Future of Schools

New state board members talk Glenda Ritz, testing, state takeover

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Michele Walker, who heads Indiana's state testing program for the Indiana Department of Education, speaks to the state board earlier this month.

A major overhaul for the Indiana State Board of Education this week, fueled by a change in state law that prompted five new appointments, means new people bringing new opinions to the debates about key issues.

But what do the new board members — a retired superintendent, an online school principal, an energy company official, an assistant superintendent and the CEO of an education non-profit — believe about the big questions facing Indiana’s schools?

Chalkbeat asked each new board member about the same four issues: state takeover, testing, A-to-F grading and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s leadership.

Gov. Mike Pence said his appointments — three new board members and five holdovers — were driven more by state law requirements that dictate where state board members must live, their backgrounds in education and their political affiliations than anything else. Two other new board members were appointed by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

Pence said Thursday he was grateful for the work of those who stepped down or were not reappointed, and he expected the new board would have a positive influence. The board has struggled through turmoil driven by disagreements over policy and procedures the last two years.

“I truly believe this will provide a fresh start for the state board of education,” Pence said. “The reappointments and appointments I think represent a new blend of individuals that I think are going to bring renewed energy, fresh perspective and a level of experience that I’m confident is going to help the board refocus on student achievement.”

Here is where the new board members said they stand on four key questions:

SHOULD INDIANA CONTINUE TO TAKE OVER FAILING SCHOOLS?

Steve Yager, retired superintendent from Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne

Yager said he wouldn’t talk about current state takeover practices until he was able to learn more.

“I’m not well read enough on that to have an opinion before I even take a seat,” Yager said.

Byron Ernest, the head of schools for the online charter school network Hoosier Academies

Ernest has experience with state takeover — he served as the principal of Manual High School in Indianapolis from 2013 to 2014 after it was handed off by the state board to be run by Charter Schools USA.

He said he doesn’t think the current system is necessarily the best one.

“If a school is not performing then I think it’s in the best interests of our students that we put that school in the best position to not be failing,” Ernest said. “Now does that mean that the takeover has to look like what I went to at Manual? No, not necessarily.”

Eddie Melton, community relations manager at Northern Indiana Public Service Company

Melton said state takeover should be a last resort.

The state board, he said, should think about “what can we do collectively to help support school districts so that they can build the systems to be successful.”

He said he didn’t have an opinion about takeovers the board has approved in the past.

“Not being a part of the process in the past, I’m not sure what was done in terms of that,” he said. “So I can’t judge the past of the decisions made. I can just give my perspective moving forward.”

Vince Bertram, the CEO of Project Lead The Way

Bertram said he is a strong believer in accountability but thinks the state needs to take a hard look at whether its current intervention strategies are working. He said he doesn’t know the answer.

“I want to ask us to look deeply at the evidence,” Bertram said. “I think we need to ask ourselves tough questions every day and we need to confront the realities of those answers. Whether it’s a takeover or any other accountability measure, it’s critical we have that kind of introspection.”

Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, an assistant superintendent in Warren Township

Kwiatkowski has more background in state takeover than any board member: she once oversaw the process for the Indiana Department of Education.

In 2011, it was her recommendations the board used when it severed four Indianapolis Public Schools and one school in Gary from district control and handed them off to be run independently.

“They were having tremendous problems,” said Kwiatkowski, who visited all of the schools.

Still, four years after she left that job, Kwiatkowski said she need to brush up on everything that’s happened to those school since before making up her mind if the strategy should be used again.

“I think it would be very important as a board member to look at has it been successful or not,” she said. “I believe every school is very unique.”

HOW WOULD YOU CHANGE ISTEP?

Yager

Yager said he wanted the board to look at a variety of options for moving forward with ISTEP, and he supported a push for a shorter test.

“I’m in favor of shortening the process, but I also know we have to follow federal guidelines,” he said.

Ernest

Ernest thinks Indiana should be able to chart its own course on tests, rather than simply follow what other states are doing.

“I tend to lean on that we need to be doing what’s right for Indiana,” Ernest said. “So that means if we need to individualize that for Indiana and not use something that is ready-made, out-of-the-box to use, then we need to do that.”

Melton

Melton promised to brush up on this issue as well.

“I would definitely want to come in and really study the issues and concerns,” Melton said. “At this point I don’t have any recommendations. I would really be very open into learning more about (educators’) concerns so I can better assess.”

