Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Students End Up Losing

The good people at NUVO usually do a better job than this in their reporting (note that they only talked to politicians and union folks--how about some outside perspectives?).  Unfortunately, we need to clarify here: new standards mean new tests, which in this administration means outsourcing more public money out to private test companies.  BTW, there's no research at all that this move will improve achievement so, really, this is more smoke and mirrors, wasted effort that doesn't really help kids and teachers.  Another odd thing here is for Republicans to give up local control in education....hmm, it makes one wonder what's really going here in the Daniels strategy session.

Resetting the bar for state education

In the days preceding Indiana's adoption of new national education guidelines, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett's efforts at persuasion were met with what has come to typify teacher response to almost anything coming from the state: skepticism.
"It's very important to understand that this is a state-driven initiative," Bennett argued in an attempt to reassure a crowd assembled in Indianapolis earlier this month – part of the superintendent's recent statewide tour to meet with Indiana educators. "We have been on the ground floor in discussing these issues."
The new national guidelines, known as Common Core Standards, will eventually replace Indiana's current set of state mandates for gauging how and what students are taught. Earlier this month, Indiana became one of at least 33 states to have adopted the measure so far.
Bennett, like other local and federal officials, took pains to emphasize states' roles in crafting those standards at this month's meeting. But a cascade of guffaws and muffled laughs seemed to indicate not every teacher present was convinced the effort was locally-grown.
"That is the consensus from teachers around the state — that this was not really some local, home-grown decision," explained Teresa Meredith, vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA), a teachers union, and a teacher in Shelbyville. "But, hopefully, by working between Dr. Bennett and the ISTA, we can change that."
That the state is moving forward on Common Core at all is a change of pace given recent impasses between state and union leaders.
In April, Indiana educators failed to put together a bid for millions in cash from the federal government's Race to the Top program, aimed at spreading $4.35 billion among states that best exemplify the kinds of reform the government is looking for. The Common Core Standards were meant to be a part of that drive, and Indiana stood to gain up to $250 million in federal education subsidies for a winning bid.
But territorial issues between the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) and ISTA proved contentious. Disputes between the two groups torpedoed the bid at a time when the state has cut $297 million from schools for the current two-year budget – cuts that could get deeper if the latest state revenue numbers are any indication.
Such disputes have some wondering if state officials and educators will ever learn to get along – and how many more opportunities will fall by the wayside in the meantime.
Julie Havill-Weems, training director for the Indiana Parent and Information Resource Center (PIRC), a parents advocacy group, said it was "frustrating," when students missed out because state and union officials couldn't agree.  "When you aren't able to forge those strong partnerships that focus on student outcomes, with the loss of that prize, what we're really looking at is an example of the potential fallout that directly impacts our students," she said. "The students end up losing."
'A step in the right direction'
When President Barack Obama launched Race to the Top in 2009, his administration was careful distinguish it from the No Child Left Behind program put in place by his predecessor. Race to the Top, he explained, would focus instead on measuring growth and standardizing teaching, rather than on testing data.  Indiana got in line with 47 other states, each of which had to outline a plan for revamping its education program. The "Standards and Assessment" portion of the application was a major component for putting together a winning bid. It influenced Indiana's initial plan to adopt Common Core Standards as part of a reform package the state calls its Fast Forward plan.
Common Core was intended to better align Indiana's standards of instruction with those of schools across the nation. "We want to ensure our students are held to the highest academic standard," IDOE said in a statement at the time. "And we believe that the Common Core State Standards will position Indiana children well — nationally and internationally."
Indiana submitted its bid for round one of the program, but the initiative didn't get far. On March 15th, Bennett announced that Indiana was not selected as one of the 15 finalists.  IDOE soon began planning a second application, but announced April 22 that re-application would be virtually useless. Negotiations to curry support with the ISTA hadn't gained the necessary traction, and support from teacher unions was estimated at just 60 percent.
Today, although the state is no longer in the running for millions of federal dollars, Bennett says Common Core Standards are still worth implementing. He said federal money was never the primary draw: For example, that money could not have been used to fill the hole left by budget cuts, as some have suggested, only for costs associated with reform. It is unclear how those costs will be covered now.
"We think the reforms are essential and Indiana will be a national leader on implementing reforms without national money," Bennett said.
The new standards will stress depth-over-breadth-of-teaching more than the previous ones. It will also make teachers' specializations narrower, Meredith explained. Only time will tell if that's ultimately a good thing.
The standards and goals are spelled out very specifically. For example, an eighth grader would need to be able to "consult general and specialized reference materials, both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or to determine or clarify its precise meaning or part of speech." It's left to local administrators to determine how best to keep teachers and students in line with the standards.
"We don't really have any big concerns yet," Meredith said. "Probably more of a question than anything. There isn't any data yet that suggests that the Common Core Standards change learning in the classroom or are impacting students' lives outside. But with anything new, the data comes in a few years down the line."
State Rep. Gregory Porter, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the standards were "a step in the right direction," but said he had reservations. "Obviously since we've adopted this thing it's going to require some dollars behind it," he said.
As to changes in the quality of education, Porter said he was "eyeing it cautiously" for now. "My concern with this is when comparing all the students of different states, we're not all going to start at the same level."
Cautiously optimistic
Much of Indiana's failure to submit a viable bid for federal dollars can be attributed to tensions between IDOE and ISTA leadership, the latter of which withheld much of its support. Tennessee and Delaware – which, as Race to the Top winners received a combined $600 million for their education programs — had secured between 95-100 percent support from local teachers' unions.
The ISTA claims the only way to get its full support is to follow the lead of Tennessee and Delaware by better including unions in the process.  "The big problem we had with [the proposal] was that we were never invited to be a part of the conversation unless we would blindly agree to Fast Forward," said Meredith. "It's hard to agree to something if you can't even see it."
Porter took similar issue with what he characterized as unilateral action on the part of the IDOE .
"The main thing I'm concerned about is that this whole movement did not really involve the legislature," porter said. "Not once, not twice, but on numerous occasions I reached out to the Department of Education. We never really got any pertinent information."
As different subjects currently utilize standards implemented during different years, adoption of the new standards will take place gradually through 2013, as old standards are phased out. Regarding the future, ISTA insists its attitude is cautiously optimistic. Meredith said she anticipated a difficult 2011-2012 school year.
"I think teachers are confused," she said. "And the next year is going to be a challenging year for having two sets of standards and figuring out what to teach."


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