Are Children Learning

A year after Common Core, the next battle could be Indiana's new science standards

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Schools in the Tindley network are among the most racially isolated in the city.

Indiana could be gearing up for another fight over academic standards — this time, in science.

Over the next year, the Indiana Department of Education will work toward an update of the state’s science standards, which are expectations for what kids in each grade should learn.

But already some are worried the revision process will rely too heavily on standards that critics say are too easy, too unclear and too close to the drama that accompanied Indiana’s adoption, and subsequent abandonment, of the Common Core State Standards in English and math.

The Next Generation Science Standards were developed by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and standards-based reform organization Achieve. But to Erin Tuttle, who helped found Hoosiers Against Common Core, those standards are nothing more than “sister standards to Common Core.”

“What I see with these is the same mistakes as Common Core,” Tuttle said. “Why are we going to go down his same road? It seems like there are better, more efficient ways of doing this that could result in better learning opportunities for Indiana students.”

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the Next Generation standards are just one guide Indiana’s standards-setting committee will look at, just as was the case with the state’s new English and math standards, which replaced Common Core in 2014.

“We get together our crew, and it’ll include a wide constituency of people that will serve on those committees, and we look at our standards,” Ritz said. “Yes, we look at national standards as well. We’re required to do that in the statute, making sure we’re looking at what’s out there.”

Tuttle argued the standards-writing process is part of the problem. She said the state is not open enough about how it develops standards and doesn’t give enough time for public input.

“After my experience with Common Core, I have no faith at all that the Indiana Department of Education will do a proper vetting of the Next Generation standards,” Tuttle said.

Jeremy Eltz, a science specialist with the department who is working on the standards, said he hopes to have a draft up for public comment by the end of the month. He’s invited more than 150 teachers, professors and community organizations — like the NAACP, the local Catholic archdiocese and homeschooling groups — for input.

“We’re a couple weeks behind at this point,” Eltz said. “But the way I have it set up, I have a few months built in, so this isn’t a hard deadline.”

The department presented the estimated timeline for the standards along with an update to the Indiana State Board of Education at its February meeting. The process is not expected to be completed until early 2016.

Critics argue national standards don’t measure up

Indiana last revised its science standards in 2010, creating ones Tuttle argues are far superior to the those created by Achieve.

So far, just 13 states have adopted the new science standards, which were completed in 2013.

Based on a review by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy group, Indiana’s 2010 science standards earned an “A-” grade, while the Next Generation standards earned a “C.” Tuttle said the national standards were ranked low in part because they cut out science content to add in more skills and practice.

“One criticism is that they don’t have enough content in chemistry or physics to actually construct a high school course,” Tuttle said. “There isn’t enough material there.”

Eltz agreed with Tuttle that the new national science standards are lighter in content. But he doesn’t necessarily think that’s bad. The standards’ emphasis on skills and scientific practice is important for students, too, he said. Indiana’s science standards now are fairly content-driven, he said.

“You really want your students to be able to perform the practice of a scientist and an engineer,” Eltz said. “But you also want a student to not have to Google everything when they get that job.”

Tuttle has similar concerns, right down to the same worry that kids won’t know what they need to know.

“With Common Core and with these it seems to be how we’re teaching stuff, not what we’re teaching,” Tuttle said. “You can’t Google everything.”

It would be irresponsible not to consider national standards, Eltz said. But it doesn’t mean Indiana has to adopt them verbatim. He said the state’s current science standards are generally well-liked by educators, so he doesn’t foresee having to make big, fundamental changes to them.

When updating the standards, Eltz said, the goal is to balance content, practice, national standards and other research — especially since reports have shown time spent on science in elementary school classrooms fell from three hours per week to about two from 1994 to 2012.

If teachers have less time to teach science, maybe science standards should include less content, he suggested. Research shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s certainly not the only factor.

“I focus more on the research and what’s best for kids,” Eltz said. “I mean, a letter grade from a think-tank is good, but what’s best for the kids is better.”

Is history repeating itself in Indiana?

Tuttle and fellow Indiana mom Heather Crossin helped spark the opposition movement to Common Core back in 2013.

With children in private school, the women were concerned after seeing their kids’ homework include new teaching approaches as the state moved to adopt Common Core.

So they took the issue to the statehouse. Tuttle and Crossin persuaded state Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, to propose a bill to “pause” Indiana’s adoption of common Core to allow a year of study and re-evaluation of math and English standards.

In the months that followed, both Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence joined forces to push the idea that Indiana should have its own state-specific standards. The agreement to adopt Common Core was then voided by the legislature in early 2014, and new standards were set the following summer. Schools began implementing them for the first time last fall.

But it wasn’t necessarily a win for Tuttle. She and other Common Core critics have described Indiana’s new standards as a watered-down version of the standards they worked so hard to banish. She’s not confident that this time it’ll be any different, no matter how much “noise” they made about it.

At the final Common Core meeting of the Education Roundtable last year, for example, some of Tuttle’s sign-carrying anti-Common Core activists shouted in shock and horror as Pence joined Ritz in endorsing Indiana’s rewritten academic standards, the ones they urged him to reject as too similar to Common Core.

“Having somebody’s attention is different than having somebody’s action,” she said.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.