Are Children Learning

How Indiana’s A-F rules created a two-tiered system that benefits innovation schools

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
IPS School 79 has among the lowest per pupil funding in the district.

Cold Spring School and School 79 were standouts on the recent ISTEP test. At both schools, more kids passed the state exam than the average for Indianapolis Public Schools, and their students made solid gains over last year.

So why did Cold Spring earn an A from the state while School 79 received a C?

It’s largely because Indiana lawmakers decided to judge some schools by a more generous yardstick than others.

Most elementary and middle schools are graded based on two factors: how their students score on state tests, and how much their scores improved. New schools and schools that join the IPS innovation network can opt to be graded for three years based only on the second measure, known as growth.

Advocates say the two-tiered system makes sense because schools shouldn’t be held accountable for the low passing rates of students that they just began educating. But in practice, the policy benefits charter and innovation schools, which enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers.

It raises the question of whether grades that were supposed to be easy for parents to understand are too distorted to be clear.

“When you start evaluating otherwise identical schools using different measures … that is not informative,” said Marcus Winters, a Boston University researcher who has found benefits to grading schools. “It’s hiding information.”

Because Cold Spring became an innovation school last year, it was graded based on growth alone. If it were graded using the same rules as School 79, it also would’ve received a C from the state. That’s a huge improvement over the F it received last year, but it’s not as remarkable as the A that appears on its report card.

Cold Spring is not unique. Six of the eight innovation schools graded received As from the state. But only one innovation school — Phalen Leadership Academy at School 93 — would’ve gotten that grade under the rules used for grading other schools.

At 18 traditional neighborhood and magnet schools in IPS, students made large enough gains on the state test that the schools would’ve received top marks if they were innovation schools. But instead, they were given Bs, Cs, Ds and even an F. (Years of repeated low letter grades can trigger state intervention or takeover.)

The disparities have led to backlash from education advocates who are skeptical of partnering with outside operators at innovation schools. IPS leaders began creating innovation schools three years ago as a way to turn around chronically struggling schools, give more freedom to successful principals and pull charter schools under the district umbrella. The schools are managed by outside nonprofit or charter partners, and their teachers are not part of the district union.

Education advocate and lawyer MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger pointed out that this grading quirk can have cascading effects that stack the deck in favor of outsourcing of school management.

The favorable treatment on state grades (which translate into eligibility for state and federal grants and higher ratings on school and real estate marketing sites like Great Schools and Niche and Zillow, and bragging rights to parents on the new IPS/charter school combined enrollment assignment company Enroll Indy) is the incentive to convince more financially struggling school districts throughout the state to do the same thing,” she wrote on Facebook.

Jon Valant, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies school choice, said that the inconsistency seems troubling. But there are benefits to judging schools by growth because operators are not penalized for restarting schools that have chronically low passing rates.

“In principle, it’s growth that is the sort of true reflection of what schools are actually doing,” he said.

Many innovation schools are making real progress when it comes to student scores on state tests. But even schools that are not benefit from the system. For example, at one innovation school, Kindezi Academy at School 69, passing rates and student growth fell from 2016 to 2017, but the letter grade nonetheless rose from an F to a D. Because it became an innovation school last year, its low passing rate is no longer pulling the grade down.

The growth-only grading scheme was also used at two IPS schools that were considered new: Center for Inquiry at School 70, which received an A, and the now-closed Arlington Middle School, which nonetheless received an F.

The rule change for grading innovation schools had wide support when lawmakers approved it in 2016, including from IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee who said he wanted innovation schools to get “a fresh start.”

Rep. Bob Behning, the Indianapolis Republican who authored the innovation school legislation, said he thought innovation schools should have the same options that exist for other new schools.

“Innovation network schools generally are new schools or reconfigured schools, so it’s not just schools that have changed their names,” Behning said. “So we decided that it made sense because we allowed charters to have that same flexibility.”

But the rules don’t just apply to new or restarted schools — they apply to any school that joins the innovation network. As a result, even schools like Cold Spring and KIPP Indy, which were not restarted when they became innovation schools, are treated like they are brand new. Like Cold Spring, KIPP got an A under the growth-only model — after years of C and D grades.

The two-tiered system could be short-lived. Behning said he anticipates that the grading system will change in several ways as the state overhauls the way it evaluates schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“I think the differences between the combined letter grade and the growth-only (grade) will hopefully be mitigated in the new model, so it won’t have such stark differences,” Behning said. “The goal wasn’t just to give them a pass and not to have to hold them to the same level of accountability.”

Here is the full list of the grades new and innovation schools in Indianapolis Public Schools would have received if they were graded based on growth and proficiency.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.