Future of Schools

Questions remain as Indiana's NCLB deadline nears

State board member Brad Oliver and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz at a meeting in December. (Scott Elliott)

Indiana now has less than a month to satisfy U.S. Department of Education concerns that have put it in jeopardy of facing federal sanctions, and some State Board of Education members are getting antsy.

The state board, which demanded answers from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz in a special meeting last month, is expecting another update Wednesday. The contentious issue caused some fireworks at the board’s last meeting and board members say they still want more information directly from Ritz.

“There has been no update, nothing, to the board,” board member Brad Oliver said. “I am going to ask some questions. I want to know what’s been going on. I’m hearing two stories — that everything is OK and that we have serious issues.”

In early May, the U.S. Department of Education sent Indiana a letter giving the state 60 days — to the end of June — to answer a series of concerns in order to reassure federal officials that it had not violated the terms of a 2012 agreement to relax some federal rules.

That deal, or “waiver,” released Indiana from some sanctions of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Law. Most states have received waivers from rules, now widely deemed to be too stringent, that would have required all children to be scoring at grade level on standardized tests by this year.

Federal officials wanted the state to demonstrate how it was meeting the following terms, which the state agreed to as part of its waiver:

  • Indiana’s new standards qualify as “college and career ready”
  • State-administered tests going forward adequately measure the new standards
  • The state’s new teacher evaluation law is being faithfully followed
  • The Indiana Department of Education’s monitoring of the lowest scoring schools is working effectively.

Oliver said board members were asked about their availability for a special meeting the week of June 23 to discuss the issue, but he thinks that is too late.

“If we don’t have a plan by June 23, that’s a concern,” he said. “It’s due June 30.”

Ritz’s spokesman, Daniel Altman, said board members should be getting updates from the staff of the Center for Education and Career Innovation. The center, created by Gov. Mike Pence last August, has irked Ritz, who at times has complained that Pence uses it to usurp her duties.

“The state board staff has been on every call we’ve had with (the U.S. Department of Education),” Altman said. “As far as when they update the state board, that’s up to them. If someone on the state board has a problem they can talk to their staff.”

Altman said there has been progress in talks with federal officials.

“We’ve been having regular conversations and are working with them collaboratively,” he said.

But Oliver said he and others on the board have been frustrated that Ritz’s take on the state’s dealings with the U.S. Department of Education haven’t always matched what they hear from CECI staff and others.

In fact, CECI spokeswoman Lou Ann Baker was less optimistic than Altman about the progress that’s been made in phone meetings that have included federal officials along with state education department and CECI staff.

“There have been three phone call and clearly much work is yet to be done,” Baker said.

One state, Washington, lost its waiver earlier this year for failing to comply with its terms and three others have been put on notice that their waivers are in serious danger if changes are not made. Indiana’s letter was unique. The state was not given “high risk” status but it still had more problems to address than most states.

For Washington, losing the waiver will mean less flexibility in how federal education dollars are spent in local schools, a situation Indiana’s state board hopes to avoid.

IPS seeks more control

The meeting agenda says a recommendation to the board regarding “lead partner determinations” is forthcoming, but gives no specifics.

Last month, Indianapolis Public Schools asked if the district could serve as its own “lead partner” for John Marshall, George Washington and Broad Ripple high schools. It asked to fire outside companies that were hired by the state to assist those schools.

Broad Ripple and George Washington were two of seven schools statewide that faced the possibility of state takeover when they reached six straight years of F grades for low test scores in 2011. The state board stopped short of asking outside companies to manage those schools independently from IPS.

Lead partners who have worked with the schools include The New Teacher Project and Scholastic Achievement Partners, both of New York City, and Texas-based Voyager Learning.

IPS last year won permission from the state to fire one of George Washington’s lead partners, New York-based Amplify, replacing it with a consultant who trained school staff in the “eight-step process,” a program of frequent testing and regrouping of students used in several IPS schools.

At the request of then-IPS Superintendent Eugene White in 2012, the state board agreed to assign Voyager to try to improve test scores at Marshall, which entered state intervention after six consecutive F grades, and a group of feeder schools nearby.

But new IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee argued the district could better manage the process internally under a plan he proposed.

Guidance proposed for new standards

The Indiana Education Roundtable, in approving Indiana’s new academic standards in April, asked the Indiana Department of Education to produce the guidance it will give to schools and teachers about how to use the new standards by June 15. The state board is scheduled to discuss that guidance Wednesday.

Guidance is potentially controversial because it may give teachers examples and direction for recommended methods to teach the new standards.

It was guidance for teaching to Common Core, standards used by most states that Indiana rejected earlier this year, that caused much of the concern from critics who feared those standards would lead teachers toward teaching methods that may be in conflict with the way math and English are taught in some Indiana districts.

Already Common Core critics have complained that Indiana’s new standards are mostly similar to Common Core.

State board procedures

The state board has continued to refine its rules for conducting meetings since an explosive November meeting that ended when Ritz abruptly adjourned rather than allow a motion from Oliver.

Among the changes that have since been made are new procedures for placing items on the agenda and for board members to make motions during board meetings.

On Wednesday, the board is expected consider one more change: allowing public comment on items that do not appear on the agenda. The current rules require speakers to restrict their remarks to items that the board plans to talk about during the meeting.

Board member David Freitas was among those who pushed for allowing public comment on any topic, regardless of whether it was already on the agenda.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.