Future of Schools

New tensions begin to emerge over state's NCLB response

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence focused on education issues in his state of the state speech in January as well as throughout the legislative session.

Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz put aside their differences over who should take the lead in making education policy last month for the public fight over new state academic standards. But their tensions seem poised to reemerge as the state scrambles to respond to a warning from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education sent Ritz a letter Thursday giving 60 days for her to explain how Indiana will shore up areas where it says the state has fallen short of what it promised to do in 2012 in return for release from some rules of the No Federal No Child Left Behind law.

That waiver, issued in 2012, was dependent in large part on Indiana’s promise to adopt standards that would lead to graduates who are prepared for college, and federal officials are concerned about Indiana’s abandonment of the Common Core standards and tests. It wants assurances the state will keep its promises.

Just last month, Ritz and Pence stood firmly together to support the state’s new standards, which were endorsed both by the education department, which she oversees, and by the Center for Education and Career Innovation, which reports to Pence and is viewed by some as a rival to Ritz’s department. The board voted 10-1 to adopt them last week.

But the other areas that the U.S. Department of Education identified for concern could reignite longstanding divisions between the two officials. Last year, each tried to claim a larger role in setting the state’s education policy, and each echoed that approach today.

In a letter to Ritz today, Pence said he was “disappointed and concerned” by federal education department’s findings that Indiana was not on track to comply with its agreement in nine specific areas and urged her to work with the Indiana State Board of Education, which he appoints, to make corrections.

One of his appointees to that board, Brad Oliver, said the state board and Ritz’s office were “long overdue” to have conversations about her handling of Indiana NCLB waiver, and called for the board to play a more active role going forward.

“The board and the department need to be in consultation about what our response will be,” he said.

But in her statement Friday, Ritz only mentioned the state board when talking about a subcommittee and used the singular tense to describe her planned response, which she suggested was complicated by the Indiana legislature when it voided Common Core standards and set a July 1 deadline for new standards to be set.

“My department is prepared to demonstrate full compliance with our flexibility waiver and submit amendments that are necessary due to legislative action that has been taken since the 2013 legislative session,” she said.

“Moving forward,” Ritz said, “we will respond to (the U.S. Department of Education) within the next two months with amendments that capture steps we have taken to ensure full compliance with our flexibility waiver. I look forward to working with (U.S.) Secretary (of Education Arne) Duncan to improve education for all Indiana students.”

Less than two hours after Ritz issued her statement, Oliver followed with a call for the board to hold a special meeting to address the waiver problem.

“Pursuant to the meeting procedures of the Indiana State Board of Education, I have called upon my colleagues to join me in requesting a special meeting of the state board of education to inquire as the reasons and circumstances that have resulted in so many areas of our current federal waiver being identified as not meeting expectations,” he said.

Oliver laid blame on the education department for the state’s waiver troubles.

“The findings in the (U.S. Department of Education) monitoring report suggest serious problems with the ability of the Indiana Department of Education to monitor compliance and provide technical assistance to Indiana schools in critical areas such as teacher and principal evaluation, assisting Indiana’s lowest performing schools, and supporting schools in raising academic achievement,” he said.

Signed in 2002, NCLB asked all states to establish accountability systems that assured every student would score proficient on standardized tests by 2014. Since President Obama’s election, though, he has pushed for congress to make revisions to relax rules, which could label many schools as failing, and sanctions that could limit how they use federal money.

He also allowed states to apply for waivers, permitting them to substitute state-level accountability systems in place of NCLB requirements in return for adopting policies the administration preferred.

Indiana’s waiver allowed the state’s A to F system to be used to judge schools, replacing expectations under NCLB that some have termed unrealistic. In return, Indiana promised to adopt “college and career ready” academic standards, institute a teacher evaluation system and make other changes.

At the time, the state was moving quickly to implement Common Core, standards which 45 states ultimately adopted and that Indiana’s state board adopted in 2010. Federal officials signed off on that, accepting Common Core standards as “college and career ready.” They also approved of Indiana’s plan to use a Common Core-linked exam being developed by a consortium of states as its new state test, to institute the teacher evaluation system lawmakers approved here in 2011 and to monitor improvement efforts at low-scoring schools.

Since the waiver agreement was made, however, Indiana has seen some dramatic education policy changes.

Ritz defeated Tony Bennett, her predecessor and champion of Common Core, teacher evaluation and school accountability, in the 2012 election and took control of the state’s compliance efforts. An order from Pence withdrew Indiana from the consortium, in favor of instead ranking its state tests on its own, and lawmakers voted first to pause implementation of Common Core standards and then to void them altogether.

When federal officials conducted an annual evaluation of Indiana’s compliance with the waiver in August of 2013, Ritz was in the midst of a complete overhaul of the state’s system of monitoring troubled schools.

Ritz noted that in her statement.

“We have spoken with (the U.S. Department of Education) regularly about the work this division is doing, and they have indicated they are pleased with our progress to this date,” she said.

Oliver and Pence aren’t convinced. They want answers and a role for the state board to assure the waiver continues.

“Because several of the key findings in the monitoring report involve state decisions where the state board of education and the department of education both hold statutory roles and responsibilities, including standards, assessment, teacher evaluation and interventions in under performing schools,” Pence wrote to Ritz, “I am writing to urge the state board of education to assist the Indiana Department of Education in developing a comprehensive remediation plan that addresses the concerns laid out in the monitoring report.”

Pence and Ritz have been at odds over who controls the state’s education policy since last summer, when Pence created the Center for Education and Career Innovation.

The center, using money that had previously been managed by the education department under the state superintendent, hired separate staff for the state board. Pence said the center was designed to coordinate education policy across multiple agencies, including the education department, the state board, the Education Roundtable and the Commission for Higher Education.

But Ritz said it was a power grab.

Tensions between Ritz and the board boiled over in October, when Ritz filed an unsuccessful lawsuit claiming the board held an illegal meeting, and in November, when Ritz abruptly adjourned a state board meeting over the objections of the other members.

Since January, however, hostility seemed to abate. Ritz and the board agreed on some new rules for how board meeting should be managed. Pence came out against Common Core standards in his State of the State speech and endorsed the Ritz-led process of setting new standards.

Just last month, Ritz and Pence stood firmly together in the face of laughs and jeers from Common Core opponents who fought against the new standards that were endorsed both by the education department and by CECI. The board voted 10-1 to adopt them last week.

Ritz declined comment late today about Oliver’s proposal for a special board meeting.


choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”


Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.