Are Children Learning

In her own words: Glenda Ritz talks reading, testing and failing schools

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz at last month’s A to F Accountability Panel meeting.

Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz rejected the policy of her predecessor, Tony Bennett, when it comes to persistently low scoring schools. She doesn’t want to close them or have the state take them over.

Instead, her plan is to create a statewide system of coordinators aimed at providing supports and rallying local communities that she believes will be more effective than intervening to make dramatic change in the schools.

Ritz, who is sometimes criticized by her political opponents for lacking vision for how to improve schools in Indiana, laid out her views in a 90-minute interview with Chalkbeat on Oct. 29 at the central library in a program sponsored by WFYI. The entire interview has now been posted online. On politics, Ritz said she won’t back down in her fight against the Indiana State Board of Education and other foes.

On policy, she explained how she sees education in Indiana. In the following excerpts, Ritz discusses her goals — emphasizing reading, changing state testing and redefining the Indiana Department of Education’s role to build a statewide support system for troubled schools:

On reading, Ritz said she wants to use her position to promote it at home through her new Hoosier Family of Readers program, which uses community organizations like libraries, after school programs and summer camps to send that message:

“It is the key indicator for success in any kind of coursework. Good readers become good writers and communicators. A lot of kids do not have traditional families. Perhaps mom and dad aren’t involved in reading in the home. We can’t go outside of school make a child read. We can enforce some of that in the school walls.”

“It’s been great to start to get that ball rolling and make literacy a part of what we do. For a long time it’s not been about kids learning to read so much as it is about keeping them reading. We are getting partners all over the place that want to work with kids and want to make sure they are reading.”

A proposal by Ritz to change Indiana’s third-grade reading exam, which can keep kids who fail from advancing to fourth grade, from a typical standardized test to a reading level test was tabled this summer by the Indiana State Board of Education:

The third grade reading test came out in April of 2012 and everybody needs to understand that’s why I got in the race to be superintendent. When that test came out and it was going to be the premise in Indiana that we can teach reading through an assessment rather than having good instructional data to inform that decision that was kind of the line in the sand for me.”

“Literally, in the state of Indiana, the only reading information that we have is the pass-fail grade three test. We need to have literacy data. I think it’s embarrassing to the state of Indiana that we don’t have reading information on our students, the key indicator of success on our coursework.”

“Instead of a pass-fail assessment, I want to have a growth assessment so that we know where students are performing. Methodology of that has improved greatly since we instituted ISTEP and there are all types of assessments out there that are easy to give and don’t take a lot of time so we can know where kids are reading and move them toward where they need to go.”

Ritz said she often asks students if they know their reading levels:

“Students need to know their reading levels. I had the opportunity to meet with some ninth to 12th graders in a hands-on algebra program. I said to them, how many of you know your reading lexiles? Lexile is a measure of reading that schools use trying to use their own growth measure to see what that is. Almost all the hands went up. Then I said, how many of you can tell me what Lexile you need to be college and career ready? Not a single hand went up.”

“I told them it was 1300 lexile. You should have seen the looks in their eyes, You could tell on their faces they weren’t close to that. They raised their little hands and said, what can we do about this Mrs. Ritz? I wasn’t a big poster person but I had one poster on my wall that said, “Ten ways to be a better reader: Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read.” It’s that simple.”

Ritz spoke of her conflict with the state board, which has declined to discuss changing the third grade reading test:

“During that conversation I had a board member say how does this fit into the bigger picture of assessments? I took that back and thought about that. How does it fit into the bigger picture? We could perhaps get this rule change (third grade reading requirement) or not, changing the type of test. But in the scheme of things it really is part of the big picture of the overall assessment that we do in the state of Indiana.”

“I  have a very strong need to have reading be measured. And so I’m hoping that is going to happen and as a result of that we may need to repromulgate that rule, third grade reading, to make that happen. But I am going to be promoting that we have measures of assessment at the state level for reading, I talk to anybody and everybody about that. Having reading measures at the state level could substantially improve our education system in Indiana with a total focus on literacy, which in my personal opinion is why we have so many students not doing well.”

“I’m adamant. I’m just going to keep pushing. It should be K-12. There should not be a teacher who doesn’t know the reading level of a student entering their classroom. It’s that simple, It doesn’t take much to measure it.”

Poverty has a dramatic effect on reading scores, Ritz said:

“If we did a succinct analysis of the students economic level of the kids that aren’t passing that IREAD I bet we would find they fall into that category of the kids that have moved to several schools over several years (or) that they came to us in first grade. Remember, Indiana has an attendance age of 7. So we get first graders in all the time who have not been to kindergarten, not been to a quality preschool, who have not had home support with literacy and language development and they are two years behind before they even enter our school.”

