school choice

It looks like Indiana’s ISTEP test is toast after 2017

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr
State officials are closing as many 38 Michigan schools with low rankings due to test scores but they might have trouble finding higher scoring schools nearby

Whatever standardized test Indiana chooses to give in 2018, it probably won’t be ISTEP.

After a circuitous journey through the legislature, House Bill 1395, which would end the state’s ISTEP testing program in 2017 and create a panel of educators, lawmakers and policymakers to find a replacement, passed the Senate 50-0 and the House 77-19. It next heads to Gov. Mike Pence for his signature.

But the bill’s final vote came only after serious concerns raised by House Democrats, who passionately asserted on the House floor that they were being left out of future discussions over the test.

“It’s probably going to be one of the most important interim committees of the season, and probably the next decade, and the minority group is not going to get a seat at the table,” said Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson.

(Read “Junking Indiana’s ISTEP test: What might come next and at what cost?“)

Austin said Democrats should have a say in who is appointed to the 23-person ISTEP study panel, but the bill’s author Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the Senate preferred a committee that would be similar to one that created the state’s new 2016 A-F accountability system.

“This is not the panel that the House passed, this is the panel that the Senate liked and was unwilling to move on,” Behning said. “This is not where I wanted to be necessarily.”

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, who has four appointments under the bill, said he would “at least consult with” Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, before he makes his choices.

Behning said Senate Republicans agreed to require business leader, a parent, a state board of education member and a teachers union representative be appointed to the panel, a proposal that originally was in the House version. The other members of the committee will be educators and legislators to be appointed by Republican legislative leaders, Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who will also be part of the committee.

Behning originally introduced the bill as proposal to rescore of the problem-plagued 2015 test. Last year’s exam was beset with scoring delays and technical glitches that Behning thought called for a full review of the scores to make sure the state can accurately determine student progress going forward.

Later, Behning’s proposal to rescore ISTEP was removed in the Senate, partially over concern about the cost. The rescore didn’t make it back in the final version of the bill.

Deadlines for appointing panel members is May 1. The group must recommend options for a new test to the legislature by Dec. 1. The goal is for the panel’s recommendations to become legislation on the General Assembly docket in 2017.

Two other bills that were suddenly given new life yesterday also cleared their last hurdles before being forwarded to Pence to sign.

Popular teacher scholarship proposal moved ahead

A scholarship bill that would allow aspiring teachers to apply for up to four years of college aid in exchange for teaching in Indiana schools for five years passed easily in both chambers — 97-0 in the House and 48-2 in the Senate.

Bosma said he was pleased to see House Bill 1002 move ahead. The program now also will see $10.5 million of funding for scholarships that would begin in 2017.

“I’m thrilled, it was a better result that I had hoped for at the start of session,” Bosma said. “What a great way to reinforce the importance of the teaching profession.”

Austin, along with other Democrats, supported the bill and hailed what it could do for Indiana classrooms.

“This is really one of the most substantive things we’ve done this session to address the teacher shortage,” she said.

Lawmakers remain divided on teacher pay raises

A teacher mentoring bill that became surprisingly controversial also passed.

House Bill 1005 had widespread support, but over the last week two controversial ideas were added to it: one giving school districts flexibility to pay some teachers extra and one to extend the deadline to apply for private school tuition vouchers.

House Bill 1005 narrowly passed the House on Wednesday 51-43 and made it out of the Senate 33-17. But some lawmakers still had misgivings about including the teacher pay langauge in the bill, which the Senate and the House had already rejected in other bills earlier this year.

Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, compared the measure to stipends given for extracurricular activities. Plus, Republican lawmakers argued, a similar law already is in place allowing pay bumps for dual credit teachers, establishing a precedent.

“This is not breaking new ground,” Brown said. “This is actually recognizing the hard work that teachers do.”

But extracurricular pay is subject to union negotiations and the extra pay for teaching AP courses is not, said Indiana State Teachers Association spokeswoman Kim Clements-Johnson. Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said she worried that the provision might change teachers’ willingness to work together and collaborate.

