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Alan Petersime

Why Indiana matters when it comes to education

(NOTE: Much has changed since this post was first published in October of 2013. This post has not been updated to reflect those changes but the “basics of” stories linked to below have been updated.)

People know cities like New York City, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., are hotbeds for educational change.

But do they know about Indianapolis? They should.

From vouchers to charter schools, Common Core to A through F grading, there is a lot going on here.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about every one of the issues listed below to give Chalkbeat readers a thorough understanding of what’s going on here in Indiana. As those stories are posted, I’ll connect them via links to the bullet points below. So check back here frequently for a guide to the basics of major education issues in Indiana.

But back to the core question — why Indiana? Of all the cities across the country that Chalkbeat could have expanded to, why did we choose to come here?

The fact is, Indianapolis, and Indiana generally, has begun to rival those other places mentioned above that everyone knows about when it comes to education — not to mention other emerging centers for education experimentation like Colorado and Tennessee —  as one of the most interesting places to watch.

While Indiana has plenty of the elements of what’s come to be known as “education reform” movement — school choice, standards reform and a rethinking of teacher training and instructional methods — it’s also taken some unique approaches that have distinguished it from other places.

Indianapolis, as a city and state capitol, likes to think of itself as an innovation center. That attitude has carried over to its view of educational change. For instance, Indianapolis is unusual in that its mayor plays an ever-increasing role in education, but does it by sponsoring charter schools, not by running the school district, as other cities have tried.

The progenitors of mayor charter school sponsoring have since birthed another major new educational player in the city and state. The non-profit group, The Mind Trust, created a rare example of an education entrepreneur fellowship, which aims to fund the development of innovative educational ideas on the condition that the entrepreneurs try their new ideas first in Indianapolis.

Since 2010, the state has seen a run of major legislative reforms in education and fierce battles over who controls the state education department and the Indianapolis Public School Board. Among the major issues the state continues to grapple with are:

  • Vouchers. Indiana’s three-year-old voucher program was just expanded and has grown faster than any voucher program in history to second largest in the U.S. this year. It will likely be No. 1 in the nation in 2014.
  • Charter schools. In 2011, the state expanded sponsoring authority, which has helped attract new players to the state like Carpe Diem from Arizona, and spur replication of high-performing, locally-run charter schools. Explosive growth of charters appears to be just around the corner.
  • Teacher evaluation. Another major 2011 law completely overhauled the process by which teachers performance is reviewed, adding student test scores as a factor and tying evaluation results to pay raises and even job security. In 2014, teachers will feel those effects for the first time.
  • Merit Pay. The new evaluations also will lead to new pay systems in Indiana school districts that will allow for the best rated teachers to be paid more and the lowest rated to be blocked from receiving more pay.
  • State Takeover. Indiana is a rare example of a state that took direct control of five failing schools in 2012, handing them over to be run by private companies or non-profits.
  • Unions. Changes in labor law have limited unions to bargaining just on pay and benefits while narrowing the negotiating window to 60 days between Aug. 1 and Oct. 1. That’s one of several challenges facing the Indiana State Teachers Association.
  • Common Core standards. Indiana was an early adopter of Common Core standards in 2010 but lawmakers in 2013 ordered a reconsideration, with a year of study and debate that culminated in a vote by the state board of education to replace the standards in 2014.
  • New Indiana standards. In place of Common Core, Indiana created its own new standards in early 2014 and now teachers are scrambling to prepare students for new 2015 tests based on them.
  • Indianapolis Public Schools. The state’s poorest and second largest school district has undergone a transformation since the start of 2013, with a new, reform-oriented school board that has replaced the superintendent and is aiming for more changes. New Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is working on his plan for how to approach all the district’s issues.
  • Tony Bennett. The hard-charging, charismatic Bennett was the aggressive face of school reform as state superintendent from 2008-12 before his stunning defeat to underfunded and lesser known school teacher Glenda Ritz. Bennett left Indiana to lead the education department in Florida but resigned less than a year into his term following a controversy after his email directives to staff from Indiana were published. Bennett has said he is considering a move back to Indiana.
  • Glenda Ritz. The only Democrat currently holding statewide office, Ritz has crossed swords with Republican leaders, some of whom have taken steps to limit her power and control over the Indiana Department of Education. She may be in a fight for her political life when the legislature begins its work anew in January.
  • Testing. In a debate that is tied to the Common Core, Indiana must decide in 2014 whether to replace or alter its glitch-plagued state test, ISTEP, to conform to college and career-ready standards. At the same time, Ritz is urging a reform of the state third grade reading test from a pass-fail design to an exam that establishes a student’s numerical reading level.
  • A to F grading. Letter grades for schools based on state test scores were new to Indiana in 2011 and the grading system was changed in 2012 to add growth measures based on student test score gain. More changes are in the works as schools await 2103 grades later this fall.
  • Early Childhood Education. Indiana is one of only nine states that provides not direct state aid to help children attend preschool. It also is among about a third of states that does not require kindergarten. But recent efforts aimed at increasing the state’s commitment to early childhood education have had some success.
  • School Funding. Indiana is unusual in that funding to operate schools comes entirely from the state. Local property taxes are only used for specific needs, like busing and school construction. That means the ongoing debate over who gets what, and how much, mostly happens in the politically-charged environment of the statehouse.
  • Mike Pence. As governor, he’s pushed for career and technical education, school choice and changes to standards and tests.
  • Township schools. Indianapolis has eight township school districts that together enroll a large majority of the city’s public schools but their successes and challenges are often overlooked.
  • NCLB waiver. Indiana is one of many states that has signed a waiver agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that guides some state policy, especially when it comes to standards, tests and helping schools with the lowest test scores improve.
  • English language learning. Indiana has seen huge growth in the enrollment of children in schools who are still learning English as a second language but the state, and some schools, have been slow to adapt to better serve them.

That’s just a taste of what you’ll read about here at Chalkbeat. Check back here frequently for more.