internet improvements

Indiana promises to shore up school internet access — and it shouldn’t cost districts much at all

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

Indiana officials announced a new partnership on Tuesday with the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway aimed at improving high-speed internet access in public school classrooms.

“To be ready for the jobs of the future, today’s students need the exposure and opportunity provided by quality digital learning experiences,” said Gov. Eric Holcomb, who was at the announcement today in Decatur Township.

As Indiana continues its work developing a new computer-based state test, the ability for schools to have reliable connectivity is particularly important. Test researchers have pushed lawmakers and policymakers for years to expand computer-based testing, which is cheaper and allows for types of tests that could better measure student learning. But internet access has been a sticking point.

Rural schools, in particular, have said they struggled to connect. In 2016, about 80 percent of Indiana students took tests online, according to the state department of education.

And while 98 percent of Indiana classrooms meet federal minimum recommendations for bandwidth, 38,500 students are still without enough internet support in their classrooms. Additionally, there are still 30 schools without high-speed fiber connections, and 88 percent of districts don’t meet national standards for affordable broadband.

The partnership with EducationSuperHighway is meant to fill in the gaps. The organization, founded in 2012, supports states and school districts in their efforts to connect classrooms to high-speed internet services.

Evan Maxwell, EducationSuperHighway’s CEO, said the arrangement with Indiana should come at low or no cost to schools themselves. More than $47 million in federal funds has been earmarked for Indiana and $2 million in state contributions were set aside in the state’s most recent budget.

“We’re looking forward to working with state leaders, school districts and service providers across the state to ensure that every Hoosier student has equal access to high-speed connectivity and the education opportunity that it allows,” he said.

Marwell said the organization will work with school districts to figure out what internet problems exist and how to fix them. They’ll also work with local internet service providers to offer more options to schools. In all of these projects, the federal and state money will be used to shore up existing internet service or install WiFi for the first time.

Marwell said work will begin this school year and over next summer, with the hopes of getting all schools up to speed in about two years. That won’t quite be in time for spring of 2019, when Indiana is planning to give its new computer-based state test, the ILEARN test, for the first time.

The state in the past has been hesitant about moving toward a test that depends heavily on computers. In meetings of the state commission charged with replacing ISTEP last year, Sen. Dennis Kruse, a Republican from Auburn and head of the Senate Education Committee, said scaling back the paper test option could be costly because it would force the state to address technology and internet needs in rural or outdated schools — or shift that burden to cash-strapped districts themselves.

“If we move to all computerized testing, we’ll have to make a significant investment,” Kruse said during an ISTEP meeting last fall. The EducationSuperHighway partnership should eliminate that hurdle.

ILEARN will likely be “computer-adaptive,” which means students get questions that get easier or harder based on their answers. While these kinds of tests can be translated on paper, it’s not ideal. A couple of years ago, Indiana studies of online vs. paper tests have shown that paper tests, in certain subjects, could be easier than online tests. Scores had to be adjusted at the time to make up for that difference.

Overall, the partnership will help close a major gap for schools across the entire state, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick

“We have to have capacity in our districts to get it done,” McCormick said. “With curriculum, with instruction, with assessment, the demands are huge.”

voucher verdict

Do vouchers help students get to college? Two new studies come to different answers

PHOTO: Micaela Watts

The debate around school vouchers has exploded in the last year with the appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. That also means recent studies showing that student achievement drops, at least initially, when students use public dollars to attend private schools have gotten a lot of attention.

But supporters have countered that test scores only say so much about student performance. The real test is how students do over the long term.

Two studies out Friday offer new answers — and some ammunition for both sides.

The research looks at how students from Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. fared after using a voucher to attend private school. It found students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to attend four-colleges, but not necessarily more likely to actually graduate. In D.C., voucher recipients were no more likely to enroll in college.

Here’s what else the studies tell us.

Disappointing results for D.C. voucher program

The D.C. analysis, conducted by Matt Chingos of the Urban Institute, found that 43 percent of students who won a voucher enrolled in college within two years of graduating high school. That’s 3 percentage points lower than similar students who lost the lottery, though the difference was not statistically significant.

The research relied on that random lottery for allocating vouchers in the first two years of the program. This meant the study could confidently show that any difference between lottery winners and losers was caused by the program, which was created in 2004 and has been a source of controversy ever since.

The study notes that because the sample size of students is fairly small, it can’t rule out the possibility that the program either boosted or hurt college attendance to some degree.

The results are surprising in light of past evidence that the first groups of D.C. voucher participants were more likely to graduate high school and scored higher on reading tests. (A more recent study on the program, focusing on students who participated in later years, found that it caused substantial drops in math test scores.)

Milwaukee voucher recipients more likely to attend — but not necessarily graduate — college

The Milwaukee study offers a more positive story for voucher advocates.

Voucher students were generally more likely to enroll in college, particularly four-year universities, than students with similar test scores from the same neighborhood who were not participating in the program in 2006. For instance, among students who used a voucher in elementary or middle school, 47 percent enrolled in college, compared to 43 percent of similar students.

When it came to actually completing college, though, the results were less clear. The researchers estimated that voucher recipients had a small edge — 1 or 2 percentage points — but the difference was not statistically significant.

MPCP is the Milwaukee voucher program; MPS is Milwaukee Public Schools

In contrast to the D.C. study, the Milwaukee researchers — Patrick Wolf, John Witte, and Brian Kisida — weren’t able to use a random lottery, meaning the results are less definitive. And although the researchers try to make apples-to-apples comparisons, the estimates may be skewed if more motivated families, or students who were struggling in public schools, used a voucher.

The latest results are consistent with a previous Milwaukee study by some of the same researchers. It’s also similar to a recent Florida study suggesting that vouchers led to increases in two-year college enrollment, but had little or no effect on whether students earned a degree.

(Both the Milwaukee and D.C. studies were funded by a number of groups that support school choice, including the Oberndorf Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Walton is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

What we still don’t know

Like the research before it, these studies won’t come close to ending the debate about school vouchers. Opponents will likely highlight the results in D.C. and the inconsistent impact on college completion in Milwaukee. School choice advocates will point to other parts of the Milwaukee study, and the fact that the D.C. voucher programs appeared to keep pace with public schools while spending less per student.

Meanwhile, these studies tell us most about these programs as they existed more than a decade ago. That’s the disadvantage of studies like these of longer-run effects, even as they provide more information about metrics more important to most policymakers and parents than test scores.

“The problem with these long-term studies is that these are the right outcomes to look at, but by the time we know it, it’s of more questionable relevance,” Chingos said.

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.