Indiana's 2018 legislative session

What’s so hard about teaching ‘soft skills’? More than Indiana policymakers might think

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township.

Indiana schools have a long list of specific topics students must learn about before they graduate that are enshrined in state law — the U.S. Constitution, the Holocaust, the effects of alcohol and drugs. Soon, “employability skills” will join them.

Also known as “soft skills” and “21st Century Skills,” these are the intangible abilities that students might be expected to have once they graduate from high schools, and they have been part of the school experience for decades. Sometimes the skills in question focus more on character or morality, while other times — especially in high schools — they focus on job-readiness. But they all boil down to figuring out how to teach students skills that are academics-adjacent and, often, hard to measure.

While schools have been trying to teach these skills for years, they have been highlighted recently by policymakers and employers as critical for post-high school success. But, education researchers and advocates worry, legislating these programs can be a challenge — and might not lead to noticeable changes.

“Good schools have always done this,” said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and policy firm. “But what often happens is it’s just one more thing that people have to do, and they end up checking that box.”

Under a law that passed this past spring with broad bipartisan support, all schools will have to incorporate these skills into their lessons beginning in 2019. The law comes as Indiana policymakers have made a big push to encourage “college- and career-readiness,” an education buzzword that has permeated conversations about recently adopted graduation requirements and city-led college access projects.

The bill itself is vague and says schools have to teach these skills across all subjects and occasionally create activities or special events on career awareness and development. The topics to be taught are specific to grade levels, spanning “basic employment concepts,” choosing careers based on interests and skills, job or higher education counseling, hands-on experiences, and workplace visits.

There is no method laid out for measuring schools’ performance or assessing the material.

The idea for the bill came from Indiana State Board of Education member David Freitas, who has long lobbied for such policies. The message could be as broad as encouraging conscientiousness and punctuality or as specific as teachers greeting each student in the morning with a firm handshake.

“These are core foundational skills that every person should have,” Freitas said. “It’s relevant today, it was relevant yesterday, and it’s going to be relevant tomorrow.”

The model that Indiana schools will have to eventually follow first requires the Indiana Department of Education to create employability skill standards, which the state board will eventually have to approve.

State officials won’t necessarily be starting from scratch — The U.S. Department of Education has developed an outline for teaching these skills and resources for schools, such as a checklist of academic and critical thinking skills that can be used to build lessons.

Indiana’s biggest challenges likely will be rolling the policy out in a way that ensures these skills are actually taught, taught well, and don’t become an “unfunded mandate.”

Jonathan Plucker, a professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies education policy and talent development, whose work has centered on designing assessments to measure topics like creativity and collaboration, said requiring schools to teach the skills can be a bigger obstacle than states realize.

“We don’t have great assessments for a lot of these things, so it is difficult to gauge whether you are doing a good job teaching students,” Plucker said. “There’s nothing in here about accountability, reporting, monitoring or assessment, and that’s how we ensure policies get enacted. You would never write a tax bill without any of those things.”

Plucker also thinks schools need to think long-term about what skills students may need in the future, not preparing them for the current job market.

“It would be much more powerful to take the longer-haul view of how are we educating them for the jobs of tomorrow, like where are we working in creativity and communication skills, collaboration skills?” Plucker said. “How are we helping them prepare for the jobs that we know are going to be the vast majority of career opportunities when they get out?”

Some schools already have programs in place. At Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township, their version of a soft skills program has focused on positive behavior. As the Robey Rockets, their motto is “BLAST” — Be Respectful, Lifelong learning, Active listening, Safety, Taking responsibility.

Most schools in the district have something similar, Principal Ben Markley said. The Garden City Gators have the three Gs, while the Bridgeport Knights have an “ARMOR” shield. In other districts, such as Franklin Township, South Creek Elementary School uses “GREAT” to encourage Generosity, Respect, Effort, positive Attitude, and Trustworthiness. It might seem simple, but Markley said he’s noticed its effects.

