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In defense of Indiana's effective teachers

Stand for Children, a political advocacy group closely aligned with education privatization efforts, issued a report Tuesday critical of Indiana's teacher evaluation models. Corporate reform groups have been unhappy with results of the recently released evaluations from 2012-13, which overwhelmingly showed Indiana teachers are effective or highly effective. The results, of course, are contrary to the narrative pushed by the reformers.

Stand for Children, with a fascinating history of political activity, is calling on Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and her Department of Education to audit evaluation models created by local schools. The reform group analyzed evaluation results at six districts, including Fort Wayne Community Schools and Northwest Allen County Schools.

Stand for Children clearly supports the rigid RISE evaluation model developed by former state Superintendent Tony Bennett's staff. Districts also were permitted to develop their own models, provided they included student test scores as a measure.

The political group's claims have drawn a spirited response from Superintendent Chris Himsel of Northwest Allen County Schools. In an email, he said it was time to speak out on behalf of local control versus a one-size-fits-all model.

Perhaps the most important point Himsel makes is that a school district's results are not the work of a single person, but the contributions of all of the district's employees, parents and guardians and the larger school community. Taxpayers should consider that point as state policymakers spend more time and resources prescribing an evaluation model to meet their specific political objectives.

Northwest Allen's response:

Stand for Children released a review of the implementation of Public Law 90 and implies that the 95% of Northwest Allen County Schools teachers did not earn their Effective or Highly Effective rating. Below is a response to this inaccurate depiction of our evaluation system.

Northwest Allen County Schools is proud of the outstanding job our teachers do with students each and every day. We are proud of their commitment to create a healthy and safe learning environment that engages each student in high quality, meaningful learning activities, supports each student as they confront individual learning obstacles, and challenges each student to achieve more than they ever previously believed was possible.

We are also proud of the achievement of our students. In each of the past three years, Carroll High School graduates have performed as well or better than any other school in the state, including private schools such as Fort Wayne Canterbury and Indianapolis Cathedral, on a variety of metrics established by the State of Indiana to determine school accountability grades, such as graduation rates and college and career readiness metrics. Recently, U.S. News and World Report recognized Carroll High School as one of the nation’s best public high schools. Five of our schools were recognized as Indiana Four Star Schools. All ten of our schools earned an accountability grade of A or B.

The results are not a reflection of the work completed by a single classroom teacher. The results are a reflection of the collective work done by nearly 900 employees, including teachers, more than 6,800 students, each and every parent or guardian with whom we work, and a community committed to educational excellence. We are proud of the work being done each and every day by all of our teachers, support staff, and administrators to help each and every student living within our attendance area achieve and grow educationally, including students with limited or no previous English language acquisition or with a variety of special learning needs.

We are able to help our students achieve because we understand and believe that test scores do not measure everything that a child needs or learns. Therefore, we do deemphasize the role that ISTEP+ plays in our evaluation system. Despite consistently being one of the lowest funded Indiana school districts in terms of per student funding from the State (the lowest in 2013 when referendums are taken into consideration), enduring significant budget cuts like all other public school districts in 2010 and 2011 that have yet to be restored in relation to the rate of inflation (NACS 2015 per student funding is projected to be about the same as NACS 2009 per student funding) resulting in layoffs prior to the 2010-11 school year and 3% pay cuts for each employee before the start of the 2011-12 school year and zero cost of living increases until 2013-14 school year (and only for those teachers earning Effective and Highly Effective evaluation ratings), and continuing to endure significant and ongoing property tax cap revenue losses, Northwest Allen County Schools continues to be one of the highest performing school districts in the state. For five consecutive years, graduation rates have exceeded 93% and the past three graduating classes have earned graduation rates that exceeded 95% and about 30% of the class of 2012 (the most recent data on the DOE website) earned a 3, 4, or 5 on at least one AP test. Our students are also very competitive in applying their knowledge and skills in a variety of ways including through meaningful job internships with local employers and through state, and in some cases national, competitions in speech/debate, culinary arts, FFA, LEGO League, band, choir, color guard, radio/TV, We the People, scholastic art, scholastic writing, and athletic competitions.

Despite implementing the new evaluation procedures without additional funding support for training or evaluators and as we have done before the change in evaluation laws, we continue to work with teachers to improve instruction beginning on the first day of employment and do not wait for an adverse ISTEP+ score. Our teachers are committed to lifelong learning and do not stop. The commitment they demonstrate towards mastering their craft is appreciated.

Stand for Children seems disappointed that more teachers are not rated as ineffective by current evaluation systems. Among their recommended solutions to the low number of ineffective teachers is to socialize the education system even further and centralize even more authority to the State, standardize the system even more, and continue diminishing local control and accountability representative of local community values. Ironically, we have enjoyed the opportunity to meet with and learn from Chinese principals and government officials who visit our schools to learn how to change their educational practices to rely less on standardized testing and less on standardization of the education profession while increasing their students’ ability to apply knowledge and skills.

