Early Childhood

Indiana's five biggest education stories of 2014

(NOTE: Chalkbeat Indiana will publish on a reduced schedule after today until Jan. 5. We will be republishing some of our favorite stories from 2014, so check back during the break to revisit some of our most interesting reporting of the year. During the break, our daily Rise and Shine feature and morning newsletter will also be on hiatus. We hope you’ll continue to join us in 2015 as we work to bring you even broader and more in-depth coverage of education in Indiana.)

From political battles at the Indiana Statehouse to major moves at Indianapolis Public Schools, 2014 was a big year for education in Indiana.

Here’s a recap of five of the most influential education news events of the year as Chalkbeat sees them. Do you agree or disagree? Tell us in the comments below!

1. Indiana Junks Common Core:


Early in 2014, Indiana became the first state to back out of its plan to follow Common Core academic standards, which in 2010 it had adopted along with 45 other states. Indiana had been one the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of Common Core. In four short years, everything changed. Common Core became embroiled in national politics and caught in the crossfire of decades-old philosophical debates about the best ways for children to learn. This spring, a bill to void the Common Core as the state’s standards passed the legislature and was signed by Gov. Mike Pence, earning praise for the governor from critics who distrusted the federal government’s endorsement of the standards. But the cheers subsided when drafts of the new standards were released. Common Core opponents complained that many of the standards were identical or nearly the same as Common Core. The quick change of direction on standards also knocked Indiana off schedule for connecting its new standards to state tests, creating new difficulties for schools trying to prepare students to pass those tests.

2. State launches first ever preschool pilot:

Gov. Mike Pence greets preschoolers on a visit to Shepherd Community Center in February.

Pence pushed hard to get a small preschool pilot approved by the Indiana General Assembly in 2014. Most of the five counties participating — including Marion County — are poised to start serving children in January. Pence made beefing up state’s preschool investment the top priority on his education agenda for the legislative session, and got the program established despite serious doubts from some of his Republican allies in the legislature and a few setbacks that put the bill in peril. Meanwhile, the city of Indianapolis separately approved the framework for a $40 million public-private effort to expand preschool options for poor families in the city.

3. Glenda Ritz and Mike Pence take their battle to a new level: 

Ritz vs Pence

The distrust among Indiana’s top education leaders was obvious at nearly every Indiana State Board of Education meeting in 2014. Tensions that built after Pence created by executive order the Center for Education and Career Innovation in 2013, climaxed with battles over who was responsible for shortcomings that brought the attention of federal officials. The U.S. Department of education raised concerns in May that Indiana was not following an agreement under which it was freed from some sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law and set a short deadline to make fixes. After weeks of finger pointing, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s report was approved and the NCLB waiver renewed for another year. After constant complaints from Ritz that CECI was designed to usurp her power, Pence surprised everyone last month by announcing he would shut the agency down to assuage her fears. But that pledge came with a twist: He wants Ritz to give up her role as chairwoman of the state board.
4. A massive effort to overhaul teacher evaluations changed little: 

A teacher at IPS School 90 works helps a student.

After the first school year under tougher new teacher evaluation rules, hardly any teachers were rated in the lowest category, results that mirrored the old system. Statewide just 219 educators were rated “ineffective” last May of 50,000 educators who were evaluated. In fact, nearly all rated educators — 97 percent — were classified in the top two categories as effective or highly effective. Legislators are weighing changes to the state’s teacher evaluation law, which was first passed in 2011, saying that the high scores suggest that the law does not go far enough to identify which teachers need help or should be removed.

5. IPS reveals financial stunner: 

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee sits with members of the public and Indianapolis financial community as he explains the district's financial situation with interim CFO Paul Carpenter-Wilson.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee sent a shock wave through the Indianapolis Public Schools community back in March when he revealed the $30 million deficit the district had been struggling with for nearly a year doesn’t exist. In fact, IPS ended 2013 with an $8.4 million surplus. Ferebee speculated that IPS’s prior administration “intentionally overstated expenses to protect our cash balance.” The revelation, which was met with skepticism from his predecessors, led the administration to change the way it reports and manages finances, with more detailed reports to the board and the public. Two outside audits of IPS’s operations revealed a recent history of poorly managed finances and an unsophisticated investment strategy for managing the district’s cash reserves.

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “… We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, he Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.