“You’ve got to have a common language,” Markley said. “When students go to physical education class or to art or to music … having a framework that they can count on, that they can improve upon over time, it is something that makes a difference for our kids.”

It’s unclear how much implementing the program will cost. Fiscal analysts from the Legislative Services Agency said the provisions in Senate Bill 297 would increase work for state education department employees, as well as districts carrying out another piece of the legislation — the Work Ethic Certificate program. The program is currently being tried out in 18 districts, and it partners districts and local employers together to create a credential students can earn if they demonstrate employability skills while in high school.

The Department of Workforce Development has issued grants to districts to support their work, but this year’s bill didn’t include any additional funding to expand the work ethic certificate program. It’s possible that could come next year, when lawmakers meet to craft the state’s next two-year budget.

Freitas said he’s really excited to see the plans take shape, and he knows some schools might already be working on these skills without the state requiring it. He said it’s not necessary that they hire any special teachers — it’s about focusing on the lessons and working soft skills into what’s already being taught.

“I see it embedded within the curriculum,” Freitas said. “Ten years from now, I think it’s important for everyone to be respectful to each other, civil to each other. So it has nothing to do with, ‘are they skills for the future’ — yeah, they are skills for the future. They are not going to change.”

This story has been corrected to reflect an updated description of Bellwether Education Partners.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

To reinvent career education, these Indiana districts are making up their own rules

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems. Decatur is one of seven districts in a new state initiative aimed at preparing kids for careers.

An Indianapolis school district will get more flexibility under a new state initiative that aims to change how students learn and prepare for jobs.

Decatur Township will join six other districts in a coalition that allows them to bypass certain state rules so students get more practical experience and share ideas to form more work-based study opportunities with local employers. The coalition was created by a law passed this year that is based on model law from one of the nation’s most influential conservative organizations, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC.

The main rules that the coalition districts are looking for extra latitude on include allowing students to waive classes, such as Algebra 2, so they can gain work experience that might lead to a job or industry credential. The coalition would also like extra flexibility with teacher licensure so they can bring into the classroom experts in subjects affiliated with career and technical education.

Read: Indiana school districts could sidestep state law under a new proposal encouraging ‘innovation’

Decatur Superintendent Matt Prusiecki said the coalition is working to put some of the new plans and programs in place for next school year. Being part of this collaborative group actively sharing ideas, he said, might help them stretch their resources and find new ways to give students more freedom to figure out their post-high school plans.

“Instead of saying, ‘We can’t do this because,’ it’s more of a, ‘Why can’t we do this? How do we get around these obstacles’?” Prusiecki said.

The Indiana State Board of Education gave the coalition, called the “Coalition of Continuous Improvement School Districts,” the go-ahead to start planning at its meeting earlier this month. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said this effort goes beyond just Indiana, as extending opportunities for career and technical education is becoming increasingly popular nationwide.

“Work-based study is definitely a buzz word around the country,” Behning told state board members. “How do we make school, and develop those skills in students, where everyone is not necessarily going to get a baccalaureate degree, but certainly can come out of school with a skill that will provide them employment outside of K-12.”

Earlier this year, when lawmakers were debating the bill, several Hoosier educators testified that courses like Algebra 2, which lawmakers made a requirement for graduation in 2007, interfere with students pursuing other opportunities — particularly if they are not interested in earning a four-year college degree.

Some schools, such as Noblesville High School, have already created Algebra 2 alternatives that some educators say are just as rigorous as the course, but have more real-world applications. Batesville, one of the districts that championed the original legislation, has also already created the kinds of local business partnerships that Prusiecki said he and other coalition members are looking to as examples.

Prusiecki said students would still have to follow the state’s new graduation pathways requirements. But with the freedom the coalition allows, they could substitute traditional courses in math or science with experiences in internships that could lead to a career.

“How do we connect (students) with these partnerships and relationships with businesses so we can get them high-wage, high-demand jobs?” Prusiecki said.

