Building Better Schools

5 bold predictions for the new year for ISTEP, teachers, Pence, Ritz and IPS

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz have battled over education policy for four years.

Predicting the twists and turns of education issues in the new year might seem to be as much about lucky guesses as picking numbers for the lottery or trying to call where the stock market will end up.

But we’re game. Here are Chalkbeat’s five bold predictions for education in Indiana in 2016.

It won’t be easy to go five-for-five.

Just look at how different the top-line education issues were in January a year ago compared to just a month later. Everybody was talking about school funding at the start of 2015 and nobody was talking about testing, especially not how long ISTEP would take students to complete.

But in February, chopping ISTEP down by a few hours became Gov. Mike Pence’s top legislative priority, sparking another rumble with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz. Priorities changed that fast. (Lawmakers did soon get back to school funding, however.)

So what can be expected for education in 2016?

Well, for starters it’s a big election year for Pence, for Ritz and for the country, which always adds an extra dose of volatility to the education debate. Testing is back as a critical issue for the Indiana General Assembly, but the outcome could prove just as surprising as last year’s lightning-fast bill to shorten ISTEP.

A couple of these bold predictions might not prove as crazy as they might seem, but would qualify as pretty big surprises if they come true. But others might just turn out to be blockbusters nobody saw coming.

So remember where you saw them first:

1. The Indiana legislature will kill ISTEP.

Don’t get too excited kids (and teachers). If it comes to pass, there will still be state tests to take.

But for the first time they could be tests that other states are taking, too.

The feeling that ISTEP is such a mess that it needs to be scrapped has quickly gained steam as CTB/McGraw-Hill, the company that has created and scored ISTEP for more than decade, had another round of major problems scoring the exam, pushing both elected and appointed policymakers to the breaking point.

The company’s ISTEP contract actually expired over the summer, but like a bad rash, CTB/McGraw-Hill just won’t go away. The scores from tests kids took last March and May still haven’t been publicly released because of scoring problems.

Last year, the idea of scrapping ISTEP got a pretty big push from a powerful senator, Noblesville’s Luke Kenley, who leads the budget making process in the Senate. He proposed scrapping ISTEP, replacing it with a cheaper “off-the-shelf” exam, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or an exam created by the Oregon-based Northwest Evaluation Association that many Indiana schools use to prepare for ISTEP.

There are some technical barriers to overcome to make a shared national test work as Indiana’s state test. But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, helped block that plan last year but now says he likes the idea.

The timing is good because ISTEP is changing anyway. The state already has fired CTB/McGraw-Hill. Its competitor, Pearson, is making ISTEP this year and next under a two-year contract that calls for it to continue being reshaped to better fit Indiana’s new, tougher state academic standards.

Could ISTEP be gone after 2017? Watch the legislature carefully.

2. Teachers will get off the hook for a big drop in ISTEP scores, but schools won’t.

After the test was overhauled last year to match the new standards, the percentage of students who passed fell dramatically.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected. A similar effect has been seen in other states after they upped their standards. So educators were soon asking:

Should Indiana follow other states that put a “pause” on accountability sanctions during the transition to the tougher test?

All of last year, Ritz was urging yes while Pence said no — until late October. Then Pence then reversed course and called for protecting teacher evaluations, which must include test scores as a factor to determine raises, from being adversely affected by the big drop.

Pence, however, did not call for exempting school from sanctions for F-grades that are largely also based on test scores. Instead, legislators have hinted they want to keep accountability for schools, but perhaps would ease the effect by grading schools on a “curve.”

It’s not yet clear what that will look like or how that might work. Some educators and testing experts already are skeptical it can. Expect a big battle over exactly how the scores are, or are not, used to evaluate schools and teachers.

3. Ritz and Pence will both have tough re-election fights.

It’s no secret that Pence could be vulnerable next November.

His education policies are not his biggest problem. Pence’s polling numbers have fallen dramatically since last year’s debate over gay civil rights and religious freedom.

But Pence’s unpopularity with teachers has some asking whether he could suffer from a “Tony Bennett effect.

Many factors played into Bennett’s shocking defeat by Ritz in 2012. One of them was educator anger. Many teachers felt Bennett’s sharp rhetoric in criticizing low-scoring public schools was demeaning and viewed some policies he favored as anti-public education. Ritz effectively tapped into teacher networks and mobilized the disaffected to push their friends and family to vote against Bennett.

It worked. Bennett did surprisingly poorly in Republican stronghold counties, like the Indianapolis suburbs.

