Are Children Learning

Indiana has new academic standards

Protesters at an April 21 rally against Indiana's new standards, which were approved by the state board Monday. (Scott Elliott)

Indiana has new academic standards, but Common Core opponents are still fuming.

By a 10-1 vote, the Indiana State Board of Education adopted the new standards today, following the lead of the Education Roundtable, which voted overwhelmingly in support of the new standards last week.

“I’m pleased we can finally bring this debate to a close and adopt a set of standards that will prepare Hoosier students for graduation,” board member Gordon Hendry said before voting yes. “I hope that, with this conversation behind us, we can stick with the standards and make sure we are not continually moving the goalposts on our students and teachers.”

The forces who led the charge against Common Core in Indiana, however, were dispirited by what the state will get in their place. The group held a rally last week with more than 150 demonstrators who packed the Roundtable meeting before leaving disappointed.

“I’m here to tell you I’ve lost faith,” said Heather Crossin, one of the founders of Hoosiers Against Common Core, calling the standards setting process a sham. “There was an end result in place from the very beginning and this process was designed to give that end result, which was rebranding Common Core.”

Andrea Neal, the lone no vote, said both the English and math standards are a step back for the state, but she was particularly critical of the math standards.

“It’s malpractice to adopt math standards that make no sense to mathematicians,” she said to a big cheer from the Common Core opponents in the audience.

That was the minority view on the board, however. B.J. Watts, a board member and elementary school teacher from Evansville, said he felt most teachers joined him in supporting the new standards.

“I’m proud of them because I honestly think we are doing the right thing,” he said.

Indiana, once an early champion of Common Core, has stepped back from the standards that 45 states agreed to follow. In 2013, lawmakers ordered a pause in implementation of Common Core and this year followed up with another bill voiding the 2010 decision to adopt them and ordering new standards by July 1.

Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz hailed the new standards as created “by Hoosiers and for Hoosiers” at last week’s roundtable meeting. Since February, committees of educators and experts selected the new standards from among several sets of standards they reviewed, including Common Core, the state’s prior standards, standards followed by other states and those offered by professional organizations.

“As I’ve watched and listened, it seems that fear can outpace fact,” board member Brad Oliver said before voting for the new standards. “The question I keep coming back and asking myself is: do these statement reflect the most critical knowledge and skills that children need?”

To critics, the new standards look much the same as Common Core to them.

“I still wear my ‘say no to Common Core” button,’ ” opponent Stephanie Engleman told the state board prior to the vote. “That’s because we still have Common Core and we will continue to have Common Core if you adopt the standards before you today.”

But Ritz backed the team the led the standards process, who argued Common Core’s architects actually incorporated many Indiana standards as they built Common Core standards. That helps explain the similarity, Ritz said.

“Indiana did play a pretty integral part, their standards being rated so high to begin with, in the formation of the Common Core,” she said. “There are things all kids need to know and be able to do that are found in all of the sets of standards that we reviewed. That’s what people need to keep in mind.”

Common Core was designed to assure all high school graduates are ready for college or careers, but Indiana critics have said they worried that the shared standards ceded too much control over the states’ education systems to the federal government. Creation of Common Core was led by the state governors but the standards were later endorsed and promoted by the U.S. Department of Education.

One of the few educators to speak during the public comment portion of today’s meeting was Tim McRoberts, principal of Speedway High School, who said it was time to move on from the standards debate so teachers could do their work.

“We’ve been preparing and working toward this for a few years now,” he said. “We’re ready to move forward.”

 

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.