When it comes to failing schools, Ritz argues that the best way to improve them it to connect them with resources and support:

“In order to envision changing a system of support, I actually had to reorganize the department of education. We have created the Division of Outreach for School Improvement. I have 13 coordinators out in the state of Indiana among the nine different regions currently. They are hired from within the region in which they live. As a result they are knowing their schools and their principals, specifically the focus and priority schools — those schools that have received grades of D or F — because those schools are the largest focus and priority for the department to make sure we are getting the right supports to them.”

“So now that in itself isn’t a novel idea. What is a novel idea is actually tying it to school improvement. Every school has a school improvement plan and goals and information they have to gather. We are going to be putting that this year into an electronic template and for the first time we are going to be able to pull up from around the state of Indiana and find where the needs are, collectively.”

Ritz used technology as an example of how the outreach system can help schools:

“All students in the state of Indiana, regardless of the schools they go to, should have Wi-Fi access and a device to access it, whether they bring it from home or the school supplies it. For the first time we are going to be able to pull that up geographically and see who does not have that in place. When they don’t have it in place, if it’s a large issue, that’s going to drive our legislative agenda. It’s going to take bigger money, bigger buy-in to make sure something happens.”

“If it’s a regional issue, it may drive our grant writing. I have a large grant writing department on purpose so we can seek out funds to make sure we can get things going. If the issue is more local oriented, we are going to be talking to the movers and shakers and decision makers in the area, talking to businessmen and talking with people who can figure out how we can get this resource to the kids in that community. It’s very important we have that equity.”

How will Ritz approach schools that continue to fail to the point where they may require state intervention?

“Title 1 is the division of the (U.S.) Department of Education that uses those federal funds to actually bring about school improvement. Those funds are going to be utilized in a way that really has substantial pieces to making improvement. My department OK’s those.”

“We are going to be very active in making sure what is there is actually going to bring about some improvement. We have guidelines through the Title 1 process and, depending on how many years a school is in a priority focus, there are changes that should be made and should be happening — like, for instance, change in leadership. There are very specific things and interventions that should be occurring that perhaps, in some cases, are not occurring.”

“I do not want students sitting in a school that is not functioning properly. But I’m also, at the same time, going to put in all the supports necessary to make it happen. That’s talking to whoever and however to get it done. That is part of what the coordinators do. They have meetings with schools that are part of the focus and priority schools to be sure we are always moving to where we need to go. Through the school improvement process they have been disconnected a long time. We are connecting them. The school improvement process and the connection piece now are going to be intertwined to move forward what should happen.”

Finally, Ritz gave some thought about the idea of school turnaround efforts, which for Bennett sometimes meant state takeover of local schools:

I am all for schools turning themselves around but not to the detriment of kids. We want schools to turn around and I want the department to have a very active role in doing that. The department, prior to my tenure, had five people going out to all of these priority schools, about 300 of them, and spending a little bit of time looking at their plans and then leaving. No direction, no oversight, things weren’t happening.”

“I have 20 people dividing that work, We are seeing schools way more often. We are having connections with them because we are living where the schools are located. We’re making those connections happen and getting support pieces when needed. We’re making sure we’re going to provide what needs to be provided. I’m just insistent about that.”

pisa power

A surprising link: when kids work harder on tests, their countries’ economies grow more

American politicians often wring their hands over the country’s mediocre performance on international tests. New research finds one reason they’re right to worry: a country’s scores on one of those tests, known as PISA, do tend to mirror its economic growth.

That research also arrives at a more surprising finding — one that could add to the debate about the importance of teaching students “soft skills” in school.

Students’ ability to push through to the end of the test — their “stick-to-it-iveness,” if you will — was equally able to predict whether a country was on an upward economic climb, the study found.

Students in certain Northern European and Asian countries, for example, did nearly as well on questions toward the end of the test as they did on its early questions. The idea is that those students don’t give up easily, a technique that’s been used in previous studies to get at hard-to-measure skills like “grit” or perseverance.

In some cases, countries where students did similarly at the start of the test saw big differences in how quickly performance declined over the course of the exam.

On the 2006 PISA, the U.S. scored in the middle of the pack of nearly 60 countries in both overall performance and in students’ decline between the first question and the last.

Past studies have found that a country’s performance on international tests predicts future economic growth, but the latest study, published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, is among the first to try to quantify the impact of these harder-to-measure traits.

“Both the starting performance and the performance decline are positively and significantly associated with economic growth,” the researchers write.

Worth noting: the U.S. has been an outlier in the past when it comes to PISA. Our economic growth has outpaced other countries’ with similar scores.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.