Who Is In Charge

Challenging Ritz, McCormick cites politics and management problems

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Jennifer McCormick introduced herself and her run for state superintendent today by criticizing Glenda Ritz’s management of the Indiana Department of Education and calling for a debate that gets beyond politics.

“We need to strive for excellence,” she said. “We need to quit focusing on political squabbling. If we do that, success will come. It is time to put students before politics. It is time (for) excellence and achievement to be a forethought versus an afterthought.”

McCormick, the superintendent of Yorktown schools in Delaware County, is running as a Republican challenger to Ritz. She said she has not always voted Republican, arguing she viewed the work of superintendent as needing a shift away from political debates.

“The politics have got to be left out of it,” she said. “It’s time to move forward. It’s time to communicate and collaborate and play nice.”

Ritz has been locked in a three-year battle with Gov. Mike Pence and his appointees on the Indiana State Board of Education over the direction of education policy in the state.

Ritz’s campaign spokeswoman, Annie Mansfield, cited Ritz’s accomplishments in her statement responding to McCormick’s announcement.

“We welcome her to the race and look forward to talking about Superintendent Ritz’s record of improving over 100 public schools in her first year, resulting in over 61,000 students no longer attending schools that got a D or an F from the state, as well as fighting to hold students, schools, teachers and communities harmless as we transitioned to newer standards,” she said.

McCormick, however, said she ran in part out of frustration with the poor level of service she and other superintendents have received from the education department under Ritz.

She said, for example, that ISTEP guidance districts normally receive well in advance of the test date said only arrived in December for a test that is given starting in February.

“The last few years have been very difficult,” she said. “Ask your local districts. Indiana was at one point a leader in the nation. Today we are not. Today we have a Department of Education that is disorganized and disconnected from schools.”

McCormick, 46, argued she was a more experienced educator and leader, having worked as a special education teacher, a middle school English teacher, an elementary school principal and a superintendent.

“I know what it takes to be a leader in education,” she said. “I have done it and I will continue to do it. That sets me apart from our current superintendent.”

Married to a high school science teacher in her district, she also has a son who is a high school senior in Yorktown.

Her campaign would be upbeat and positive, McCormick said.

“We preach no bullying to the students and I will practice that,” she said. “I will not run a negative campaign.”

Even so, McCormick announced her run at the Statehouse surrounded by representatives of interest groups that supported Ritz’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, or have been critical of Ritz: Stand For Children, the Institute for Quality Education and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

There were also several former staff members from Bennett’s education department team on hand. McCormick did not mention Bennett, but Bennett cited her work in Yorktown in his final “state of education” address, given just months before he was defeated by Ritz in the 2012 election.

“Yorktown Schools, led by Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and a host of ambitious principals and teachers, have revamped their entire K-12 model based on providing every student a head start on college with a rich selection of Advanced Placement courses,” Bennett said in that speech. “In grade 3, Yorktown students begin an advanced curriculum designed to prepare them for college-level coursework as early as middle school. Yorktown has become one of Indiana’s AP leaders, and their model for college preparation has become an example for forward thinking districts around the state.”

Yorktown schools are good performers. The district ranks high in the state for test scores and graduation rates . It is rated an A by the state. The district has fairly low poverty, with only about a third of students who come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To qualify, a family of four cannot exceed $44,863 in annual income.

But the district does have financial problems. It is one of a handful around the state that has been handicapped by tax caps.

In 2010, the Indiana legislature sought to make property taxes, which sometimes shifted up or down unexpectedly for homeowners when their home values changed, more steady.

Tax caps were the result: homeowners could not pay more than one percent of the total assessed value of their property in property taxes. While this stabilized tax bills, it made funding for some school services that still are paid by property taxes, such as transportation, less stable. When a district hit the maximum amount it can collect in property taxes, money can run short as expenses still grow.

That happened to Yorktown, necessitating cutbacks. One of them was the district librarian.

“The gal retired so we used those funds for some more reading specialists,” she said. “We outsource our librarian services. We keep a pulse on it. We keep an eye on how many books have been checked out and the atmosphere and the climate of the library. It’s worked for us.”

Before she was elected state superintendent, Ritz was working as a school librarian in Washington Township. Ritz is also a National Board certified teacher.

Jennifer McCormick on the issues

Here’s what McCormick had to say on key issues:

Teacher training. “We need to enhance our professional development. We need to increase the quality of candidates coming into education. We also need to retain those very qualified teachers that are in the classroom.”

Unions. “I’ve always had a good relationship with our unions. I had been a member of union when I taught. I am not anti-union. I am pro-teacher.”

Overhauling ISTEP. “When I talk about a team effort, you can’t make a decision on assessment unilaterally. It has to be a team effort. Once we hit that point there has to be a lot of people at the table having those discussions. I’m not saying ISTEP is a bad thing, I’m saying it’s not the answer.”

Ritz’s proposal to judge students on shorter tests given throughout the school year. “I think if you ask most educators there is power in both. You have to have summative assessments. You have to have formative assessments. The two have different purposes, but they both serve a purpose.”

Common Core standards. “We were one of those districts that jumped on it early and we lived through those changes in the standards, but the standards are set. The standards are the standards. They’ve been adopted, they’ve been accepted. There is a lot of money that has gone into that. From my standpoint, Indiana has really solid standards. We need to stick with them for a while so we can have some stability.”

School funding. “I don’t think any educator is ever going to be pleased with anything at this point, honestly. As your district changes, the funding changes. We have been hit with circuit breakers, as have a lot of school districts in Indiana. I know its very complex, but we will deal with the resources we’re dealt.”

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.