Future of Schools

In an about-face, Pence joins Ritz in calling for relief from testing sanctions

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence.

Just months ago, Gov. Mike Pence’s fierce opposition to efforts by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to get Indiana to at least consider a “pause” to sanctions for schools, teachers and students for low test scores made the topic political kryptonite.

The Indiana State Board of Education refused to even discuss it when Ritz raised the idea in February.

But today Pence reversed course in a letter to Ritz today suggesting teachers shouldn’t be punished for an expected big dip in ISTEP scores the state board is set to discuss Wednesday.

Another key Republican — Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, quickly issued a statement supporting Pence, changing his position, too.

After months of saying that challenging new state standards and ISTEP tests shouldn’t derail state accountability, Gov. Mike Pence wrote to Ritz:

“Our schools and teachers are doing the same great work today as they did in years past; we are experiencing the normal consequences of higher standards and a new exam. Given the transition Indiana has undergone this year with our academic standards and assessment, our response should reflect fairness to our students, our teachers and our schools.”

Pence said he is asking Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the Indiana General Assembly to create legislation that would ensure “test results will not negatively impact teacher evaluations or performance bonuses this year.”

That move is very much in line with a move Ritz for more than a year has lobbied hard for: a temporary pause in accountability. She raised that idea to the state board more than once, only to be shot down each time.

Samantha Hart, Ritz’s spokeswoman, said Ritz welcomes the governor’s decision, but it’s too little, too late given the worry it’s already caused teachers and schools.

“Superintendent Ritz supports strong accountability as long as it is fair, open and transparent,” Hart said in a statement. “The superintendent looks forward to working with Indiana’s leadership to take advantage of federal flexibility for both teacher evaluations and the assignment of A-F accountability grades for the 2014-15 school year.”

As recently as this past spring, after issuing an executive order to shorten ISTEP tests that had grown to more than 12 hours for some students, Pence said accountability was of paramount importance, regardless of changes to tests or standards.

“We grade our kids every day,” Pence said at a press conference in early February. “We can test and grade our schools every year.”

In June of 2014, Pence followed a newspaper column from Ritz advocating for an accountability pause with a letter directly to Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, saying a move like this would never happen on his watch.

“Indiana will not go backwards when it comes to measuring performance in our schools on my watch,” he said in the letter to Duncan. “We do not support a pause in accountability as it relates to delivering A to F grades to schools, determining intervention strategies in under-performing schools, or teacher evaluations that reflect classroom performance.”

In Long’s statement today he applauded Pence, but he contradicted his own position from February.

“As we make this transition with our new standards and test, it is important to be as fair as possible to our students, teachers and schools,” Long said in a statement. “It appears that accomplishing this goal may require legislative action, and Senate Republicans are prepared to act as needed. I’m confident we can find a way to modify portions of our accountability system for one year without suspending it.”

Just eight months ago, after Pence dramatically called for rush legislation to shorten ISTEP, Long was on the other side of the fence.

He sent a letter to the state board saying accountability should in no way be changed for one year of test scores. The state’s accountability system primarily affects teacher evaluation ratings and school A-to-F grades. The ratings can block teachers from raises and poor grades can lead schools into state takeover.

“At no time did I suggest that pause in accountability was appropriate; in fact, I expressed grave concern at the impact this delay would have on our children,” Long wrote in a letter from Feb. 11. “I, along with Speaker (Brian) Bosma, support Governor Pence taking bold action to ensure accountability remains in place.”

Pence’s letter to Ritz today isn’t clear about what could happen to A-to-F grades or if they’d be included in the proposed legislation.

“It is important to ensure that our A-F system fairly reflects the efforts of our students and teachers during this transition year,” Pence said. “I welcome recommendations from the board as we craft solutions that preserve accountability and transparency for Indiana’s academic system.”

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.