Ritz remains popular with teachers and has been at war with Pence for three years. Can she mobilize a similarly energized base of support to not only help her win re-election, but also to potentially tip what might be a close gubernatorial race to fellow Democrat John Gregg? It will be an interesting test of her political strength.

But  also consider Ritz’s own political situation.

Much like Bennett at this point in 2012, she appears unbeatable. A strong Republican challenger has yet to emerge, and she has a strong base of educator support.

She also has some real political liabilities.

The usual formula for winning re-election relies on three factors: notoriety, money and accomplishments in office. Ritz is well-known, thanks in part to the ongoing war with Pence and Republicans. But she is thin in the other two categories.

Ritz has never had much money. She was massively outspent by Bennett last time around, and her 10-week gubernatorial run crashed and burned in large part because she could not garner enough financial support.

And much of what Ritz said she wanted to do in office — get rid of the third grade reading test, reducing testing generally, etc. — hasn’t happened.

Her biggest accomplishment might simply be that she is a strong voice in opposition to Bennett-style accountability. But in terms of state policy, very little has changed from the Bennett era. She simply hasn’t had the power, as the lone Democrat holding statewide office, or the persuasiveness to bring about changes that matter to her constituents.

If a strong Republican challenger emerged, say a popular superintendent or a well-regarded legislator, you can bet that Bennett’s deep-pocketed allies would revel in the chance to defeat Ritz. Could she end up on the ropes if she is outspent by a huge margin again?

Without the antipathy toward Bennett, will voters be as energized to back her a second time?

4. Another city will try to poach Indianapolis Public School Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Ferebee is starting to get noticed outside of Indiana, and his resume would make him an attractive candidate for big city superintendent jobs if he was interested.

Don’t be surprised if another city comes calling sooner rather than later.

Last month, Education Week magazine gave a “sneak peak” at three educators it has named “Leaders To Learn From” in 2016. Ferebee is one of them.

This is how it starts.

In just more than two years on the job, Ferebee has won a lot of accolades. His accomplishments include revealing a hidden budget surplus, forging new partnerships with charter schools, shrinking the central office and reaching across political divides to forge new alliances.

He’s also just 41, a likable father who sends his young son to a district school and he’s an African-American. These are all attributes big school districts often look for when they search for new leaders.

Ferebee does not have deep roots in Indianapolis. He and his family have embraced the city and he has hired many past colleagues to join him here. But Ferebee is from South Carolina and spent nearly his entire career in North Carolina before coming to Indiana.

A step up in school district size would mean more prestige and a lot more pay.

In Indianapolis, he makes $198,000 in base salary, which is slightly below average for an urban school district with fewer than 50,000 students, according to a survey by the Council of Great City Schools. At a school district of at least 100,000 students, by comparison, the average salary is more than $275,000. That’s more than a third more than he makes now.

Consider Charlotte, the biggest school district in North Carolina. That district’s superintendent makes $288,000.

The average urban superintendent’s tenure is a little more than three years. Now in his third year at IPS, Ferebee is reaching a critical juncture. He is pushing an ambitious agenda calling for a radically reshaped central office, considerable freedom for principals and more charter school partnerships.

Skepticism is growing in some corners of the community, and he’s facing more criticism. Could that tempt him to look at other offers? Somebody may try to find out.

5. Public dissension will all but disappear on the IPS school board.

It’s easy to forget that 2012 was the first big sea-change election for IPS. And those winning candidates are up for re-election in 2016.

Backed by huge financial support from business and school reform proponents, Caitlin Hannon, Sam Odle and Gayle Cosby swept out three of then-Superintendent Eugene White’s key allies. (Hannon resigned this year and was replaced by former Deputy Mayor Michael O’Connor.)

In 2014, three more seats turned over as reform proponents Mary Ann Sullivan, Kelly Bentley and LaNier Echols used similarly huge financial support to defeat incumbents.

Add to the mix school board President Diane Arnold, the one incumbent who was backed by many of the same reform-oriented contributors in the 2012 election, and it would seem the board by now should be entirely like-minded on most issues.

And it generally is, except for the curious case of Gayle Cosby.

In 2012, her campaign was one of the best funded, raising, $16,000 largely from pro-reform groups, and she won endorsements from reform-minded Stand For Children, Democrats for Education Reform and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

Winning those endorsements, and raising as much money, is unlikely this time around as Cosby has proven to be a maverick on the board, bucking the priorities of many of those who supported her. She is often the only dissenter when the board pushes its reform agenda, and she is frequently critical in public comments of fellow board members and the school reform movement in general.

