Future of Schools

Indiana celebrates NCLB waiver win, but questions remain

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz speaks with reporters after Indiana's request for a waiver from some rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law was approved in 2014.

Four months after Indiana was stunned to be put on a form of probation by the U.S. Department of Education, there was widespread relief today when federal officials approved the state’s request to extend a waiver that releases schools from possible sanctions under No Child Left Behind.

But there was also a sense that Indiana wasn’t entirely out of the woods yet. The extension is for less than a year — through June 30 — and federal officials still have questions, especially about the way the state evaluates its teachers and principals.

Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz both treated the news as a victory.

“The approval of Indiana’s waiver request is great news for Indiana students and schools,” Pence said in a statement. “It gives us the ability to maintain local control of how federal education dollars are invested and to maintain the use of Indiana’s A-F school accountability system. The waiver also allows school districts and teachers to educate students in a manner determined by Hoosier educators and families in their local communities.”

Ritz said the flexibility means schools can keep federal aid they now spend on learning supports for kids, such as extra help for those who fall behind and after school programs. NCLB requires the money to be spent on after school programs from outside vendors, but President Obama’s administration relaxed that rule.

“Now they can use dollars in best way to meet students needs with personnel who really know children,” Ritz said at a news conference Thursday.

As the school year goes along, Ritz’s team will work on a proposal for a longer extension. Indiana could seek up to a four-year renewal.

Although Ritz said the U.S. education department removed all conditions from Indiana’s waiver, it still expects the state to work with districts on improving the teacher and principal evaluation system.

“Teacher evaluations, school accountability, and interventions for struggling schools are top priorities in our state, and maintaining our waiver will allow us to continue improvement in each of these areas,” Betsy Wiley, president and CEO of Hoosiers for Quality Education, which lobbies for educational change, said in a statement. “Now it is time for Superintendent Ritz to turn her attention to finalizing assessments for the 2014-2015 school year.”

It’s still undecided how exactly the teacher evaluation system might change. Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, thinks it’s still early to assess a system that was only just put in place, and teachers are still figuring out the “full impact of what that meant.”

“Personally, I would like to see less emphasis on standardized testing in the evaluation, and more support in improving the system,” Meredith said. “What is it that the state is doing to support school systems and teachers who need improvement and additional training?”

Meredith said even good teachers can struggle in certain areas, such as classroom management, and that she’d like the state to look at that and find more and better ways to support professional learning and development, rather than punish teachers when their students have poor test scores.

The sentiment is echoed by Indianapolis Public School Board candidate Josh Owens, who thinks Pence and state officials should partner with ISTA and seek a delay of evaluations tied to student performance for a year to accommodate the quick turnaround teachers had to change curriculum in response to Indiana’s new academic standards. The state replaced its plan to use widely adopted Common Core standards in April, instead approving new Indiana-created standards for what is taught in every grade.

ISTA called last week for such a delay.

“Those of us advocating for reforms want to reward teachers for excellent classroom instruction, improving student results, and agreeing to teach in our most challenging schools,” Owens said in a letter. “Partnering with the ISTA on this reasonable request in the interim may provide the perfect opportunity to build better partnerships with our teachers as we look to create an accountability system that achieves real, sustainable results while supporting our teachers at the same time.”

Can today’s goodwill possibly also translate to friendlier relations to replace the tension among Ritz, Pence, the state board, education groups and others?

“I really hope this lets (Ritz’s) critics and (the Center for Education and Career Innovation) and the governor know that she’s got this,” Meredith said. “We need to trust her to go forward and work on her students’ behalf.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

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

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.