The coalition is also requesting the ability to create its own district teacher licenses. The licenses don’t have to meet the usual accreditation requirements from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. Teachers would still have to follow rules for criminal background checks, but the coalition members hope the licenses would have fewer requirements and let more people teach classes in subjects affiliated with career and technical education.

“The current ways (to be licensed) just seem to be a little cumbersome,” Prusiecki said. “This coalition is just trying to make opening those doors a lot wider so we can get things done possibly more efficiently, faster, and even possibly on a larger scale.”

But the state already has a workplace specialist permit, which can be earned by a person with experience in skilled trades or areas relevant to classes in a career center or a high school career and technical education program. It doesn’t require a college degree, but it does require applicants to pass a training and a basic skills exam. The coalition district law waives those rules and others for prospective educators.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s confused by the licensure waiver, which was not discussed during the state board meeting earlier this month or during the legislative session.

“I’m not going to pass a lot of judgement until I know more, but I need to hear why they need a different path that isn’t already available,” Meredith said. “There’s already such flexibility, it’s not super rigid with a workplace specialist.”

The coalition would still require that teachers be allowed to negotiate pay and benefits through their union.

The coalition districts still need the state to sign off on specific plans for what class pathways, teacher license options, or credential partnerships and opportunities they want to offer.

There’s an accountability piece to the coalition as well, Behning said, that gives districts more flexibility if they can show their efforts are leading to students getting jobs. Each year, the coalition must make a report to lawmakers on teacher qualifications and how the coalition affects certain metrics, such as graduation rate. Those metrics also have to include how much coalition work is costing each district, what work-based study opportunities students get from employer partners, and whether students are ultimately employed by partner organizations full-time.

Prusiecki did not want to reveal who the district is considering partnering with, but those agreements are in the works, and plans will need to be made quickly before the next school year.

“There’s a lot of risk-taking in this, and the piece of it, too, is that we’re putting a spotlight on ourselves as a school district,” Prusiecki said. “We’re willing to step out there and take those risks so we can help our communities.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Here’s what the Gary and Muncie takeover bill could mean for other Indiana districts

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Tim Brown, the author of House Bill 1315, makes his closing remarks.

Disregarding opposition from teachers and local leaders, Indiana lawmakers overwhelmingly voted Monday to strip power from the Gary and Muncie school boards, potentially eliminate the Muncie teachers union and place the district under outside control — and exempt it from required annual performance reports.

The groundbreaking bill delivers control of Muncie public schools to Ball State University, which has never run a public school district (although it currently operates two schools in the area), and frees Muncie from state performance reports imposed on other school districts.

During Monday’s special legislative session to wrap up unfinished work, a far-reaching district takeover bill easily passed — 63-30 in the House and 34-14 in the Senate — with dissent primarily from Democrats. The bill next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb, who is likely to sign it.

Opponents said the bill infringes on residents’ control and stifles public input.

“Teachers in Muncie are despondent,” said Pat Kennedy, Muncie’s teachers union president. “Ball State keeps talking about partnership, but in a partnership both parties have meaningful impact, and this bill does not allow for that.”

Fortifying unprecedented legislation last year that enabled the state to intervene in Gary and Muncie, this year’s House Bill 1315 would put the Muncie district under the control of Ball State University, further empower Gary’s emergency manager, and effectively turn both districts’ elected boards of education into figureheads.

Read: Race can’t be ignored in takeover of Gary and Muncie schools, civic leaders say

For Indiana, district takeovers are uncharted territory, even though other states have seized such power with mixed results. Although the bill specifies the Gary and Muncie school districts, it alters state education policy in ways that could affect the rest of the state.

Rep. Tim Brown, a Republican from Crawfordsville and the bill’s author, said the bill gives troubled districts more opportunities to turn themselves around sooner.

“To say we’re going to do it the same way is just banging out head against the wall,” Brown said. “We have to change as we go forward because the times demand we change.”

