Future of Schools

Betsy DeVos made a covert visit to Indianapolis last week. Here’s why.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made a secret visit to Indianapolis last week.

DeVos’ public calendar for Feb. 5 said she had “no public events.” There were no press releases marking her trip to Indiana. Even the local school district did not know the U. S. Secretary of Education was coming.

But unbeknownst to most of the city, DeVos was visiting Cold Spring School, a public elementary school with an environmental science focus. As one of the first campuses in Indianapolis to voluntarily become an innovation school, Cold Spring is overseen by the district but has most of the flexibilities of charter schools. A staunch advocate of school choice, DeVos has highlighted innovation schools in the past, saying the schools are an “out-of-the-box” approach.

The Indianapolis Public Schools administration, however, was not involved with DeVos’ visit.

“The board and administration were not aware of the visit until after it had occurred,” said Mary Ann Sullivan, a member of the Indianapolis Public Schools board. “No one at the district or the board knew she was coming.”

The unannounced visit is part of a larger pattern for DeVos, who has been criticized for keeping many public appearances off her calendar. Critics say keeping plans private diminishes public trust and accountability.

When Chalkbeat learned about DeVos’ visit to Cold Spring Friday, we reached out to the school and to DeVos’ spokesperson to confirm the details and find out why she was here. Neither responded for more than 72 hours.

On Monday, DeVos’ spokesperson Liz Hill emailed an explanation for the visit.

“She was there filming for an upcoming TV special on innovation in education and her one-year anniversary in office,” Hill wrote. “It was closed press and not noticed to the public for that reason.”

Cold Spring School chief operating officer Carrie Bruns provided a similar statement to Chalkbeat on Monday that confirmed the details of the visit. “Cold Spring School was very honored to have been chosen for this visit,” Bruns added.

Indianapolis Public Schools, a district of about 31,000 students, has garnered national attention for creating innovation schools, which aim to release traditional schools from the tether of central office control. The schools are particularly controversial because their teachers are no longer employed by the district and they cannot join the district union.

Not everyone in Indianapolis welcomes DeVos’ praise. The innovation school strategy is contentious, but it has bipartisan support from Republican lawmakers in the statehouse, and Democratic elected officials and advocates from Indianapolis.

Sullivan, who previously served as a Democratic representative in the Indiana House, said DeVos is part of an administration that supports policies that will “deeply hurt” children. Sullivan said she is reserving judgment on what to make of the visit to Cold Spring until she learns more, but she is concerned that the TV story that DeVos was filming could potentially spark backlash.

“My biggest fear is — I don’t want the school or the strategy to be criticized because she’s choosing to uplift it,” Sullivan added.

an hour a day keeps state accountability away

Florida told its low-scoring schools to make their days longer. It helped, new research finds

Students reading at the Book Fair International at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

Last year, Camille Watkins’s day as a fourth grade teacher got a little longer.

The elementary school where she taught had been named one of Florida’s 300 lowest-performing schools. That meant the school was required to add an extra hour of reading instruction to the day, something Watkins found grueling.

But new research finds that the program really did boost reading scores for students from low-income families. It’s new evidence that lengthening the school day, an approach being taken at schools across the country, can make a difference for students who stand to benefit the most.

In Florida, the extended-day push began in 2012 with the state’s 100 lowest performing schools and expanded to 300 schools in 2014.

“Florida likely made a smart move,” said David Figlio, one of the study’s authors.

The new research looks at that first year of the program, and takes advantage of a natural experiment. At schools with test scores just good enough to miss the cutoff, the students were very similar to students at the schools that scored just poorly enough to qualify. That allowed the researchers to compare both groups of schools over time, knowing that the key difference was the longer school day — one of the first times additional learning time has been studied this way.

What they found was that the extra time paid off, modestly. Over the course of one school year, students’ test scores jumped by the equivalent of one to three months of extra learning. Another way to look at it: The most optimistic estimate is that the program closed about a third of the gap in the reading scores between the best schools in Florida and average schools.

The effects were concentrated among students who consistently qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, students with limited English proficiency, and students whose mothers had teen pregnancies.

Whether adding an extra hour to an affluent school would yield the same effects is unclear, said Figlio, who authored the study with Kristian Holden and Umut Ozek.

Another benefit: The extra hour of class approach provides similar benefits to reducing class sizes at a fraction of the cost. Previous research has estimated that decreasing class size can cost between $2,000 and $4,000 per student each year, while extended day programs cost around $800 per student each year, according to district estimates.

Schools can choose how they work in the extra time, but most schools end their days later. At Rainbow Park Elementary School in Miami, where Watkins taught until June, the extended schedule meant that class began at 8:35 a.m. and finished just after 4 p.m. for second through fifth graders on most days.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (Graphic: Amanda Zhou/Chalkbeat)

The program also requires students to participate in different types of learning, including working in a small group, during the extra hour of intensive reading help.

Watkins, who taught for 11 years but isn’t returning to the classroom next year, said the most difficult part was adding that hour to the end of the two-and-a-half hours she was already spending on reading and writing skills. Watkins said she tried to keep the class engaging by using a reward system, but students often felt like they had already done the work.

The three-and-a-half hours of reading classes was “the cherry on top” of her decision to leave, Watkins said.

Her experience points to potential weaknesses of programs like Florida’s — that flexibility means not all schools may find a useful way to spend that time, and the extra time on the job can burden the educators tasked with executing it.   

Figlio said that was why he wasn’t sure whether their research would find any effect.

“Just because a state goes and tells a school to do something doesn’t mean there is a lot of guidance about it. It doesn’t mean schools know exactly how to do it,” he said.

College Readiness

Find your Colorado 2018 SAT and PSAT results

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Students work on projects at Academy High School on May 10, 2018 in their Mapleton School District. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

This year, Colorado has a lot more comprehensive data on students who took the SAT and PSAT tests in the spring of 2018.

Use Chalkbeat’s tool below to compare school results to each other or to statewide averages. This tool has results for every public school with ninth-, 10th-, and 11th-graders who took the SAT or PSAT test. It shows the mean score by grades, as well as a growth score.

The growth score is calculated by Colorado officials to show how much a student improved compared to the previous year, regardless of what their achievement was to begin with. Students with similar past achievement are grouped and ranked with a score from 1 to 99. A student with a growth score of 50 is considered to have made a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time, while a student with a lower score is considered to have made less than that.

Look back at 2017 results and our coverage here.