Graduation Rates Take Center Stage — Again

Since the mid-1990s, the Indiana Chamber has helped lead efforts to secure a more accurate reporting of our state and local graduation rates. Without question, we have made significant progress from the days when school districts like Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) would claim a 90% graduation rate, despite graduating less than a quarter of the ninth graders that had been enrolled four years previously. 

But even as the data have improved, so have the "tricks" being utilized. This time, the primary culprit of the manipulation is an excessive use of waivers from the state’s high school graduation exam. As reported July 1 by the Indianapolis Star, 27% of IPS graduates in 2011 received a waiver from the state’s graduation requirements.  

Now let’s not lose sight of what this means. The current state requirement is for students to pass tests covering 10th grade English and Algebra I, a course that most students take in either the eighth or ninth grade. So the expectations are not very high. Nonetheless, a school can waive students from these low level requirements if there is evidence – through coursework or other exams – that the student has genuinely mastered the material. In other words, the waivers are intended for those extremely rare instances when, due to test anxiety or some other extreme circumstance, the repeated failure of these tests really does not reflect the student’s abilities. 

Instead, some districts like IPS are using the waivers to pass through students whom they have deemed as having "tried hard enough." Let us not worry how those young adults will be received in the real world, where "trying" – and failing repeatedly – will not be sufficient.  There are no "waivers" in the real world – especially for such low expectations.

But alas, IPS is certainly not the only culprit in this mess. Statewide, over 5,000 students (about 8% of all graduates) received waivers from these minimal diploma requirements in 2011. That’s up dramatically from 2004, when the statewide number was just a few hundred – and even those numbers were likely higher than they should have been. 

Additionally, we keep hearing about high schools that are counseling families to withdraw from school with the stated intention of being home schooled – thereby removing those students from the high schools’ student count, regardless of any evidence that any home schooling actually occurred. In 2009, for example, 97 students left Kokomo High School supposedly to be homeschooled – nearly 5% of the entire school. At Michigan City, the number was 87 (4.5% of total enrollment); at Muncie South, it was 83 (over 8%); at Warren Central, it was 94 (2.5%); and so on. 

So while the new "official" graduation rate has inched up to 85%, these and other concerns suggest, once again, that we are dealing with false numbers. Indeed, our own estimates, using several national calculation methods, suggest that the real graduation rate (without waivers) remains at a dismal 70%. That actually is an improvement over the last several years and appears to be a reversal of a steady decline that had occurred since the early 1990s. But it is a far cry from the 85% that is reported officially by the state. 

Representative Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis), chair of the House Education Committee, has already announced that he will have legislation in 2013 to address these issues. Having worked with Rep. Behning 10 years ago to address the previous problems with our state data, we are pleased to see his leadership again. Meanwhile, be leery of the claims that you may be hearing. We sure wish that those gains were real. Indeed, we need them to be real, but the true data strongly suggest otherwise.

School Leaders Offer Promising Reform Message

This will likely be the longest blog post you will find on these pages. But that’s OK, because it probably is the most important.

It’s a message about fixing schools, something you’ve seen and heard plenty of times in the past. But on this occasion the authors are 16 superintendents or other leaders of major school districts across the country. One of the 16 is Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White.

These are some of the reforms needed to save our schools and, more importantly, the young people who are our future. Read this, pass it along to others and do what you can to help make a difference.

As educators, superintendents, chief executives and chancellors responsible for educating nearly 2 1/2 million students in America, we know that the task of reforming the country’s public schools begins with us. It is our obligation to improve the personal growth and academic achievement of our students, and we must be accountable for how our schools perform.

All of us have taken steps to move our students forward, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has been the catalyst for more reforms than we have seen in decades. But those reforms are still outpaced and outsized by the crisis in public education.

Fortunately, the public, and our leaders in government, are finally paying attention. The "Waiting for ‘Superman’ " documentary, the defeat of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark’s public schools, and a tidal wave of media attention have helped spark a national debate and presented us with an extraordinary opportunity.

But the transformative changes needed to truly prepare our kids for the 21st-century global economy simply will not happen unless we first shed some of the entrenched practices that have held back our education system, practices that have long favored adults, not children. These practices are wrong, and they have to end now.

