Future of 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 battled over education policy for years, but they agreed on dumping Common Core and PARCC.

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?

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.