Is the worm turning?

Indiana has been one of the most school reform-loving states in recent years — at least, that is, until now. Here is a look at what is happening there, by Karen Francisco, editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette, where this appeared. She has worked there since 2000 and for Indiana newspapers since 1982. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email, kfrancisco@jg.net.

By Karen Francisco

How much does Indiana love school reform? So much that the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-controlled group drafting boilerplate laws for state legislatures across the country, named its education package the “Indiana Education Reform Package.”

So much that a campy “Education Reform Idol” contest conducted by the right-leaning Fordham Institute crowned Indiana the “Reformiest State” for 2011.

So much that the defeat of state schools chief Tony Bennett last November slowed but didn’t stop education measures in the last session of the General Assembly.

But make no mistake: Indiana’s love affair with so-called school reform is cooling. Serious cracks are showing in the relationship between lawmakers and anti-labor, pro-privatization forces that have fueled the so-called reform with millions in campaign contributions.

Some clues:

• Efforts to dilute the authority of Superintendent Glenda Ritz, Bennett’s successor, were quickly doused by a handful of legislative leaders early in the session. Whether it was a genuine effort to recognize the electorate’s wishes or a plan to delay until attention wanes in the next session, the newly elected state official was afforded a chance to be heard on legislation.

• A rebellion against the Common Core State Standards resulted in Indiana’s becoming the first state to delay instituting the national standards. It took opposition to the standards from the GOP’s far-right flank to catch lawmakers’ attention, but continuing scrutiny now has tea party groups questioning the reform movement overall.

• Recent disruption of ISTEP+ testing was met not with the usual acceptance by Indiana educators, but with widespread complaints. Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, announced the district would not accept test scores without third-party validation. Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. Superintendent David Smith questioned the validity of scores even for those students who did not lose computer connections during testing.

The signs of reform pushback come as no surprise to Phyllis Bush, who retired from South Side High School as an English teacher and department chair in 1999. She became a vocal critic of the school reform movement about two years ago after attending a town hall meeting by an area legislator who seemed to know little about the bills being pushed on schools and instead deferred to one of Bennett’s assistant superintendents to respond.

“A roomful of teachers asked some pretty good questions about charters and vouchers,” Bush said. “I was completely appalled by his smugness.”

After attending a Washington rally for public schools, she mobilized a group of Fort Wayne residents to establish the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education. Energized by education historian Diane Ravitch’s appearances in Bloomington and at IPFW’s Omnibus Lecture, the group jumped in to help elect a new state superintendent. Since Ritz’s election night upset, they have continued to monitor so-called reform measures and kept up a relentless letter-writing campaign.

“Whether it’s vouchers or charters or ISTEP, people are beginning to see it’s all about money,” Bush said. “I think that’s where some are missing the boat. Hoosiers care about taxes. If you put the emphasis on the fiscal responsibility – how the reformers are sending money to out-of-state corporations, how they are using our kids to make money – that’s how you get people’s attention.”

The full brunt of the reform movement has fallen on those training future teachers and administrators. John Jacobson, dean of the Teachers College at Ball State University, has overseen efforts there to adapt to curriculum demands, teacher licensing changes, school choice initiatives and more. He’s trying to determine how big a role the changes have played in decreasing undergraduate enrollment in teacher-preparation programs, an effect seen not just at Ball State but at other Midwest schools of education. The college surveyed students, recent alumni and school principals to ask how it was doing in preparing teachers, with feedback overwhelmingly positive.

“So the question is: Why is there a decline in our region? That still has to be answered,” Jacobson said. “Is the perception of our young people that education is not an attractive field?”

He pointed to results of a Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll that showed increasing numbers of respondents agreeing that they would encourage a young person to study education, but acknowledged that something seems to be turning students away.

“When they start getting to high school, they start hearing the rhetoric,” he said. “You can’t count it out. In Indiana, teachers in the last few years have been pretty demoralized. Since the election, they are sort of holding their breaths. … I hope we can put aside our differences and devote the appropriate resources to education.”

A new direction in Indiana education policy, initiated by Ritz’s election, seems to be developing along with the growing national backlash. John Tierney, writing for Atlantic.com, predicts a revolution.

“Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms’ ill effects and of the reformers’ self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding,” he wrote in April. “I predict it will continue to gain strength and gradually lead to the undoing of these market-based education reforms.”

Bush, the retired Fort Wayne educator, is involved in its undoing at the national level. Her grassroots activism here caught the attention of Ravitch and Anthony Cody, a California educator and Education Week blogger, who asked her to serve as a director for their newly formed Network for Public Education, established to “protect, preserve, promote and strengthen public schools.”

The national group is a powerful answer to organizations like Stand for Children, StudentsFirst and the American Federation for Children, which have funneled millions in contributions to candidates – from sources obscured by insufficient campaign finance reporting requirements.

The public education supporters are showing success in pushing back. A fifth-grade teacher named Monica Ratliff raised only $52,000 but managed to win a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District board last month. Her opponent had $2.2 million in campaign contributions from the pro-reform groups and their wealthy funders.

News coverage is beginning to take a more critical look at so-called reform. John Merrow, a veteran education reporter for PBS and NPR, chronicled Michelle Rhee’s stormy tenure as chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, joining many others in affording her more attention than her accomplishments warranted. Now, after uncovering a memo that linked the divisive “Waiting for Superman” figure to the district’s cheating scandal, Merrow is calling out those who have supported Rhee and declined to investigate her involvement.

Parents are beginning to join the fray, as well. A growing number are joining opt-out movements, keeping their children at home on testing days to protest high-stakes assessments. Look for more resistance as word spreads about inBloom, an education data portal funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and federal grants. Some Common Core critics are complaining that it represents the next step in creating a national database, with student privacy at risk.

Those questioning reform measures might come from diverse quarters, but they shouldn’t be labeled as resistant to change. After all, they mostly accepted the changes until the ill effects of reform became too great to ignore.

Instead of rejecting the concerns of experienced educators like Bush, Jacobson and many more who have pointed to flaws, state and federal policymakers would be better served by listening to and incorporating their ideas.

If they don’t, overreach by the reformers and the growing resistance is likely to stop all changes dead in their tracks.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 14, 2013