We are not disappointed that we do not have more ineffective teachers. Instead, we are proud to work with so many teachers who strive to help students succeed. As a result of their commitment, we are blessed to have our children engaged, supported, and challenged in meaningful learning activities created by an outstanding teaching staff.

ISTEP+ results are a snapshot of current individual student performance on very limited criteria measured on only a few of the 180 days that students are engaged in learning activities at school. We place more value on working directly with teachers to improve their craft regardless of our students’ current high performance on ISTEP+. Even though most students spend less than 15% of their childhood in schools, we try to achieve as much as possible within this small slice of their lives. Therefore, our evaluation system is based on teacher performance on all 180 days that teachers engage students in meaningful learning activities, not just the few days that students lose instructional time to complete the ISTEP+ tests.

At best, ISTEP+ scores are partial reflections of what occurs in our schools and our teacher’s classrooms. At worst, ISTEP+ scores reflect a flawed and inaccurate system. This does not mean that we ignore the results. Our commitment as a school district continues to be meeting the individual needs of each student and not to particular programs or accountability systems. ISTEP+, and any other government mandated testing program, continues to be and always will be one piece of the achievement puzzle and not the only source of information that we use to determine success or failure of various educational programs. We also consider a variety of other measures such as NWEA scores, Accelerated Reader scores, other standardized reading assessments, locally developed common assessments that are aligned with Indiana standards in each of our subject areas, formative classroom performance measures that are also aligned with Indiana standards in each of our subject areas, Advanced Placement (AP) scores, graduation rates, types of diplomas earned, college success rates, industry certifications earned, student, parent, and local business survey results and feedback, and other relevant and reliable formative measures in order to determine future instructional needs and our progress towards helping each student achieve and excel in life, not necessarily on tests. We pay more attention to those measures that determine a student's progress toward creatively applying, evaluating, synthesizing, and integrating knowledge in multiple and varied scenarios than we pay to those measures that quantify a student’s ability to regurgitate standardized information on government mandated tests.

Varied classroom activities along with co-curricular and extra-curricular programs are important in providing students with multiple opportunities to use and demonstrate the knowledge they acquire. Our focus remains on the overall achievement growth of each individual student within the context of the total puzzle of student achievement. Our goal is to help each student acquire knowledge AND help them learn how to use, evaluate, synthesize, and integrate the acquired knowledge in a manner that helps them contribute positively to our community

Yes, it is true that we delayed the implementation of Tier 2 and Tier 3 assessments into our evaluation plan. The reason for this delay was to realign our local assessment program to the new Indiana Academic Standards, which were going to include the Common Core, but then the Common Core was paused, then the Common Core was repealed, and only recently were new Indiana Academic Standards adopted. Therefore, the lack of commitment from the state delayed this process by two years. And even though formal use of Tier 2 and Tier 3 assessments is not a part of our current practice, we do evaluate, provide feedback, and work towards continuous improvement in the way our teachers define learning targets and informally assess progress towards achieving these learning targets to inform future instruction. This is accomplished by frequently visiting the classroom for formal observations or informal classroom visits and providing immediate feedback, such as confirmation of great work or suggestions for improvement, not by waiting for ISTEP+ results to show up in late May or early June.

Until a few weeks ago, none of the more than 290 Indiana school corporations could align assessments to the Indiana academic standards. Unlike the standards adoption process which was completed in about three months, Northwest Allen County Schools will methodically engage in a process of realigning our local curriculum and assessments to ensure that our students are prepared for life after high school and for the anticipated onslaught of revised government mandated testing. We will complete this task after meaningful thought so that we remain true to serving each and every student that we serve.

I am proud of all of the progress that each of our students attains. Additionally, I am proud of the work of each of our teachers, support staff, and administrators. Each member of the Northwest Allen County Schools community is excited and appreciative of the opportunity to serve so many children who have parents committed to and engaged in helping her/his child(ren) maximize her/his learning potential. Northwest Allen County Schools reflects the values of our local community by working each day to create caring, community schools that inspire and encourage each child to learn, hope, dream, appreciate, create, innovate, integrate, excel, participate, and contribute.

In the meantime, we remain committed to meeting the varied needs of our students. We believe these needs extend beyond what is measured on a test or reflected by a test score. We also believe the needs of students and the purposes of education extend further and are more varied than being able to learn standardized information and regurgitate it on a standardized test. Our purpose is to educate students and help them achieve their dreams, not prepare for standardized tests. We will remain steadfast in our purpose of creating a healthy and safe learning environment that engages each student in high quality, meaningful learning activities, supports each student as they confront individual learning obstacles, and challenges each student to achieve more than they ever previously believed was possible in a culture of achievement and excellence.

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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