Bertram

Bertram said he believes the current ISTEP exam doesn’t capture a comprehensive picture of student performance.

“The bigger question is how do we effectively measure the outcomes we’re interested in, and are we measuring the right kind of outcomes?” Bertram said. “Is there something better for our students and are we willing to make that kind of commitment? What evidence do we have that any gain on ISTEP is an indicator of improved performance beyond school?”

Kwiatkowski

One thing Kwiatkowski is sure of, as an assistant superintendent in Warren Township, is that Pence was right to complain about the length of ISTEP in February.

“Shortening the time for ISTEP is something we need to do,” she said. “This year ISTEP drug on too long. It affected every student in our schools. Schedules had to be changed. We really had to make adjustments.”

IS AN A-TO-F SCALE A FAIR WAY TO JUDGE SCHOOLS?

Yager

Yager co-chaired with Ritz a committee that made recommendations to the state board that led to the newly retooled A-to-F grading system it approved earlier this month. He said he thinks it’s far better than the one it replaced, especially when it comes to measuring how students have improved.

“I don’t know that there is a perfect answer to the testing situation and how kids should be tested,” Yager said. “But I know that what we have proposed is something that is a lot more fair.”

Ernest

Test scores can only tell us so much, Ernest said. Accountability for schools is important, but it shouldn’t rely solely on what the state can see on tests like ISTEP. Other factors, like classwork, attendance and five-year graduation rate can also provide information about students and understanding about how schools are serving them.

“I just think we need to adapt the accountability to where we are and what we’re doing,” Ernest said. “So, looking more at the student and then what the school is able to do with those students while they have them in their care.”

Melton

Melton said he want to hear more about what people have to say about A-to-F grading.

“That’s something I would definitely want to learn from the community from various parts of the state,” he said.

Bertram

Schools, Bertram said, need freedom and support, and then they can be better judged on their efforts.

“If we’re going to hold schools accountable we (need to be) giving them the resources necessary to effect change,” Bertram said, “the freedom to work outside of a system that’s been proven to not be highly effective.”

Kwiatkowski

Kwiakowski said getting A-to-F grades right, so they are useful to parents and schools, is critical.

“It’s an easy way for parents to understand,” she said. “We really have to make sure the criteria to put grades on schools are looking at the right thing.”

For her district, the grades have mostly seemed fair, Kwiatkowski said.

“They’ve been a pretty good match for us,” she said. “We have some years that we may have some unique circumstance that we think are not fair that one year but overall (the grade were) pretty fair matches.”

HAS GLENDA RITZ BEEN A GOOD LEADER AS STATE SUPERINTENDENT?

Yager

While Ritz has been in office, Yager said he’s only attended a couple state board meetings. He wouldn’t comment on Ritz’s effectiveness as board leader, he said he respects her focus on students.

“She really cares about kids and learning, and I respect that a great deal,” Yager said. “That’s kind of the same thing that I’m interested in — children learning, and girls and boys and what’s best for them.”

Ernest

Petty arguments and politics have no place on the board, Ernest said, no matter who is the leader.

“I think we’ve got to drop that at the door,” he said. “I was appointed by the speaker to, again, help drive good policy, good procedures for Indiana education, and so I’m going to work with whoever is in that position.”

Melton

Melton was the one new board member who said unequivocally that Ritz was doing well.

“I think she’s done a great job in this role,” Melton said. “I’m looking forward to working with her and the entire board.”

Bertram

Bertram said he was eager to begin working with Ritz.

“I would not have accepted this opportunity if I wasn’t interested in working with Superintendent Ritz,” Bertram said. “This is going to require a great deal of collaboration. I look forward to sitting down and finding ways to work together to realize our state’s potential. She has a significant job ahead of her as well as an amazing opportunity to lead education in the state. I think it’s our obligation as a state board to help support that effort. I’m looking ward to sitting down with her and listening and being part of this journey moving forward.”

Kwiatkowski

Kwiatkowski said she has not closely followed state board discussions since leaving the education department. Ritz’s impact on education was hard to judge even for someone who works in public schools, she said, as many factors have been at play.

“We’ve had a lot of changes over the last couple of years,” she said. “We’ve had new standards and new assessments. We’ve had different issues with funding. All of those are complex issues for districts. I don’t think it would be fair for me to say are we better or not better.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.