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Ritz and McCormick: Two educators running for state superintendent explain how they would improve teaching

Third grade teacher Alyssa Roberts works on her lesson plan at Tindley Renaissance School. The bill's previous language would have let districts hire unlicensed teachers like charter schools can.
Third grade teacher Alyssa Roberts works on her lesson plan at Tindley Renaissance School. The bill's previous language would have let districts hire unlicensed teachers like charter schools can.
Alan Petersime

They might not agree on much, but both candidates for state superintendent say Indiana can do a lot better for its teachers.

Democratic incumbent Glenda Ritz and her Republican challenger Jennifer McCormick, a superintendent from Yorktown, have both spent much of their careers in public education. Before running for state superintendent in 2012, Ritz had been a teacher and union leader in Washington Township. McCormick was a teacher in Yorktown, moving on to administrative roles over the past decade.

Teaching is a major experience the candidates share, and both women say it factors into the decisions they make — but that doesn’t mean they always agree on how to improve it.

READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

Here’s where each stands on some of the biggest issues facing teachers in Indiana.

FIXING THE TEACHER SHORTAGE

Since last year, Indiana has been trying address teacher shortages, but no real progress has yet been made.

During the 2016 legislative session, multiple bills about how much control superintendents should have in determining teacher salaries zigzagged through the statehouse. In Indiana, teachers unions can bargain only for wages and benefits, so the bills became highly controversial because some union supporters saw them as potentially taking away more union rights.

McCormick said being able to set salaries enables superintendents to compete for teachers in high-demand areas such as math, science and special education.

“Because of lack of teachers and supply and demand issues, it’s pretty hard to operate,” McCormick said.

On the other hand, Ritz sides with the many educators and union advocates who argued that giving superintendents the authority to pay some teachers more than others could pit colleagues against each other and make for a stressful work environment.

If lawmakers had really listened to educators, “they would know not even to propose those types of actions,” Ritz said, explaining why she did not support the bills.

Ultimately, neither bill moved ahead in its original form, although a watered-down version applying to Advanced Placement teachers did pass. Still, some districts in the state have reached agreements with their local unions allowing district leaders discretion to adjust salaries if they are trying to attract teachers and fill jobs. McCormick’s district is one of those.

TEACHER EVALUATION

How the state rates its teachers is probably the issue where both women are in broad agreement: Indiana should refrain from making test scores and school accountability grades a major factor.

“It’s important that the whole system is set up for improvement vs trying to be punitive,” McCormick said. “There’s a lot to the teacher evaluation, but I think, you know, as far as just putting one grade and making it a heavy weight, I don’t agree with that.”

McCormick said she thinks it’s important that teachers are evaluated on their work, but it should be used to help them get better, not just punish them for things they can’t control, sentiments Ritz has echoed.

Ritz said there’s also room to improve in specifically how tests factor into evaluations. It shouldn’t be about whether scores can help or harm a teacher’s rating, but rather, evaluators should be looking at what teachers do with the test data they have to improve their instruction.

“We haven’t really focused on how we use the assessments,” Ritz said. “We’ve simply looked at the outcome in the end.”

Indiana has been shown to have a wide range of evaluation systems — every district has the power to create its own, which has led to some unreliable results across the state. The issue will be especially important this year as the state transitions to rules under new federal law, which could allow Indiana to loosen earlier requirements on how teacher performance must be measured.

WORKING WITH LAWMAKERS

On the whole, Ritz called last year’s legislative session “little more than a missed opportunity” when it came to improving conditions for new and veteran teachers. The recommendations from her panel of 49 educators that came out last year were roundly rejected by Republican lawmakers, who control both the House and the Senate.

McCormick has said she’d support more local control over training for teachers and administrators, as well as working with the legislature to revisit changes to how Indiana teachers are compensated for more education.

For the upcoming legislative session, Ritz said she would bring back many of the panel’s suggestions, which include increasing opportunities for mentoring, attracting not just more new teachers, but ones from diverse backgrounds, and keeping test scores from negatively impacting teacher evaluations. McCormick hasn’t yet communicated strong positions on the specific policies the panel of educators put forward.

“[Lawmakers] failed to take action to address the teacher shortage in a fair and substantial way,” Ritz told reporters earlier this year. “Recommendations by the education profession were ignored.”

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