Future of Schools

Why Indiana matters when it comes to education

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

(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.


Future of Teaching

Five Award-Winning Teachers Talk Recharging Over the Summer

PHOTO: Fitzgerald Crame
Fitzgerald Crame celebrates his 2017 Golden Apple Award with his students

As Chicagoland students rejoice at the end of school, teachers also approach the summer with excitement – to be able to relax and recuperate from a busy school year.

Chalkbeat talked with five recipients of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching to hear about what they do over the summer to recharge for next school year.

The award is granted by the Golden Apple Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting school leaders and teachers. It honors outstanding pre-K-third-grade teachers in the Chicago area, granting recipients a paid spring sabbatical at Northwestern University, in which they can take any course they choose, and also lifetime membership at the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, in which they mentor prospective teachers and help shape education reform efforts in Illinois and nationally.

PHOTO: Meghan Dolan

Meghan Dolan

“Third grade is a benchmark here in Chicago Public Schools, so there’s a lot of pressure put on students to pass. And that pressure we take on as teachers.

“In the summer, sometimes [to recharge] it’s just getting enough sleep, because during the school year, I stay late at work and I come home and I do work. So, [I am] just doing nothing and sitting and watching a TV show – and actually watching it. Even right now, I’m writing notes to my students as I’m watching TV.

“I feel like my mind is freer and, like, when I’m at Target, I’m not like, ‘I need this for my classroom,’ but I can just go to Target and be like ‘oh, I need this just for me.’

“[During the school year,] you work so long, you work at school and then you come home and work and also on the weekends. Just being able to tell myself, ‘hey it’s OK to take a break.’”

Meghan Dolan just finished her 15th year of teaching. She’s a third-grade teacher at Palmer Elementary School in North Mayfair, and she co-teaches reading and math. She previously taught second grade and K-3 special education in Dubuque, Iowa, and Ferguson, Missouri. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2018.

PHOTO: Fitzgerald Crame

Fitzgerald Crame

“This year was a special year because I was participating in the Golden Apple sabbatical. I got to take any class that I wanted at Northwestern University, and one of the classes that I took was a photography class. For the rest of summer, I will continue to take photos.

“I have a philosophy that students should see the world through different lenses and appreciate the wonder that’s around them. Working through this photography class, it forced me to do the same for myself. Through the lens of my camera, I had to manipulate the aperture and shutter speed and all that to see the world differently. It just reaffirmed my ideas that there’s still wonder in the world. I didn’t have to go anywhere, I just had to change the angle of the lens to see the different light, and that just simple idea helped refresh me.

“I noticed as I took this photography class that I had always taken photos of my daughters and used a selective focus so that the background would blur out and the subject would come forward. But I forced myself to use a deeper focus so everything in my photos was sharp focus, and that made me appreciate the surroundings and appreciate every little detail.

“As I progressed through the class, I took a photo of a mural and my wife walked in front it. She was a little blurred out but the picture was still just so much more interesting with her in it, and then I realized the importance of the characters within the settings, not just the settings themselves. The characters – that’s what I was so interested in. It reminded me that no matter where you turn your lens, no matter what you take a picture of, that person is living this incredibly vibrant life with their own settings and their own backgrounds and their own stories.

PHOTO: Fitzgerald Crame
Fitzgerald Crame’s photo of his wife in front of a mural

“And that reminds me as a teacher that every one of the 31 students that are sitting in front of me is the focus of their own photo, or the protagonist of their own story. It helped me appreciate them as characters within their own settings. It’s something that drives the teachers. Like, guess what? They’re living a life as vibrant as the one that I’m living and they come with all these traits that I have to understand better.

“It’s seeing the world through fresh eyes.”

Fitzgerald Crame has been teaching for 22 years. He has taught fourth grade at Edison Regional Gifted Center in Chicago in Albany Park for six years, focusing on STEM and project based learning. He was awarded the Golden Apple for Excellence for Teaching in 2017, and he was honored as a Symmetra Classroom Hero in 2018.

PHOTO: Lisa Buchholz

Lisa Buchholz

“Teaching is like two jobs, almost. Your day job is your time with your kids and your night jobs are your planning and preparing. There’s only so many hours in the day, so in the summer, because I don’t have to be teaching kids, I can just fully focus on planning.

“I’m such a nerd.  I have an ongoing folder of ideas for class projects or activities that last all year long. I bring this folder home and read through the ideas I’ve collected so that I can add a new one for the next school year.

“This summer, I’m very excited to begin an ‘integrating notebook.’ I’m a fan of integrating concepts between subjects because this can help make content more relevant for students. This school year, I kept notes all over the place about times I integrated content.  [For example,] while reading a ‘Fly Guy’ book by Ted Arnold to the class, I realized I could tie it into the engineering design process and review the steps in that process as I was actually reading that book for a character study. Sometimes integrating is planned and sometimes you just seize the moment. That’s the beauty of the elementary model where one teacher teaches the same kids for all subjects. We can do that kind of integrating.

“Even while out and relaxing with my family, I’m like a mad scientist and have to keep a notebook with me at all times because family activities give me great ideas for classroom activities.”

Lisa Buchholz has taught for 27 years. She’s a first-grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She first starting teaching preschool while in college, and since graduating, she’s taught in the same district. She’s taught first, second, and third grades, having spent the most time teaching first grade. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Teaching in Excellence in 2018.

PHOTO: Daneal Silvers

Daneal Silvers

“It’s reaching out in both ways – spending time as a mom and a Chicagoan, and then also I’m reaching out as a teacher.

“I have two younger kids and as a teacher, there’s not as much time to be a parent or to be a chaperone and spend that kind of day time with the kids, like how a lot of other parents can. So in the summer I spend a lot of time with them – taking them to the park, going swimming with them.