It’s time for all of the adults — the superintendents, educators, elected officials, labor unions and parents — to start acting like we are responsible for the future of children. Because right now, across the country, kids are stuck in failing schools, just waiting for us to do something.

So, where do we start? With the basics. As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.

Yet, for too long, we have let teacher hiring and retention be determined by archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials. The widespread policy of "last in, first out" (the teacher with the least seniority is the first to go when cuts have to be made) makes it harder to hold on to new, enthusiastic educators and ignores the one thing that should matter most: performance.

A 7-year-old girl won’t make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master’s degree — she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success. By contrast, a poorly performing teacher can hold back hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the course of a career. Each day that we ignore this reality is precious time lost for children preparing for the challenges of adulthood.

The glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher — and our discomfort as a society with criticizing anyone who chooses this noble and difficult profession — has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.

There isn’t a business in America that would survive if it couldn’t make personnel decisions based on performance. That is why everything we use in assessing teachers must be linked to their effectiveness in the classroom and focused on increasing student achievement.

District leaders also need the authority to use financial incentives to attract and retain the best teachers. When teachers are highly effective — measured in significant part by how well students are doing academically — or are willing to take a job in a tough school or in a hard-to-staff subject area such as advanced math or science, we should be able to pay them more. Important initiatives, such as the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, are helping bring great educators to struggling communities, but we have to change the rules to professionalize teaching.

Let’s stop ignoring basic economic principles of supply and demand and focus on how we can establish a performance-driven culture in every American school — a culture that rewards excellence, elevates the status of teachers and is positioned to help as many students as possible beat the odds. We need the best teacher for every child, and the best principal for every school. Of course, we must also do a better job of providing meaningful training for teachers who seek to improve, but let’s stop pretending that everyone who goes into the classroom has the ability and temperament to lift our children to excellence.

Even the best teachers — those who possess such skills — face stiff challenges in meeting the diverse needs of their students. A single elementary- or middle-school classroom can contain, for instance, students who read on two or three different grade levels, and that range grows even wider as students move into high school. Is it reasonable to expect a teacher to address all the needs of 25 or 30 students when some are reading on a fourth-grade level and others are ready for Tolstoy? We must equip educators with the best technology available to make instruction more effective and efficient. By better using technology to collect data on student learning and shape individualized instruction, we can help transform our classrooms and lessen the burden on teachers’ time.

To make this transformation work, we must also eliminate arcane rules such as "seat time," which requires a student to spend a specific amount of time in a classroom with a teacher rather than taking advantage of online lessons and other programs.

Just as we must give teachers and schools the capability and flexibility to meet the needs of students, we must give parents a better portfolio of school choices. That starts with having the courage to replace or substantially restructure persistently low-performing schools that continuously fail our students. Closing a neighborhood school — whether it’s in Southeast D.C., Harlem, Denver or Chicago — is a difficult decision that can be very emotional for a community. But no one ever said leadership is easy.

We also must make charter schools a truly viable option. If all of our neighborhood schools were great, we wouldn’t be facing this crisis. But our children need great schools now — whether district-run public schools or public charter schools serving all students — and we shouldn’t limit the numbers of one form at the expense of the other. Excellence must be our only criteria for evaluating our schools.

For the wealthiest among us, the crisis in public education may still seem like someone else’s problem, because those families can afford to choose something better for their kids. But it’s a problem for all of us — until we fix our schools, we will never fix the nation’s broader economic problems. Until we fix our schools, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will only grow wider and the United States will fall further behind the rest of the industrialized world in education, rendering the American dream a distant, elusive memory.

The authors: Joel Klein, chancellor, New York City Department of Education; Michelle Rhee, chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools; Peter C. Gorman, superintendent, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (N.C.); Ron Huberman, chief executive, Chicago Public Schools; Carol R. Johnson, superintendent, Boston Public Schools; Andrés A. Alonso, chief executive, Baltimore City Public Schools; Tom Boasberg, superintendent, Denver Public Schools; Arlene C. Ackerman, superintendent of schools, the School District of Philadelphia; William R. Hite Jr., superintendent, Prince George’s County Public Schools; Jean-Claude Brizard, superintendent of schools, Rochester City School District (N.Y.); José M. Torres, superintendent, Illinois School District U-46; J. Wm. Covington, superintendent, Kansas City, Missouri School District; Terry B. Grier, superintendent of schools, Houston Independent School District; Paul Vallas, superintendent, New Orleans Recovery School District; Eugene White, superintendent, Indianapolis Public Schools; LaVonne Sheffield, superintendent of Rockford Public Schools (Illinois).

