Are Children Learning

How Indiana’s A-F rules created a two-tiered system that benefits innovation schools

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
School 79 would receive an A if it were graded on growth alone, which is an option for innovation schools.

Cold Spring School and School 79 were standouts on the recent ISTEP test. At both schools, more kids passed the state exam than the average for Indianapolis Public Schools, and their students made solid gains over last year.

So why did Cold Spring earn an A from the state while School 79 received a C?

It’s largely because Indiana lawmakers decided to judge some schools by a more generous yardstick than others.

Most elementary and middle schools are graded based on two factors: how their students score on state tests, and how much their scores improved. New schools and schools that join the IPS innovation network can opt to be graded for three years based only on the second measure, known as growth.

Advocates say the two-tiered system makes sense because schools shouldn’t be held accountable for the low passing rates of students that they just began educating. But in practice, the policy benefits charter and innovation schools, which enjoy strong support from Republican lawmakers.

It raises the question of whether grades that were supposed to be easy for parents to understand are too distorted to be clear.

“When you start evaluating otherwise identical schools using different measures … that is not informative,” said Marcus Winters, a Boston University researcher who has found benefits to grading schools. “It’s hiding information.”

Because Cold Spring became an innovation school last year, it was graded based on growth alone. If it were graded using the same rules as School 79, it also would’ve received a C from the state. That’s a huge improvement over the F it received last year, but it’s not as remarkable as the A that appears on its report card.

Cold Spring is not unique. Six of the eight innovation schools graded received As from the state. But only one innovation school — Phalen Leadership Academy at School 93 — would’ve gotten that grade under the rules used for grading other schools.

At 18 traditional neighborhood and magnet schools in IPS, students made large enough gains on the state test that the schools would’ve received top marks if they were innovation schools. But instead, they were given Bs, Cs, Ds and even an F. (Years of repeated low letter grades can trigger state intervention or takeover.)

The disparities have led to backlash from education advocates who are skeptical of partnering with outside operators at innovation schools. IPS leaders began creating innovation schools three years ago as a way to turn around chronically struggling schools, give more freedom to successful principals and pull charter schools under the district umbrella. The schools are managed by outside nonprofit or charter partners, and their teachers are not part of the district union.

Education advocate and lawyer MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger pointed out that this grading quirk can have cascading effects that stack the deck in favor of outsourcing of school management.

The favorable treatment on state grades (which translate into eligibility for state and federal grants and higher ratings on school and real estate marketing sites like Great Schools and Niche and Zillow, and bragging rights to parents on the new IPS/charter school combined enrollment assignment company Enroll Indy) is the incentive to convince more financially struggling school districts throughout the state to do the same thing,” she wrote on Facebook.

Jon Valant, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies school choice, said that the inconsistency seems troubling. But there are benefits to judging schools by growth because operators are not penalized for restarting schools that have chronically low passing rates.

“In principle, it’s growth that is the sort of true reflection of what schools are actually doing,” he said.

Many innovation schools are making real progress when it comes to student scores on state tests. But even schools that are not benefit from the system. For example, at one innovation school, Kindezi Academy at School 69, passing rates and student growth fell from 2016 to 2017, but the letter grade nonetheless rose from an F to a D. Because it became an innovation school last year, its low passing rate is no longer pulling the grade down.

The growth-only grading scheme was also used at two IPS schools that were considered new: Center for Inquiry at School 70, which received an A, and the now-closed Arlington Middle School, which nonetheless received an F.

The rule change for grading innovation schools had wide support when lawmakers approved it in 2016, including from IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee who said he wanted innovation schools to get “a fresh start.”

Rep. Bob Behning, the Indianapolis Republican who authored the innovation school legislation, said he thought innovation schools should have the same options that exist for other new schools.

“Innovation network schools generally are new schools or reconfigured schools, so it’s not just schools that have changed their names,” Behning said. “So we decided that it made sense because we allowed charters to have that same flexibility.”

But the rules don’t just apply to new or restarted schools — they apply to any school that joins the innovation network. As a result, even schools like Cold Spring and KIPP Indy, which were not restarted when they became innovation schools, are treated like they are brand new. Like Cold Spring, KIPP got an A under the growth-only model — after years of C and D grades.

The two-tiered system could be short-lived. Behning said he anticipates that the grading system will change in several ways as the state overhauls the way it evaluates schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“I think the differences between the combined letter grade and the growth-only (grade) will hopefully be mitigated in the new model, so it won’t have such stark differences,” Behning said. “The goal wasn’t just to give them a pass and not to have to hold them to the same level of accountability.”

Here is the full list of the grades new and innovation schools in Indianapolis Public Schools would have received if they were graded based on growth and proficiency.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.