Needless to say, her former supporters feel pretty burned.

If the groups that backed her last time spend big to replace her with someone more in step with the rest of the board, Cosby could have an uphill climb to keep her seat. So far, every time well-funded opponents have taken on entrenched incumbents since 2012, the challengers have won.

If Cosby is defeated, could the board could have fewer public debates about key issues?

Building Better Schools

How a new principal led her neighborhood school to the biggest ISTEP gains in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 39 had the largest jump in passing rates on the state math and English tests in the district.

Breakfast at School 39 was a little bit hectic on a recent Wednesday, as staff urged kids to eat their bananas, yogurts and cereal.

But principal Stacy Coleman was calm as she stood among the tables of kindergartners and first graders. “Big bites now,” she said, as the bell approached.

Coleman is in her second year as principal of School 39, also known as William McKinley, a traditional neighborhood school on the edge of Fountain Square. In Coleman’s first year of leadership, the school achieved an unusual feat: Passing rate on both the math and English ISTEP climbed to 28 percent in 2017, up 9.7 percentage points over the prior year — the biggest jump of any school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

That progress caught the eye of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who highlighted McKinley as a school the district could learn from.

“We hired a great new leader,” said Ferebee. “She’s really focused on the culture of the school and using data to inform instruction.”

A Michigan native, Coleman has been an educator for seven years. She joined IPS three years ago as assistant principal at School 31, also known as James A. Garfield, a neighborhood school two miles from the campus she now leads.

Chalkbeat sat down with Coleman to talk about School 39 and the school’s remarkable jump in passing rates. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your school community like here?

We are a working-class neighborhood. Our families are working class — very supportive parents. Teachers call, they answer. They are up here. They care about their child’s well-being.

The neighborhood around us is changing. Gentrification is occurring, and it’s moving fast. However, we have not seen a change in our population of students yet.

We canvas the neighborhood quite often, me and my parent involvement educator. A lot of people we’ve talked to don’t have kids, and if they do have kids, they are not school-age yet.

You guys had this big bump in your test scores — the biggest in the district. What did you think when you saw that?

I felt so filled with emotion because I saw all the hard work that my teachers were doing, and I saw what we were doing with the kids. It just was nice to see the gains from the hard work.

You’re seeing the flowers that you’ve planted.

What do you think led to this big jump in test scores?

We really focused on making this a positive and safe environment for our students — and our staff. Changing staff morale, changing student morale and motivation.

We focused on empowering our teachers and putting that ownership on them.

What did you do to empower your teachers?

Allowing for professional learning community meetings to be teacher directed. It’s not like a staff meeting. It’s teachers talking and collaborating with each other, being transparent in our teaching practices, opening the doors of our classroom for other teachers to come in.

We did instructional rounds. Teachers went into other classrooms and observed a problem of practice and debriefed about those and put specific strategies into their classrooms.

As a teacher, I found a lot of power in those professional learning community meetings because that was when you got to delve into the numbers. You delve into the data and really understand how your students are doing.

Was there anything you feel like you stole from the last school you were at where you were assistant principal?

We do a lot of positive behavior interventions and supports here at William McKinley. We did a lot of them at James A. Garfield. We amped them up, last year and again this year.

Like, this year, we have Coleman cash. Every day a student is nominated by their teacher, and they get to go to the front of the lunch line. They get to sit at a special table in the cafeteria with a tablecloth and a centerpiece. They also get to invite a friend. They get to talk when everybody else is silent. All those good things.

On Friday, for staff, we are going to be superheroes. Then we take a picture, and classes are going to vote on them.

The students get to see us enjoying ourselves, and it’s a little bit of a fun Friday.

We’re just making it a great place to work and a great place to learn for our students.

Educator diversity

Aurora Public Schools’ principals more racially diverse this year, but district still lagging behind

File photo of kindergarten students at Laredo Elementary in Aurora.

In the most diverse city in Colorado, school district officials have struggled to hire and retain principals of color.

The issue isn’t unique to Aurora Public Schools. But one change made three years ago to how Aurora hires principals is now slowly increasing diversity among school leaders, officials say.

The revamped hiring process wasn’t aimed at increasing diversity, but rather at increasing quality and minimizing biased or preferential hiring decisions, officials say.

