Future of Schools

Questions remain as Indiana's NCLB deadline nears

State board member Brad Oliver and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz at a meeting in December. (Scott Elliott)

Indiana now has less than a month to satisfy U.S. Department of Education concerns that have put it in jeopardy of facing federal sanctions, and some State Board of Education members are getting antsy.

The state board, which demanded answers from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz in a special meeting last month, is expecting another update Wednesday. The contentious issue caused some fireworks at the board’s last meeting and board members say they still want more information directly from Ritz.

“There has been no update, nothing, to the board,” board member Brad Oliver said. “I am going to ask some questions. I want to know what’s been going on. I’m hearing two stories — that everything is OK and that we have serious issues.”

In early May, the U.S. Department of Education sent Indiana a letter giving the state 60 days — to the end of June — to answer a series of concerns in order to reassure federal officials that it had not violated the terms of a 2012 agreement to relax some federal rules.

That deal, or “waiver,” released Indiana from some sanctions of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Law. Most states have received waivers from rules, now widely deemed to be too stringent, that would have required all children to be scoring at grade level on standardized tests by this year.

Federal officials wanted the state to demonstrate how it was meeting the following terms, which the state agreed to as part of its waiver:

  • Indiana’s new standards qualify as “college and career ready”
  • State-administered tests going forward adequately measure the new standards
  • The state’s new teacher evaluation law is being faithfully followed
  • The Indiana Department of Education’s monitoring of the lowest scoring schools is working effectively.

Oliver said board members were asked about their availability for a special meeting the week of June 23 to discuss the issue, but he thinks that is too late.

“If we don’t have a plan by June 23, that’s a concern,” he said. “It’s due June 30.”

Ritz’s spokesman, Daniel Altman, said board members should be getting updates from the staff of the Center for Education and Career Innovation. The center, created by Gov. Mike Pence last August, has irked Ritz, who at times has complained that Pence uses it to usurp her duties.

“The state board staff has been on every call we’ve had with (the U.S. Department of Education),” Altman said. “As far as when they update the state board, that’s up to them. If someone on the state board has a problem they can talk to their staff.”

Altman said there has been progress in talks with federal officials.

“We’ve been having regular conversations and are working with them collaboratively,” he said.

But Oliver said he and others on the board have been frustrated that Ritz’s take on the state’s dealings with the U.S. Department of Education haven’t always matched what they hear from CECI staff and others.

In fact, CECI spokeswoman Lou Ann Baker was less optimistic than Altman about the progress that’s been made in phone meetings that have included federal officials along with state education department and CECI staff.

“There have been three phone call and clearly much work is yet to be done,” Baker said.

One state, Washington, lost its waiver earlier this year for failing to comply with its terms and three others have been put on notice that their waivers are in serious danger if changes are not made. Indiana’s letter was unique. The state was not given “high risk” status but it still had more problems to address than most states.

For Washington, losing the waiver will mean less flexibility in how federal education dollars are spent in local schools, a situation Indiana’s state board hopes to avoid.

IPS seeks more control

The meeting agenda says a recommendation to the board regarding “lead partner determinations” is forthcoming, but gives no specifics.

Last month, Indianapolis Public Schools asked if the district could serve as its own “lead partner” for John Marshall, George Washington and Broad Ripple high schools. It asked to fire outside companies that were hired by the state to assist those schools.

Broad Ripple and George Washington were two of seven schools statewide that faced the possibility of state takeover when they reached six straight years of F grades for low test scores in 2011. The state board stopped short of asking outside companies to manage those schools independently from IPS.

Lead partners who have worked with the schools include The New Teacher Project and Scholastic Achievement Partners, both of New York City, and Texas-based Voyager Learning.

IPS last year won permission from the state to fire one of George Washington’s lead partners, New York-based Amplify, replacing it with a consultant who trained school staff in the “eight-step process,” a program of frequent testing and regrouping of students used in several IPS schools.

At the request of then-IPS Superintendent Eugene White in 2012, the state board agreed to assign Voyager to try to improve test scores at Marshall, which entered state intervention after six consecutive F grades, and a group of feeder schools nearby.

But new IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee argued the district could better manage the process internally under a plan he proposed.

Guidance proposed for new standards

The Indiana Education Roundtable, in approving Indiana’s new academic standards in April, asked the Indiana Department of Education to produce the guidance it will give to schools and teachers about how to use the new standards by June 15. The state board is scheduled to discuss that guidance Wednesday.

Guidance is potentially controversial because it may give teachers examples and direction for recommended methods to teach the new standards.

It was guidance for teaching to Common Core, standards used by most states that Indiana rejected earlier this year, that caused much of the concern from critics who feared those standards would lead teachers toward teaching methods that may be in conflict with the way math and English are taught in some Indiana districts.

Already Common Core critics have complained that Indiana’s new standards are mostly similar to Common Core.

State board procedures

The state board has continued to refine its rules for conducting meetings since an explosive November meeting that ended when Ritz abruptly adjourned rather than allow a motion from Oliver.

Among the changes that have since been made are new procedures for placing items on the agenda and for board members to make motions during board meetings.

On Wednesday, the board is expected consider one more change: allowing public comment on items that do not appear on the agenda. The current rules require speakers to restrict their remarks to items that the board plans to talk about during the meeting.

Board member David Freitas was among those who pushed for allowing public comment on any topic, regardless of whether it was already on the agenda.

upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”