Are Children Learning

Indiana's move away from Common Core becomes clear

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana appears to be on the verge of a final turn away from Common Core standards.

Gov. Mike Pence made clear in his strongest words yet that he supports of locally-created standards during Tuesday’s State of the State address. But it was state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, state board members and advocates for Common Core whose comments today made seemed to show a new consensus that Indiana will not stick with Common Core standards entirely.

If that proves true, it would be a stunning turnaround in only one year’s time for a state that was one of the earliest adopters of Common Core in 2010, with former Gov. Mitch Daniels and the state’s then-Superintendent Tony Bennett among the most energetic national advocates for the national standards. Common Core lasted more than two years as the state’s official standards with virtually no opposition as schools began to use them in elementary grades.

A move away from Common Core potentially could be disruptive to teachers who have already begun, or started preparing for, the transition to the new standards. Some districts have already bought books and learning materials for the switch. Common Core proponents said it could handicap Hoosier children if they are left out as the rest of the country has largely signed on to follow the standards.

Traditionally, the Indiana Department of Education creates K-12 standards and the Indiana State Board of Education approves them. Members of the Indiana State Board of Education, which less than a year ago unanimously reaffirmed its support for Common Core, now seem resigned to the reality that the state’s standards will change. Even advocates of Common Core are refocusing on assuring that whatever standards emerge incorporate most of the major tenets of the nationally-shared standards.

These revelations began with four short sentences in Pence’s 30-minute speech that caused a stir, raising questions about whether he had shifted his position more strongly against Common Core. Here’s what he said:

“Hoosiers have high expectations when it comes to Indiana schools. That’s why Indiana decided to take a time-out on national education standards. When it comes to setting standards for schools, I can assure you, Indiana’s will be uncommonly high. They will be written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers and will be among the best in the nation.”

It was clear that Pence was speaking of Common Core when he referenced “national education standards.” Common Core standards have become the norm nationwide with 46 states, Indiana included, having adopted them in an effort to agree on what U.S. students need to know by the time they graduate high school to compete internationally. Pence’s pledge that the state’s standards would be “written by Hoosiers” and be “uncommonly high” caught the ear of Democrats, Ritz and state board members.

Critics say Common Core standards are too closely associated with the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, and could give up too much local control. Others argue Indiana’s prior standards were stronger, or that Common Core is too heavily dependent on standardized tests.

Both Pence and Ritz have been non-committal about their positions on Common Core. Pence has said he has no preconceived notions about Common Core. Ritz has expressed concern about some portions of Common Core, notably part of what is outlined for math, but she has never stated outright opposition to Common Core’s place as the state’s guide for what teachers should teach.

Indiana adopted Common Core in 2010, but in 2013 a backlash led by conservative state senators led to passage of a bill to “pause” implementation, which was underway in local schools. The bill launched a year of study and public input. The state board must vote again by this July to decide whether Indiana should continue with Common Core.

On Friday, Ritz said she did not view the standards question to be one of whether or not Indiana will follow Common Core. Instead, Ritz said, she is leading an effort to explore what is taught in every subject area and what makes sense for Indiana students to know.

“I don’t look at it as Indiana adopting a set of standards,” she said. “We are looking at individual standards. We’re not looking at carte blanche adoption of every single Common Core standard.”

The standards review process is on schedule to be presented to the state board in April, Ritz said. A bill introduced last week to extend the “pause” by a second year is unneeded, she said. Lawmakers introduced that bill with the goal of giving the state more time to decide about Common Core. But Ritz said the state must choose standards and then move quickly to deciding how to replace ISTEP with a new state test.

“We don’t see a need to extend the study of the standards,” she said. “We have to start the assessment piece.”

State board member Tony Walker said the “anchor” of any new standards, or a large portion of whatever Indiana creates on its own, will have to follow the framework of Common Core. That’s critical to preparing Hoosier graduates for college entrance exams that are being rewritten to align with Common Core standards, he said.

“It’s going to have to be built on Common Core,” he said. “We can’t go it alone.”

When it comes to tests, Ritz said she believes the replacement for ISTEP will be another state-created exam, not one of two Common Core-linked tests now being built by a pair of consortia of states.

“I feel strongly that Indiana will be working on our own assessments,” she said.

That’s significant because a state-sponsored study last year showed Indiana could save more than $1 million of the $34 million it annually spends on testing by using one of the shared tests other states are building rather than making its own test, or hiring a company to make one. It also means Indiana’s state test results will not be comparable to the results in other states, another advantage Common Core proponents tout.

When it comes to college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT, Ritz said strong standards and good understanding by teachers of what to teach and how to teach it will overcome any concerns about Hoosier students being at a disadvantage.

“Teachers will teach in order for students to do well on assessments,” she said.

Derek Redelman, vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the reality around the country is that efforts by other states to write their own standards haven’t strayed far from Common Core.

“A few states have made a few changes but they’ve been minor,” said Redelman, a strong proponent of Common Core. “Even in Virginia and Texas, which are not official Common Core states, everyone whose been looking at those standards say they look just like Common Core.”

Redelman said most complaints about Common Core can be resolved if states make four commitments: Protecting student data security, making whatever small changes are needed to tailor the standards to their states’ particular needs and asserting state sovereignty over its right to set standards and choose its own tests.

In Indiana, the emerging goal of Common Core proponents now is to keep the state’s standards roughly in line with what other states are doing, he said.

“I don’t think we will have Common Core verbatim,” Redelman said. “I think they will be now actively looking for ways to put an Indiana flavor on it.”

A lot has changed since that unanimous state board vote in favor of Common Core last February. Just five of the 11 state board members from that meeting remain, with Pence having made six appointments to the board since that time.

One of them, Andrea Neal, strongly opposes Common Core. Her viewpoint is one that was rarely heard in state board meetings before 2013.

“There’s nothing wrong with national standards if they are extremely high quality standards,” she said. “Common Core are not extremely high quality standards.”

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.