“Systems that are more likely to have bias are less likely to have diversity,” said John Youngquist, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “Systems that are engaging these kinds of processes that allow people to demonstrate behaviors they’ve practiced over time, are ones that allow those high quality candidates to get to the top. I know is this is a practice that increases the level of diversity.”

This fall, 10 percent of Aurora principals are black, and 14 percent are Hispanic, up from 9 percent that were black and 7 percent that were Hispanic last year.

It’s an improvement, but the numbers still represent a gap with the diversity in the district and in the city. Eighteen percent of Aurora Public Schools students are black and more than 50 percent are Hispanic. The city of Aurora has similar demographics, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

State data tracking both principals and assistant principals by race showed the Aurora district had lower percentages of school leaders who were black or Hispanic in 2016 than in 2013. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.

This year, the numbers of teachers who are not white are smaller and farther from representing the student or community demographics than they are for principals.

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers of color. Having diverse and highly qualified principals helps leaders in turn attract and hire high quality and diverse teachers, Youngquist said.

Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said that increasing diversity is a priority but said he isn’t sure how many educators of color Aurora schools should aspire to have.

“For our workforce to mirror the community, I don’t know that there’s enough educators in the state,” Munn said.

Elizabeth Meyer, associate professor of education and associate dean for undergraduate and teacher education at CU Boulder, said all districts should be striving to see an upward trend in the numbers, not necessarily trying to reach a certain percentage as a goal.

She said that issues in diversifying teachers and principal pools are similar, but that teachers of color who are supported can be the ones who can then go on and become principals.

“We’re already limited because teaching demographics are overwhelmingly white women,” Meyer said. “We do need to find ways to make teaching a more desirable profession, especially for people of color.”

Meyer said that while there are nationwide and statewide issues to be addressed, districts need to incentivize teachers by paying higher wages, create environments that are inclusive for teachers already in the district and have visible leaders of color.

“It’s not enough to just want to recruit people in,” Meyer said. “Retention is the other part of the problem.”

When Youngquist’s office led the change in how the Aurora district hires principals, the focus was to increase the quality of school leaders and remove bias that could allow a person to be invited into the process “just with a tap on the shoulder,” he said.

The new process requires a team of district leaders and other principals to observe candidates as they are asked to model practices through scenarios and demonstrations of situations they’re likely to confront as principals.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Aurora’s Vista Peak Exploratory was one of the first to go through that new hiring process three years ago.

Yolanda Greer, principal of Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora.

“I will tell you at the end of it I certainly felt like I had been through a triathalon of some sorts,” Greer said. “But I do recall saying at every point, ‘I’m so impressed. I’m so appreciative that APS is taking the thoughtfulness that went behind creating this process to make sure we have leaders that are prepared.’ It made me want to be here even more.”

Speaking at a community meeting last month, Munn said the neighboring districts of Denver and Cherry Creek can offer more money, so Aurora must focus on other appeals to hire and retain diverse educators.

“We have to think about what’s the right atmosphere or what’s the right way that we can recruit or retain people in a way that makes them want to be part of what we’re doing here in APS,” Munn said. “Our ultimate winning advantage there is that we have a strong connection to the community. We also demonstrate to potential staff members that we are a district that has momentum. We are a district where there is opportunity. We are a district that can truly impact the community that we serve.”

Greer said she felt that draw to Aurora long before she applied for the principal position.

“I think because there was a public perception that Aurora was an underdog,” Greer said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only impact the school but the district and community.”

Though Aurora district officials are happy with how the principal process is playing out, they started working with a Virginia-based consultant last year to look at all hiring practices in the district. Munn said part of that work will include looking at whether the district is doing enough to increase diversity.

Like most school districts, Aurora has sent officials to recruit new educators from Historically Black Colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

One thing that Greer said is in a district’s control is allowing a culture where issues of inequity can be discussed. In Aurora, she said she feels comfortable raising issues of student equity if she sees them.

For her, seeing other people of color in leadership positions in the district, including the superintendent, also made her feel welcome.

“In Aurora when I walk into leadership meetings, there’s a lot of people that look like me, so there’s that connectivity,” Greer said. “There’s open conversations and people listen.”

Earlier this year, Greer was reminded of the impact that leaders of color can have when her elementary students were asked to dress up for the job they hoped to have when they grew up.

Several of the students came to school dressed as their principal, Greer said.

“I want to make sure students of color can see someone that looks like them,” she said. “When they can see me in the specific role in education and they can say, ‘Wow, that can be something admirable and I want to aspire to that,’ it’s a big deal.”