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 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 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 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 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?”
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 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.”
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 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.
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.”
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?
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.”
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 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 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 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.”