude that the approach is “promising but not yet proven.”

Not included in the review were a few initial evaluations of New York City’s community schools-based turnaround program, which included extending the school day. One analysis found that the program actually seemed to reduce high school graduation rates relative to similar schools that did not participate, and had no effects on elementary or middle school test scores. But another study using a different approach found that the initiative did lead to moderate test score gains.

The impact on attendance, behavior, and other outcomes is inconsistent

One surprising aspect of the research on these wraparound services: there aren’t consistent findings about how the programs affect things other than academics.

In a handful of studies in the Child Trends that examined other outcomes, most found no effects on students’ attendance, behavior, engagement in school, or social-emotional outcomes. Still, a few studies found positive effects and, again, negative ones were quite rare.

One recent paper, not included in the Child Trends review, found that a wraparound initiative in Massachusetts led to substantial gains in students’ math and English test scores. That program made no apparent impact on students’ attendance, their likelihood of being held back a grade, or suspension rates, though.

What makes a program work?

Frustratingly for policymakers, it’s not clear.

The Child Trends report suggests providing community schools with substantial resources over several years is most likely to lead to success. But it concludes that there’s a “lack of evidence regarding the concrete elements that make different models successful or how they must be implemented.”

Meanwhile, there appears to be stronger evidence for the academic benefits of direct anti-poverty programs that are separate from schools. The earned income tax credit, health insurance, child tax credit, food stamps, and simply giving cash to low-income families have all been linked to better outcomes in schools for children.

Finally, many would argue these sorts of wraparound services and anti-poverty programs are worthwhile regardless of students’ short-term academic gains.

Elaine Weiss, who led a group that supported wraparound services, previously told Chalkbeat that the approaches have intrinsic value.

“Don’t we all agree that having kids who have access to mental and physical health care, regular nutritious meals, and quality, safe after-school and summer programs is inherently a good thing?” she asked.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.