You don't have to care about education issues to dislike the latest pitch from Indiana's so-called school reformers. The A-F accountability plan proposed by the State Board of Education is a textbook example of government inefficiency and waste. It duplicates a sound accountability plan created by the Indiana Department of Education and adds on a costly testing requirement ill-suited for the purpose of grading schools.
Educators, including state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, have objected to the state board's proposal, which would result in schools receiving two sets of letter grades. State board members should also hear objections from parents and taxpayers.
“Beyond just having two grades and all of the confusion, you have consequences tied to those,” McCormick said in an interview Wednesday. “Where I might be a 'B' in one system, I might be a 'D' in another.”
Where school support under the federally approved plan is labeled as “comprehensive” or “targeted,” the same school might have a different label under the state plan, she explained.
“You have federal monies tied to that. You have letter-grade consequences tied to that. You have takeover tied to that,” McCormick said. “So you have a lot of confusion – because in one system you're fine; in another you're in takeover. And that's a problem.”
At a field hearing last week at Fort Wayne's Ivy Tech campus, dozens of area school administrators objected to the proposal. Several questioned the plan to require all Indiana high school students to take the SAT exam – a test developed to determine college aptitude, not academic growth and proficiency. Others noted the proposal would punish schools serving students from poverty.
Brent Lehman, superintendentof North Adams Community Schools, called out “the governor, some members of the state board, the state board staff and Indiana Chamber of Commerce” in his remarks.
He elaborated after the hearing.
“These are the people who are setting all of these policies and have been for awhile, so if things aren't going the way they are supposed to go, well ...,” he said, with a shrug. “We're trying to do what they tell us to do, but that doesn't seem to be working either.”
State board members Steve Yager, retired superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools, and Cari Whicker, principal of Southern Wells Elementary School, don't support the current proposal.
“There's no data analysis or research on any of the changes that were recommended,” Yager said. “And I'm still conflicted with the fact that Indiana's (Every Student Succeeds Act) plan is one of the top 10 in the country and the feds say, 'Go to Indiana and see how it's done.'”
The accountability plan created by McCormick's Department of Education, with input from educators statewide, is a sound one.
“Indiana's plan deserves high marks as a model for other states not only for its content, but also for ease in readability and clarity,” according to an independent review by Bellwether Education Partners. “Indiana's A-F school rating system is clear and straightforward, and it relies on a small number of important, proven indicators of student success. It effectively balances growth and proficiency, and it goes beyond test scores in reading and math.”
Whicker was a member of a group involved in drafting Indiana's federal accountability plan.
“I had the opportunity to work with educators across the state and various interest groups, including parents. I felt like we had a really good plan,” she said last week. “I feel that's the direction we need to move in, and I would like to see our state plan more closely aligned to that. It had great input from all stakeholders. I will be disheartened if we end up moving away from those things.”
The concerns expressed by McCormick, Yager and Whicker point to the continuing divide in education policy circles. While the open hostility between the State Board of Education and former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz ended with McCormick's election, philosophical differences remain. A majority of state board members, appointed by the governor, are backing policies proposed by the board's growing professional staff, which comprises mostly non-educators. Yager and Whicker are among the few members of the state board with a background in traditional K-12 education, and McCormick has proven to be a strong partner with educators statewide, actively seeking their input on the department.
The state superintendent acknowledged the divide between her department and the state board.
“I will be honest – I've made no secret of it. I think the governance structure can be tough. We have been committed to making sure we're being good partners and sometimes we have a lot of cooks in the kitchen – it becomes difficult,” McCormick said. “We're really working at that, but we understand we don't set policy, we implement it. Yet, we're now into an arena where the state board is setting policy and setting rules, and they're also implementing pieces. My fear is beyond just the efficiencies of that. I worry about confusion to those who are at the local level – about who do you contact? Who is doing what? Who is responsible? My goal is to be a good partner because that calms down at the local level; there's less chaos. But, it is a tough governance structure ... it's very difficult to operate that way.”
It's not just difficult. It is unwise and inefficient for state policy to come increasingly from an appointed board and staff made up mostly of non-educators. The accountability plan differences reveal a stark truth: It's not a partisan divide at work. McCormick is a Republican, as are a majority of the state board members. It's the gulf between a professional education community dedicated to serving Indiana students and political appointees intent on instituting policies not based on research or data. The latter group is not serving taxpayers or students well.