Early Childhood

At legislative kickoff, lawmakers ponder preschool, state board and Common Core

LegisOrgDayHouse
On Organization Day, Indiana legislative leaders annually gather for a mostly ceremonial start to the upcoming legislative session.

Will 2014 be another big year for new education laws? That’s hard to say.

As lawmakers began to pitch ideas today for the 2014 legislative session, opinions diverged on how much could be accomplished on hot education issues like the Common Core, preschool funding and discord on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Senate Education Committee chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, doesn’t think education will be a big focus this time.

“I don’t have any priorities for education for session 2014,” he said. “I think we passed some pretty significant bills the past three years and I think it’s time to take a rest.”

But across the statehouse, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said improving early childhood education and addressing the “skills gap” that he said leaves high school graduates ill-prepared for work and college, were two of his four top priorities for 2014.

He also hinted the legislature could wade into a dispute among state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, Gov. Mike Pence and the Indiana State Board of Education over who directs education policymaking.

“Our state’s constitution clearly gives that task to the elected legislative bodies in this chamber and the senate,” Bosma said.

The legislature officially began the new session Tuesday with its annual “organization day,” a mostly ceremonial event. Lawmakers begin their work in earnest when they next meet in early January.

Because 2014 is not a budget year — the two-year state budget is created in odd-numbered years — lawmakers said it is likely to have less action overall than 2013. But even without the ability to approve new spending initiatives it is possible the legislature could change direction, or move further ahead, on some education priorities.

Since 2011, education has been one of the hottest legislative issues. Many of the major changes over three years have come as lawmakers expanded charter school sponsoring, created and then expanded a private school voucher program, limited teacher union bargaining, overhauled teacher evaluation, ordered a reexamination of K-12 academic standards and changed A to F grading for schools.

Kruse said that’s enough, that he wants to focus on “minor issues” and avoid “heavy lifting.”

But Bosma said there was particular interest in exploring ways to expand preschool in the state. He and Kruse also elaborated how the saw lawmakers potentially addressing Common Core standards and the battle for control of the Indiana State Board of Education.

Here’s a look at what Bosma and Kruse had to say about three big issues for the legislature going into the session:

Preschool

Several key Republican leaders, and outside supporters such as the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, pushed hard in 2013 for the state to launch a small preschool pilot program that would have been a first.

Indiana is one of only 11 states that provides no state funding for preschool. The modest proposal called for $7 million per year over two years to pay for preschool for 1,000 low income children in five counties and study their success.

Bosma said he expected a similar proposal in 2014, this time with strong support from Gov. Mike Pence, who has said several times over the past few months that he is interested in exploring the issue.

“It’s particularly interesting to the governor,” he said. “We may be close to being on the same page.”

The bill containing the pilot program got off to a strong start, passing the house by a 93-6 vote last February. But when the bill emerged from the Senate Education Committee it had been stripped of all direct state funding for the pilot. The proposal ultimately was dropped in favor of a smaller program with a different design. At the time, Kruse said Republican committee members were wary about adding new funding for preschool and felt it was a lower priority than other education initiatives.

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PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
House Speaker Brian Bosma

But Bosma said the pilot program could help prove the value of preschool to doubters among his colleagues.

“People throw roadblocks up here,” he said. “One of them is ‘it doesn’t help these kids and any improvement is gone after the third year.’ My thought was to generate data, show it to our folks and say this is making a difference in these kids’ lives.”

Even in a non-budget year in 2014, Bosma said he still thought there was a way to revisit the establishing the pilot.

“There’s a means to do it,” he said. “You can make it effective outside the budget cycle.”

State board

Bosma also suggested that the legislature could also step into the raging battle among Ritz, Pence and the state board. At the center of the tensions between Ritz and Pence is the Center for Education and Career Innovation (CECI), a center that Pence created after he was given funding by the legislature last year.

Pence created CECI to coordinate among the state board, the Education Roundtable and other education agencies in the state, using money that was redirected in part from the budget of the Ritz-run Indiana Department of Education in last year’s budget bill. Those dollars have helped fund a separate staff for the state board. Ritz chairs the  board and leads the education department. Since the creation of CECI, Ritz and other board members have battled over who can place items on the board’s agenda, call for reports and decide whether motions should be heard.

The tension exploded last week when Ritz abruptly ended a state board meeting and walked out rather than allow a vote on board member Brad Oliver’s resolution. Ritz said the resolution would have given CECI control over standards setting, a move she described as illegal.

“My first choice is, by agreement, we have everybody come together and say, ‘this is how we’re going to govern,’ ” Bosma said. “If we’re not going to be able to do that it is the legislature’s responsibility to set down those defining lines.”

For his part, Kruse was reluctant to see the legislature get involved in the state board controversy.

“I don’t think we should do anything,” he said. “I think we should let them work it out. They should man up, solve their differences and move forward.”

Ritz declined to comment.

Common Core

In the 2013 session, House Republicans resisted a push from the Senate to stop implementation of Common Core standards, academic guidelines that Indiana and 44 other states have agreed to follow. The state board made the Common Core Indiana’s official standards in 2010 without fanfare or controversy and the state has been phasing them in starting with low elementary grades. But opposition to the Common Core has built in the legislature over the past two years.

In a compromise last spring, Common Core was implemented along with Indiana’s old standards up through second grade while lawmakers ordered a yearlong reconsideration as to whether the state should stick with Common Core, return to its old standards or create new standards. Public hearings will be held next spring with a state board vote on what standards Indiana will follow must come by July.

Indiana critics of Common Core say the standards are less rigorous in some areas than the state’s well-regarded former standards. Others say adopting Common Core abdicates too much control over education to the U.S. Department of Education, which supports the new standards but didn’t have a formal role in creating them. Another criticism is that Common Core could lead to expanded standardized testing.

But supporters say the standards are better than what Indiana had before, that the state has flexibility under Common Core to keep elements of its prior standards if it wishes and that the state must adopt them to remain competitive, as college entrance exams will soon be aligned to the new standards.

Bosma advocated for Common Core standards with House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, last spring. But he told reporters Monday that the state needed to “move on” from the question of whether it should or should not adopt the Common Core.

Kruse, a former Common Core supporter who turned against the standards earlier this year, echoed that sentiment Tuesday, saying the process the legislature set in 2013 should play out, but he expected the state would be informed by the Common Core but create its own standards in the end.

“I think we want to have Indiana be independent and be in charge of our own education standards and even our own education tests,” he said.

NOTE: This post was updated to clarify that the preschool pilot program proposed in 2013 was implemented with a different design.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, he Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.