The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of Indianapolis Public Schools: A new beginning

A classroom at IPS's A-rated School 90. (Alan Petersime)

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

The recent history of Indianapolis Public Schools is paradoxically a story of experimentation and of persistent complaints about resistance to change.

A key example is the 2013 departure of former Superintendent Eugene White. White was a polarizing figure hailed by some as a visionary but a target of complaints from others for not making enough progress.

That conflicted legacy continues today, with the district standing again at a crossroads. A change-oriented board and superintendent are aiming to find new ways to improve student outcomes. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, like his predecessor, has generated excitement about the possibilities for the future. And yet some observers wonder if he will be able to make change fast enough.

Here’s a look back at the history and where we are today:

District choice

White’s decision in 2005 to move from highly regarded, and more affluent, Washington Township schools to IPS, for decades the state’s poorest district, was initially seen as a major step toward change. Some hoped the success he had in the more suburban township would translate to IPS. White set about shaking things up.

Among his early accomplishments was a new focus on magnet schools. The district created a series of specialty schools, such as high schools for students interested in medicine and law. At the elementary level, the district founded Sidener Academy for gifted students in 2008, which soon became the state’s top-scoring school on state tests.

Another innovation expanded under White was the Centers for Inquiry curriculum. The program began in a single classroom before being taken school wide at School 2 and School 84, which became top-performing schools. Under White, CFI was added to School 27.

Most magnet schools have academic requirements. Students must maintain good grades and behavior or be expelled to neighborhood schools.

By 2012, about a third of IPS schools had a magnet theme, including several that earned good grades from the state based on test scores. But most of the remaining traditional neighborhood schools persisted among the worst rated in the state.

The continued poor performance of traditional neighborhood schools led to increasing frustration among White’s critics. In December 2011, the school reform organization The Mind Trust issued a report on the district that called for a massive overhaul. It proposed the mayor appoint a majority of the school board, a dramatic reduction in central office spending, increased autonomy for principals and beefed up recruiting for high-quality teachers and principals.

White rejected the report as unrealistic and called for support for his own reform plan.

Political change

Major changes began for Indianapolis Public Schools with a November 2012 school board election. Two of White’s strongest allies on the board retired and one was defeated. The board majority that had strongly supported him now turned to a majority of board members who promised to do things differently during the campaign.

In the first week of January, the new board struck a deal to buy out the remainder of White’s contract.

In July, the board selected a permanent replacement for White in Lewis Ferebee, a 39-year-old chief of staff for the school district in Durham, N.C. Ferebee started work in September, promising to spend his first 100 days listening and learning about the district. Ferebee’s son attends the district, making him the first parent superintendent in decades at IPS.

Ferebee earned a reputation from his prior work as an expert in turning around low-performing schools, first as a principal and then as a central office administrator. His approach was to target the other end of the spectrum of student performance from White, who was dogged by complaints that his magnet program mostly benefited well-behaved, academically-oriented and often wealthier students rather than the district’s most needy kids.

After just three months on the job, Ferebee announced a blockbuster: IPS, he said his own study of the district’s budget showed a large deficit White had touted did not exist. Two audits confirmed his numbers, relieving a short term worry that IPS would need to take dramatic action like closing schools to stay solvent. But declining state funding means the district’s financial fate is still not secure.

Helping the budget somewhat is a small enrollment growth trend. After falling behind Fort Wayne in 2012 to become the state’s second largest district, IPS saw more students enroll in each of the next two years. Enrollment in 2014 was 30,813, up from a low of 28,193 in 2012, and besting Fort Wayne (30,783) by fewer than 100 students.

In his first year, Ferebee surprised some traditional IPS supporters by embracing ideas that IPS critics often proposed, such as autonomy for schools. For example, White joined Mayor Greg Ballard and Republican legislators to advocate for a bill that gives IPS the authority to hand empty buildings over for charter schools to use, or to hire charter school operators to run an IPS school. Under the bill IPS also could forge deals its own teachers. One such example Ferebee has cited is Project Restore, a successful school turnaround program begun by two IPS teachers.

Ferebee has also sought to aggressively overhaul the lowest scoring IPS schools, which he dubbed “priority schools,” with new principals, new curriculum and extra support from the central office. He has advocated for changes in pay for teachers and principals.

Another big election

In 2014, the school board moved even more strongly in the direction of change. Three board members — Annie Roof, Michael Brown and Samantha Adair-White — were defeated by candidates promising to push even harder for school autonomy, partnerships with charter schools and other innovations.In 2015, the new board members immediately promised big changes would come. It quickly overturned some decisions made by the 2014 board, including moving to partner with a charter school to jointly operate an IPS school for the first time.

The new board has pushed more partnerships with charter schools, such as Phalen Leadership Academy and Charter Schools USA, to try to improve schools with low test scores despite some criticism. It raised teacher pay for the first time in five years and pledged to give principals more autonomy to make decisions about hiring and budgets.

-Updated December 2015


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.