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Learning Curve

  • An F for transparency
    “Look at this shiny thing over here!” – Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, Oct. 14, 2014.
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Show us the data

The new Republican majority in the Indiana House is shoving education legislation through so quickly that it's difficult to choose even what's worthy of comment. There is one common theme, however. No one supporting these bills is offering any data or research to justify the vast transfer of taxpayer dollars from the public sector to private, parochial and – in some cases – for-profit groups.

Here's an excellent article from the Hechinger Report, via Politics Daily, on charter school effectiveness, with some insight from Indianapolis charter pioneer David Harris:

"(A)necdotal evidence and research from around the country suggest that charters, which still enroll only about 3 percent of all U.S. students, don't necessarily spur other public schools to improve. Indianapolis, which is known for having some of the worst public school districts in the country, provides a perfect example of how complex the notion can be.

"The thought was that 'a higher tide raises all boats,' " said David Harris, who served as former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson's right-hand man when the city's charter movement began nine years ago. "It's been a disappointment both in Indianapolis and around the country," Harris said."

At Monday's meeting of the Fort Wayne Community Schools, a clearly frustrated board President Mark GiaQuinta addressed the charter school push at the Statehouse, noting that it appeared to be driven by dissatisfaction with Indianapolis Public Schools.

GiaQuinta today shared this message with community members interested in public education. With his permission, here it is:

The current debate over charters and vouchers fails to address the single most important issue in the reform of education, which is the commitment to a strategy that individualizes instruction to enable the appropriate intervention to change the outcome for the student. That commitment has to be "owned" by the School Board, the Administration, the Building Leaders (Principals and Assistants) and, most importantly, the teaching professionals.

Each of the aforementioned has to demonstrate that commitment in different ways. For example, the Board has to commit to leave the implementation of the strategy to the Administration and the educators and limit its role to goal setting and the approval of policy that supports those goals. The Board has to approve budgets that reflect the district's goals and not allow itself to be diverted by demands that will not lead to high achievement for all students. The Board has to commit to support the Administration against those who oppose the strategy based on personal agendas or political (small "P") reasons. The Board has to explain the strategy to the community to counter those who believe that the status quo is acceptable. Finally, the Board should provide moral support to the Administration, Principals and Teachers in recognition of the sacrifices and effort that will be required to succeed.

The Administration has to commit to implementing the strategy by establishing metrics that determine whether the strategy is in the hands of the right leaders. The Administration has to commit to making necessary changes in personnel when it determines that those not able to grasp or implement the strategy have become obstacles to change. The Administration must also commit to giving building leaders and teachers the tools they need to succeed in the strategy and the support when the going gets rough.

Building leaders have a very difficult role. They must commit to overcome past allegiances based upon personal loyalties, local traditions, lowered expectations based upon cultural bias, and misplaced parental demands among other impediments to student achievement. They must commit to a new role that takes them out of the office and into the classroom where they can observe the instruction and provide constructive feedback to improve instruction. In summary, they cannot expect to lead a school from the Principal's Office.

Finally, teaching professionals have the most important role of all. They must be willing to accept a new job description, one much different than what they may have been taught. The teachers have to commit to using the data they have to help individual students achieve at a high level. They must be ready to admit that what they thought they knew about the students in their classrooms may not square with the student's actual level of performance. The teachers have to commit to throwing themselves into professional development with that same humility in order to improve their skills so that they have the best practices at their disposal to carry out the strategy approved and funded by the Board. Teachers have to resist the peer pressure from their colleagues who are unable to make the transition to a strategy based upon the belief that all students can achieve at grade level. This they must do in the face of unfair criticism directed at them by those who have no real understanding of what goes on in the classroom each day. They must persevere despite the current pop culture that perpetuates a myth that they are taking more than they contribute. They must succeed in an atmosphere that fails to recognize their success or acknowledge that many have been succeeding all along.

By now you should recognize that this outline for success has very little to do with the label attached to the "legal" form of the entity committed to improve education. FWCS will continue to pursue our goals regardless of the outcome of the legislative session and the likely reduction in resources available to the district. Our commitment is strong and our team has taken ownership of our goals. However, the blind acceptance that the state's performance will improve based upon the number of charters granted will make our job more difficult. It perpetuates the myth that a silver bullet exists in the name of charter schools that, once created, will result in higher achievement thereby justifying the dividing up of the funds necessary to educate our children. If a charter school has the commitment from top to bottom that FWCS has demonstrated, they too will experience our positive trends. If they do not, they will fail in the same way both traditional and charter public schools have failed in the past. It is that simple. Our question is equally simple, why should a shadow public system be funded in a district that is willing to commit itself to high achievement for all students?

-- Mark GiaQuinta, president, Fort Wayne Community Schools Board of Trustees

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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