Here are four key takeaways:

A-F grades for Muncie schools may disappear, a departure from Indiana’s history pushing school accountability

In an effort to encourage “innovative strategies,” the bill would free Ball State from reporting Muncie schools’ performance via the annual A-F grades measuring school and district improvement.

The provision represents a big step back from the version of  high-stakes school accountability touted by Republicans. Former Gov. Mike Pence often said that if students can be graded every day, schools can be graded every year.

Participation in state ratings would be optional for Ball State. State grades can come with serious consequences if schools reach four years of Fs, including closure or takeover.

School and district leaders have told policymakers and lawmakers frequently that letter grades don’t tell the whole story of their students — even state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has echoed those sentiments.

Although some very small schools escape state ratings, Muncie would become the only district exempt from state grading, Indiana Department of Education’s spokesman Adam Baker said.

Because Ball State wouldn’t take control until later this summer, Muncie will still receive a letter grade for the current school year.

However, the district will still be subject to  federal law, which requires releasing a rating based on test scores, graduation rates, and other student and school achievement data. That measure will be calculated on a 100-point scale similar to the state’s A-F grades.

District finances will receive higher scrutiny, but much of that will be in private.

House Bill 1315 also creates a way for the state to intervene in districts experiencing financial hardship.

If a district meets certain financial criteria — which could be based on enrollment, cash balances, deficits or financial trends — the state’s Distressed Unit Appeal Board could require it to follow a “corrective action plan.” Failure to follow that plan or to make enough improvements could land the district on a financial watchlist.

That would be much earlier and more intensive financial intervention than is currently spelled out for schools.

Yet all deliberations about the action plan would be in secret, unless the district were placed on a watchlist. That means families and even teachers might not know about district-state finance plans.

Lawmakers defended the secrecy as a way to reassure district officials and prevent families from fleeing because of potential financial trouble.

“The concerns from school officials were they didn’t want flight just because they were asking for some help,” Brown said. “This bill allows some process for a gradual assistance … It won’t be a cliff.”

But some open-government advocates have called it a dangerous move that excludes the public from important discussions in communities.

The bill “robs the public of the ability to push their school boards to accept the help” of state officials and doesn’t give people the chance to speak out about difficult decisions facing their schools, said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association. “All of that is being done behind closed doors.”

Muncie stands to lose some stigma around takeover, but also potentially its union.

With Ball State taking control, Muncie would no longer be designated a “distressed” district. That might  lend credibility to the district, which has seen years of financial mismanagement.

But the move also could destroy the district’s teachers union. Ball State will get to decide whether Muncie teachers may retain their exclusive representative. So far, said Muncie teachers union President Pat Kennedy, it’s not clear what the answer will be, nor how the process for negotiating future teachers contracts would work.

Kennedy said teachers in Muncie feel like they’ve lost their voices in the process, and some see the change as punishment for the poor decision-making of previous administrators.

“This isn’t about the quality of Ball State as an institution,” Kennedy said. “What is the real value of this bill other than to take away teacher rights?”

Gary leaders worry about losing local control and input.

Gary public schools will continue to be run by its emergency manager, Peggy Hinckley, a former interim superintendent in Indianapolis Public Schools. Lawmakers from the area said that Hinckley, who has been on the job about a year, is helping get the district back on track.

Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from Northwest Indiana, and others on Monday said that House Bill 1315 adds upheaval to an already difficult process that hasn’t had time to do what lawmakers created it to do. It also wasn’t urgent enough to quickly move ahead in a one-day special session, he said.

“This bill is not an emergency, and it does not contribute to building up the overall educational quality in Gary,” Melton said.

The bill demotes Gary’s elected school board to an advisory board that only can meet up to four times a year, and Hinckley is no longer required to consult with its members.

Indiana Democrats also said the bill could be a harbinger of future takeovers, and that other legislators should be sensitive to that before they vote for dramatic changes to others’ communities.

“Yes, it’s Gary today,” said Rep. Charlie Brown, a Democrat from the area. “But it could be you tomorrow.”