“Also, every summer, I get to work meeting my new group of kindergartners. I reach out to my new families through surveys, orientation, and one-on-one interviews.  At Edison [Regional Gifted Center], we welcome 28 new families into kindergarten from all over the city. Since these families are not all coming from the same neighborhood, it’s essential to build a sense of community at school right from the first moment.

“In this way, my teaching feels cyclical rather than linear, because there isn’t a clear end, so I don’t always feel I need to refresh or recharge, but just move into the next part of the cycle.”

Daneal Silvers has been an early elementary (kindergarten and first grade) teacher for 10 years. She also teaches at Edison Regional Gifted Center. Her early-childhood curriculum emphasizes exploration of the concepts of peacefulness, empathy, grit and growth mindset. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Teaching for Excellence in 2018.

PHOTO: Carrie Garrett

Carrie Garrett

“I have a group of teaching friends and colleagues and get together at a friend’s house that has a pool and we just spend the time talking about the year, talking about memories. Those conversations, when they revolve around school, definitely help me reflect on what I’m doing and what else I need to be doing to be a better teacher. And, being in the sun and the pool helps too.

“There are times in my school year when I feel very defeated, and I feel like nothing I’m doing is effective. The thing about teaching is that any day it could be anything. Sometimes I do get frustrated with a mandated curriculum or mandated assessment that I have to give. Other times the frustration comes when you have a student that you have to advocate for and everything that you bring to the table and you know would be best sometimes isn’t necessarily the path that they choose for the child. There are processes that need to take place before the child can get the help that they need and it’s frustrating from the teacher perspective because the process can be very lengthy and time-consuming.

“That’s why my time at the pool with my girlfriends is so valuable to me – the connection that you have with the teachers that you work with or just teachers in general is so powerful, because when I do feel lost and frustrated, and I don’t know if I can teach any longer, just being able to voice your feeling and your frustration to a fellow teaching partner really helps you talk things out and get you back up on your feet.

“That’s the teaching process. You’re going to get knocked down, and hopefully you can stand back up, take one step at a time, push right through. And then the magic happens, and you were wondering why you ever thought why you couldn’t do it.

“When I first began teaching, I didn’t take the small successes, I was always looking for the big things. Now, teaching for as long as I’ve had, I know that there are a lot of things during the school year that can weigh you down. Sometimes you really just need to think, ‘did I do something that made a difference in at least one of my students’ lives today?’ Then in the summer,  you look back on that and you see so much growth.

“You sit back and think, ‘wow this whole time I thought we weren’t going very far very fast, but look at where we ended up.’”

Carrie Garrett just finished her fourth year of teaching first grade at Lynne Thigpen Elementary School in Joliet, Illinois. Before that, she was a reading specialist, a fourth-grade teacher and a fifth-grade teacher. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence for Teaching in 2018.

it's official

An integration plan is approved for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Middle schools in District 3, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Visual Arts, pictured above, will give struggling students priority in admission, the local Community Education Council announced.

The New York City education department on Wednesday approved a plan to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3, the culmination of years of advocacy amid vocal pushback against admissions changes aimed at creating more economically and academically diverse schools.

The plan marks the city’s first attempt under Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate middle schools across an entire district, an effort that garnered national attention after the schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, tweeted a blunt criticism of parents who protested the proposal.

Announcing approval of the plan, Carranza said in a statement that he hopes District 3 will serve as a model for other communities aiming for more diversity.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” he said.

The new admissions system builds on growing momentum to unravel deep segregation in the country’s largest school system. A few weeks ago, de Blasio announced a contentious plan to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools. And later on Wednesday,  a set of recommendations is expected to be unveiled for integrating middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Under the plan approved in District 3, students who are poor, struggle on state tests, and earn low report card grades will be given admissions priority for a quarter of seats at the district’s middle schools. Of those seats, 10 percent would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to the next-neediest group.

Education officials had considered weighing a number of different criteria to determine which students would get priority. They settled on a mix indicators including student poverty and academic achievement because it “identifies students most likely to suffer the consequences of long-term segregation in District 3,” according to a statement released by the Community Education Council, a group of parent volunteers who have supported the district’s integration efforts. 

Since academic performance is often linked to race and class, the new admissions system could integrate schools on a number of different measures. But in aiming for academic diversity explicitly, the district is pushing for a unique and controversial change. In District 3 and across New York City, high-performing students are often concentrated in a tiny subset of schools.

Parents who worried their children would be elbowed out of the most selective schools pushed hard against the plan, including a woman featured on a viral NY1 video saying that the proposal tells hard-working students “life sucks.”  

“I think it was definitely a much harder concept for parents to understand,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has helped lead the integration effort.  “We have a lot of talk about meritocracy… anything that challenges it, challenges a very basic concept parents have.”

With those concerns in mind, the district says it will boost training training for school staff in strategies to help struggling students. The district will also provide anti-bias training for all middle school staff and teachers will also focus on culturally relevant education practices, which ensure that all students are reflected in what is taught in classrooms.

Despite the backlash, the proposal would actually have a modest impact on many district schools, according to city projections. Among the schools expected to change the most is the Computer School, which would see a 16-point increase in the number of needy students who are offered admission. Still, only 28 percent of students would be poor and have low test scores and report card grades.  

Schools that currently serve the greatest number of struggling students aren’t expected to change much, if at all, according to projections. Many of those schools are in Harlem, prompting education council members to push the education department to do more for those schools.

The council pledged to take on the work itself. Parents want to weigh whether new school options are needed, and “address long-standing challenges such as disparities in resource allocation,” the council’s statement said.

“We need a Harlem vision. That’s really important and that’s key to the next steps,” Berger said.