News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

December 5, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Have you heard Indiana’s schools are failing? It’s a lie

TERRE HAUTE — In Gov. Mitch Daniels’ recent state budget PowerPoint, he put up a comparison chart: The percentage of Indiana public school students who’ve attained an advanced level of math achievement versus “the world.” Hoosiers lag behind the national average, trailing such states as Massachusetts, Oregon and New York, and such nations as Poland and Latvia.

The chart is just the sort of pithy and memorable comparison the governor and his state superintendent of schools favor in their ongoing public relations campaign for radical education reform. Never mind that the chart’s data are from 2006, that Indiana is flanked by Kansas and Delaware and trailed by many other states, or that Latvia and Poland have different testing benchmarks.

Never mind, especially, that current Hoosier students are doing better than the U.S. average in regular-level mathematics.

The chart is typical of Daniels’ and Superintendent Tony Bennett’s modus operandi: Pick out the flaws and weak points — or at least those that appear flawed and weak without real context — and offer them, repeatedly, as representative of a public education system Bennett calls a “mess” and compares to the BP oil spill.

It is a shrewd and effective strategy because education measurement — on which consensus is often patchy — is all about context. Accurate measurements are based on decades of analyses and bona fide comparisons of similar systems, not sound bites or apples-to-ice-skates match-ups. They take time to present and are mind numbing to non-educators.

To compound the task, legislative majorities, governors, presidents and U.S. secretaries of education come and go, and education standards shift accordingly in the political winds. Measurement standards are a moving target and differ among states and the feds.

If Daniels and Bennett want to persuade the public that Indiana students are dismally behind such states as Florida — with all its charter schools — in reading, it’s simple: They pull out a sliver of a National Assessment of Educational Progress report, focus on scores for fourth-graders and pronounce Hoosier kids’ efforts “stagnant” because the report shows that the percentage of Indiana fourth-graders who’ve managed basic reading levels has hovered between 64 and the current 70 percent since 1992, while Florida’s percentage has zoomed.

Never mind (again) that the entire national percentage is not only lower than Indiana’s, but also it’s “stagnant.” Never mind that Indiana’s eighth-graders out-performed the nation’s eighth-graders — and Florida’s — in reading.

When Daniels and Bennett speak of Indiana’s diverse, 292-district school system, they often use the kind of terms (and propose the kind of remedies) that apply to genuinely broken urban districts such as Baltimore, which had to choose radical reform in 2007 to rescue its failing system.

In truth, Indiana schools are “in the middle of the pack,” according to Terry Spradlin, director for education policy at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. “This is not a failing system,” he said.

Low-keyed, objective and overflowing with data from CEEP analyses, Spradlin knows a ton about Indiana public education and its place in America. He articulates the system’s problems and strengths. Of unproven reforms he cautions, “We have to be careful and not go too far … Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We’re not awful. We’re not bad. We’re mediocre to good.”

Most people agree that Hoosier schools can and should improve, Spradlin said, “The debate is always about how to drive school reform — and the debate will go on. There is not one silver bullet, not one panacea.”

Another alleged outrage offered by Indiana critics are “ghost students,” no longer enrolled in their former schools but costing Hoosier taxpayers $94 million last year. If you look no further than Bennett’s version of the story, you wonder who should be sent to jail first. But there is method in the seeming madness of “de-ghosting” the ghosts.

The process was adopted years ago to help schools and school districts in poorer areas absorb the funding shock from students who leave — for example, as a neighborhood’s fortunes go south or when a big factory shuts down and scatters families. Rather than cease the funding for a lost student or students — and negatively affect the courses and activities the diminished school can offer — de-ghosting spreads the pain over a period of years in districts serving the highest levels of students in poverty. First it was five years, now it’s three.

Maybe the practice is outdated or needs to be retooled, but that is not Daniels’ and Bennett’s approach. They offer it — without its history, intent and built-in limits — as a glaring example of the mindless waste that supposedly permeates the current school system.

Lies and statistics

To understand why it is so difficult for people who work within public education to defend against sound-bite vilification, one only need study numerous reports and performance analyses, as I have done since opening the door to this subject a couple of weeks ago.

Added to the alphabet soup of IEP, AYP, ISTEP+, NAEP and ACT is a disorienting landscape of shadowy numbers, the world Alice found down the rabbit hole. Take the subject of “student instructional expenditures.”

 Daniels and Bennett want the Legislature to require all Indiana school corporations to increase the percentage of those expenditures — the money spent in the classroom — from 61 percent to 65.

Sounds so reasonable and easy to execute, doesn’t it? Which is exactly how Daniels has presented his modest proposal.