“It sets up an adversarial atmosphere,” Rogers said. “What we try to do is keep the learning atmosphere one in which we work together, teachers and administrators.”

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”

How I Teach

How this Colorado drama teacher gets to know her students with a 20-second exercise

One of Kelly Jo Smith's students with her project on theater design.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Kelly Jo Smith, an English, speech, and drama teacher at La Junta Junior/Senior High School in southeastern Colorado, got her start in the arts with a directing gig in fifth grade.

Today, she hopes to spark her students’ creativity the way her own teachers did when she was in school.

Smith talked to Chalkbeat about why she loves teaching her gifted and talented theater class, what she’s learned from watching colleagues teach, and how one mother’s words stayed with her.

Smith is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state’s Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I grew up playing school, helping others with projects, and directing shows, so I think it was instinctual. I was allowed to write and direct my first play in fifth grade, so my love of theater has been lifelong.

I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and received my bachelor’s degree in theater and communication with a minor in English. But I really think it was my high school teachers that had the biggest effect on my life. In everything from drama to band, I thrived and got to test and hone my creative side.

What does your classroom look like?
I decided a long time ago that if I was going to spend so much time at school (and what teacher doesn’t) I wanted my classroom to be cheerful and comfortable. My classroom has posters, student work, pictures — almost every inch of it is covered. I have a portfolio section where students keep their written work to show during conferences and “Student Center” where students can turn in work and pick up makeup work. The carpeted floor makes it easy to move groups to the floor as a way to meet several learning needs.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite classes to teach — or I should say mentor — is the gifted and talented theater course. I designed this when I was getting my master’s degree from Adams State University. Students can begin with an examination of theater history, or an acting or directing project. I have had students create Greek masks, one-man shows, film projects, and currently have one student studying theater design. Students start with the standards, design their project, read articles and text, and blog and journal. Finally, they have a public showing or juried presentation. I love working with students who are fired up and inspired to test their own creative ideas. Teaching kids to explore and how to shape that exploration is key.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Presenting oral and written instructions are important. That way, students can listen in the moment, but have clarification to refer to at home. I encourage students to ask for clarification and that may come in conferences, emails or thumbs up or down, pairing off and explaining the lesson to their peer. I also have a class Facebook page, where I post updates and assignment links so that parents can get the information as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like using the “catch and release” strategy from Penny Kittle’s book, “The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching.” It comes from her experience fishing with her dad. In the classroom, we provide directions and then release students to work, but sometimes we need to catch them again to explain a detail or celebrate an accomplishment. Other times just walking by and making my presence known is all that is needed. I like to have several tricks because no one class is the same.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I like to learn about my students’ history. I share my story: “How did I get to where I am?” My first assignment in my speech class is called the “20/20 Speech.” Twenty slides in 20 seconds — students will include pictures of themselves at different ages, pictures of family, activities, schools they want to attend, future plans, books, movies and music. They begin and end with a quote that represents their essence. It is a great way to learn about students.

I watched a teacher (going to visit other classrooms is the best way to perfect your craft) start the class by opening it up to anything that happened since they last met that needed to be discussed. I like doing that because it gives students a voice in the classroom and then clears the way for focus on lessons.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My creativity. Kids are kids! If you teach long enough you see cycles come and go and you have probably heard it all. If you approach the class with creativity, a good attitude, and a sense of humor … failures are not the end, just opportunity for a different approach.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a great mom of a student and each time we would leave for a (field) trip, she would tell me, “Drive careful. You have precious cargo.” All our students are precious cargo and the journey we take them on can change their lives.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I had a principal once tell me, “Kelly, make sure they treat you like a professional.” Teaching is a profession. It is not easy and not for the faint of heart. It is personal and hard, time-consuming and, much of the time, thankless. I am a professional and not all of my attempts in the classroom have been successful, but they have been learning experiences. When I see the light of creativity spark in a student, I know that I am making a difference.