In the Classroom

Indiana puts the brakes on its plan to revamp high school diplomas

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Indiana State Board of Education approved the voucher waiver requests at its June meeting.

After almost two years of work attempting to overhaul the state’s high school diplomas, the debate has been shelved.

Sarah O’Brien, a first grade teacher from Avon and the vice chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education, said after two hours of public testimony that the board couldn’t make a decision without more data and information on the types of diplomas students will earn when graduating this year.

“I think there are a lot of good things in the diplomas,” O’Brien said. “But our schools and our kids and our teachers are tired of change for the sake of change.”

The board overwhelmingly approved the plan to halt work on changing the diplomas, an effort led in part by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and board member Steve Yager. She abstained from the vote to put the effort on hold while all the other board members voted yes. Ritz said she wasn’t championing any particular plan for diploma changes.

New requirements in math, fine arts and specific career “pathways” were sticking points for board members. The latest proposal from a task force of educators and other stakeholders differed just slightly from what the state board discussed last fall. At that time, vocal opposition from parents and educators led the board to create a new panel to revise the proposal. Ritz said changes to math requirements were a critical issue.

“Mathematics from the very, very, very beginning has been the topic of conversation,” Ritz said. “We have to really take a look at that information (from 2016 graduates), and I think that’s what the board wants to do. They want to see the real data before we make any changes.”

On one side of the diploma debate are educators who want to keep the current system. Some have told board members they fear students could be pigeonholed too early into career tracks or barred from earning a diploma if they can’t pass all the required math classes.

“A diploma is not a checklist, and therefore adding (math) classes won’t fix that problem,” said Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School. “I believe that better math is more important than more math.”

Those pushing for changes include college officials and business leaders who say they too often see Indiana high school graduates arrive unprepared for college courses or on-the-job demands.

“As a state I believe we’re failing to adequately prepare thousands of our young people,” said Pam Horne, a vice provost at Purdue University. “We don’t have have a college access problem in Indiana, we have a college completion problem.”

But it hasn’t been that long since diplomas were last updated, some educators testified to the state board today.

The state’s diplomas were changed for 2012-13 freshmen requiring them to earn six math credits in high school and take at least one math course each year. The first group of students to be held to those new standards will graduate this spring, so it’s not yet clear what effect the changes will have. Board members want to see if the new requirement reduces the number of graduates who need help to brush up their skills by taking basic level courses in college.

“I think many of us are very concerned that 2016 will be the first group of students graduating with our current diploma structure,” said Kim Dodson, executive director of the Arc of Indiana, a group that advocates on behalf of people with special needs. “We can’t recommend changes at this time until we see data.”

And there’s no mandate that the diplomas must be changed at all. Rather, the bill passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 2014, which launched the debate, merely called for a review of diploma types. Any changes had to be presented to the board, which has full authority to decide whether or not to adopt any proposed changes.

The latest version of the plan would let students starting high school in 2019 pursue three diploma options instead of the current four — a “core 44” diploma, an “honors” diploma and an updated “general” diploma. The four existing options are general, core 40, core 40 honors and career and technical honors diplomas.

The newest proposal is different from what was presented last fall mainly in how the programs are structured, with some changes to credits and courses required. The core 44 draft diploma — which most Indiana students would be expected to complete if the plan were approved — replaced the earlier “college- and career-ready” diploma draft. The versions remain very similar with a few simplifications to the math class “sequences” and clearer language around how students may use elective credits.

Some educators say the suggestions for electives could limit students in the future from exploring their interests, as electives are supposed to allow them to do.

“We have flexibility under the current system that allows our students to tailor in their area of interest or need,” said Tom Zobel, principal at Whiteland Community High School.

The new general diploma draft would drop from an eight-credit math option in the “workforce ready” draft to six credits. It also loosens an earlier capstone class requirement, making it instead “strongly encouraged.”

Some educators worried that the additional requirements in the “workforce ready” diploma could be barriers for students with special needs who already struggle to complete high school.

Before the legislature made changes earlier this month, a loophole in state law allowed schools to choose which diploma types they offered. To try to boost student skills, some high schools stopped offering general diplomas. But students and educators said that meant some kids who might have qualified for a general diploma but couldn’t meet the requirements for a core 40 diploma were left without a credential, blocking them from jobs, college or training programs.

But that changed when House Bill 1219 was passed with broad support earlier this month by the Indiana General Assembly. The bill requires all schools to offer all state diplomas to students.

Even after more work to refine the proposal, some board members said they still simply weren’t persuaded by the new plan.

“I don’t think I’m any closer to being able to make a decision on this than I was a month ago,” O’Brien said.

Passing ISTEP emphasized in A-F formula vote

Separately, the state board approved a proposal to determine how student test score improvement will factor into school A-F grades.

Once results from the 2016 ISTEP are calculated, the state will use a chart, called a “growth table,” to determine how many “growth points” a student has earned. Points are awarded based on an evaluation of whether a student’s score improved, fell or did not change from the previous year.

Under the proposed table adopted unanimously by board members, students who make one year of growth and pass the test receive 100 “growth points,” while students who make one year of growth but don’t pass receive 75 points. The other option would’ve given both groups of students 100 points.

For now, the different models don’t result in vastly different numbers of As, Bs, Cs, Ds or Fs.

“With 100 points it’s indicating … you’re passing and staying on-track,” Cynthia Roach, the state board’s testing director said. “On the old model those kids never received credit. (With 75 points) you’re still doing OK, but it’s not enough.”

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”