“Only 61 cents of every dollar spent in our schools makes it to the classroom, even under liberal interpretation of what counts,” he said two years ago, when first proposing the idea. “Each one percent of improvement would mean over $100 million new dollars to hire more teachers, pay them better, make class sizes smaller, reduce the cost of textbooks, and so on. That’s a huge opportunity, and we must seize it.”

Who could argue with that?

Well, the Indiana Association of School Business Officials could, and for good reason. The IASBO is made up of the chief financial officers and other numbers crunchers in the state’s school districts. A detailed association position paper not only took issue with Daniels’ “only 61 cents” condemnation, but it pointed out that redirecting money from the state’s other education expenditure areas would be, largely, illegal.

Once again, some context is necessary.

There are four spending categories for public schools: Student Academic Achievement; Student Academic Support; Overhead and Operational; and Nonoperational.

The first two categories include money for teachers and aides, instructional materials, textbooks, principals, attendance monitoring, social workers, counselors for guidance, health and psychological issues, speech pathology, audiology and curriculum development, among other things. Money for these two categories is what Daniels means when he refers to what “makes it to the classroom.”

However, the other two categories, Overhead and Operational and Nonoperational, include some things that are fairly crucial to an education: The operation and maintenance of school facilities, security, pupil transportation, food services, technology, school district budgeting, payroll, accounting, acquisition and construction of new facilities, non-teaching equipment and debt service obligations.

As the IASBO report makes clear, state law prohibits most of the money in the latter two categories from being pulled out and shifted to “the classroom.” Further, the latter two categories are still funded through property tax revenues, which no longer may be used to fund the first two instructional/classroom categories. Change the law to allow monies to be shifted from the latter to the former, and you’ll have to make up the void in the latter with additional property tax levies.

Also, for the record, the percentage of monies spent “in the classroom” that is taken from the Special Education Preschool Fund and from what is, by far, the biggest education funding pool — the schools’ General Fund — is 85 percent, not 61 percent. The governor chose to use the low-ball figure even though it’s based on all funding pools, including those that can’t be shifted to the classroom.

You’re exemplary but you fail

Finally, here is an astounding but common example of what public school teachers and administrators are up against in the propaganda war declared upon them. Cinda Taylor, the principal of Terre Town Elementary School, wrote to me last week about the Kafkaesque Catch-22 created for her school by Congress’ controversial Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards and those of Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP+).

Taylor’s reference to “P.L. 221” regards Public Law 221, passed in 1999, which made ISTEP scores the dictator of all things good and bad for Indiana public schools. 

“Terre Town Elementary is considered by the federal government of the United States of America as a ‘failing’ school or ‘on improvement,’ based on the spring ISTEP+ results,” Taylor wrote. “Our school made AYP in every category except Special Education (English/Language Arts and Math). Recently, we received our P.L. 221 category placements based on the spring ISTEP+ results. In actuality, Terre Town Elementary School’s scores fall into the Exemplary Progress category, however, our placement has been capped! Due to our Special Ed. subgroup not meeting the [federal] target scores, the state says we cannot be placed in any category higher than Academic Progress due to our AYP results at the Federal level … How can a school be considered ‘Exemplary’ at the state level and ‘Failing’ at the federal level because of one subgroup? (Please keep in mind the same scores from ISTEP+ are being used to calculate both classifications.)”

If you got lost in the alphabet soup, this is how Taylor and her staff were sabotaged:

Congress says a specific percentage of a school’s students must pass the school’s state measurement test (ISTEP+ in Indiana) or be designated “failing” or “on improvement.” The test pool includes any “subgroups” of 30 or more kids, such as an ethnic minority, recent immigrants who don’t speak English, or special education students who are cognitively disabled. This year, the federal pass percentage is 72 in English, 71 in math.

Everybody but the special education students at Terre Town excelled, scoring in the 90-percent-range Exemplary category on ISTEP. But the school’s overall federal success was doomed when less than 72 percent of scores from its large group of special ed kids was passing.

That’s the Kafka. Here’s the Catch 22: Indiana law says that if a school’s federal AYP mark is not met, then it doesn’t matter how well most of the student body performed on ISTEP. The entire school cannot be rated any higher than dead center, or “Academic Progress.” Next year, when the new Tony Bennett labeling system of A,B,C,D or F replaces Exemplary, Academic Progress, etc., all of Terre Town’s hard work and high ISTEP scores would rate it nothing more than a C. 

Taylor closed her note: “It is absolutely heart wrenching to see my staff in tears upon hearing the AYP results!!!! They work diligently to provide quality educational experiences for our students. Is it logical to classify a school as ‘failing’ because our Special Education students cannot meet the same target scores as a student in the regular classroom?”

As I delve deeper into the world of public education measurement, I see that logic often has no bearing at all on what is done to the system in the name of “the children.”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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