Bennett Stresses Reward for Quality Teaching Over Seniority

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett spoke to the Columbia City Rotary Club Tuesday and emphasized his hope to keep the best teachers in Indiana’s school corporations. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette has the story; here it is in full:

Indiana public schools need to be centers for student learning, not employment agencies for adults, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said Tuesday.

Teacher contracts need to be overhauled so that if layoffs occur, it’s the worst-performing teachers who lose their jobs, not the ones with the least seniority, Bennett told members of the Columbia City Rotary Club.

“We have to have the political courage to have any and every discussion that puts children first,” Bennett said. “We’ve built a system that really doesn’t do that. So I think we all have to have the courage to say what are the structures that will afford us the opportunity to make decisions that are best for Indiana children.”

Bennett echoed the sentiments of Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White, who told legislators this session he would be in favor of repealing the law that allows collective bargaining for teachers so he could overhaul his schools with the right people in the right spots.

Bennett offered a four-point system for how Indiana’s schools can become the best in the nation.

He compared these goals with President John F. Kennedy’s goal he outlined Sept. 12, 1962, that the United States win the race to the moon.

“I think we need to go back to Sept. 12, 1962, if we’re going to talk about education,” Bennett said. “The world our kids compete in today is very different than the world in 1962.”

Bennett is challenging Hoosiers to acknowledge that students are in a competition for jobs; change the discussion from how to get more money for education to how to get more education for the money; put student learning before assuring jobs for adults; and develop a system that recruits, trains, rewards and evaluates teachers as professionals.

“We have to take a hard look at how we expend our resources,” Bennett said.

Among the goals for the Indiana Department of Education during Bennett’s first term, he said, is for 90 percent of Hoosier students to pass the ISTEP+ and for 90 percent to graduate high school.

“If this is a fight we’re afraid of fighting, we’re in trouble,” Bennett said.

Hat tip to twitter.com/INEducation.

K-12 Funding Crucial in Budget Debate

Money money money money MONEY. Some people got to have it.
 
For Democrats working on the state budget, that last lyric has been amended to: Some districts got to have it.   
 
The D’s are pushing hard to protect K-12 school funding for districts rather than students. In other words, enrollment numbers be damned; urban districts, which have historically received higher funding levels than others, should stay that way regardless!
 
Thanks to items called the “minimum guarantee” and the “deghoster,” declining districts like Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) have continued year after year to receive annual funding increases – even as enrollment levels have declined dramatically. Today, most of these urban districts get far more funding per student than rural or suburban schools. 
 
The Indiana Chamber’s education expert, Derek Redelman, notes that the state currently provides IPS with over $8,500 per student – far more than the $6,500 state average. When federal funds are included, the total for IPS rises to more than $9,400 per student, while the state average is just over $6,700. The numbers are even higher – over $15,000 for IPS – when local property taxes are included.
 
Yet, IPS Superintendent Eugene White today (one of a seemingly endless stream of testifiers, most of whom can now venture to the Statehouse committee rooms in their sleep) came before the budget conference committee with his hands out for more. Despite fewer and fewer students and additional increases in per pupil funding, White contends the money IPS gets from the state is still not enough. 
 
White had no answer for Rep. Brandt Hershman (R-Monticello) when asked what districts should be cut to give IPS more money or whether he would support a tax increase to give his district more money. 

According to Redelman, “This is the epicenter of our current budget debate. Democrats firmly back districts while Republicans want to fund students.”
 
Just how wide is the gap?
 
After it was noted that IPS funding would take a cut under the Senate budget bill (though it would get one of the largest increases per pupil) while the growing Hamilton Southeastern district would see an increase (but a cut on a per pupil basis), Rep. Bill Crawford (D-Indianapolis) imparted this bit of logic:

“We (the Democrats) are looking for a way to make K-12 education (funding) more equitable. If we have to bring the top (funded schools in the Senate plan) down to bring the bottom up, I’m for it.”