moving on

‘We are going to follow through.’ In interview, Ferebee says he is leaving Indianapolis in a good place

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Lewis Ferebee reads to children on the first day of school in 2017.

During Lewis Ferebee’s five years as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, the district has faced some steep challenges — and still has obstacles ahead.

But Ferebee, who announced Monday he would be leaving to take the top education job in Washington, D.C., told Chalkbeat he felt the district was turning a corner and was able to move ahead without him.

“Timing is never really ideal,” Ferebee said. “Regardless of when a leader transitions, people immediately think about, there’s more work to do, and I think you never reach a point where there’s no more work to do. That’s just the challenge of being in a leadership public service position.”

Ferebee will start full-time in D.C. on Jan. 31. Below are excerpts from his interview with Chalkbeat, edited for brevity and clarity.

On why he felt ready to leave IPS

I think the course of events most recently in Indianapolis is a vote of confidence, I think, to have over 70 percent of the voters support the referendums. It’s a vote of confidence that a district is moving in the right direction, so I actually am very comfortable, very confident, the district is poised well to continue on the path of progress.

For me, the opportunity to work with a strong leader that we have in Mayor (Muriel) Bowser in Washington, D.C., obviously, was very attractive to me.

But I do think we’ve turned a corner (in IPS), and I think with the referendum specifically, I would be worried if we didn’t have a plan to execute on teacher compensation and the facility upgrades to safety and security, but we have a clear plan that is in process, most of which I anticipate will be executed upon before my departure, specifically around teacher compensation.

To anyone that has that worry, I want to give them that confidence that we are going to follow through on that particular promise.

On what he’s most proud of in his work with IPS

So much. I think for me there’s many accomplishments I can get into. The transparency of our finances and driving efficiencies in an effort to push dollars to the classroom and ensure we could push dollars to teacher compensation in a time where we were receiving significantly less funding.

I’m also really proud of the way that we emerged with teacher leadership. We’ve created a number of teacher leadership roles and also career ladders for teachers that I believe has elevated teacher expertise and maximized talent in the district.

When I first came here, we were relying on a lot of external consultants to help us better improve performance. Today, proudly, we rely primarily on internal expertise to do that work.

Prior to my arrival we had not had a salary increase for teachers for half a decade. I’m proud that we were able to not only provide teachers salary increases but we’ve done that in multiple years.

Most importantly, I believe that we progressed in delivering on the mission of better prepared students to succeed in college and career.

On why his push to partner with charter schools in Indianapolis isn’t a sure thing for D.C.

The strategy in Durham (N.C., where Ferebee worked previously) was not the strategy in Indianapolis. As I started in Indianapolis, I began with a listening tour, and beginning to understand our needs and our assets, our strengths. And from those conversations we began to build strategy and a strategic plan that represented solutions that were Indianapolis-specific.

That same process will occur in my transition to Washington, D.C., and I think that’s the way you should always operate. There’s no silver bullets; there’s no (piece) that you can just transport from one community to the next.

At the time, Indianapolis had faced school takeover and the threat of further school takeover. It’s just a different landscape.

On what he’ll miss about Indianapolis

The people. Indianapolis is a community where we come together around a big issue, and we get it done like no other urban community. There’s been a number of challenges that collectively, collaboratively, we’ve done great things for children.

It’s just been phenomenal to have great people, great supporters, and so many people that have rallied behind IPS, and that will be missed.

Personally, I’m a foodie. I think Indianapolis has some amazing restaurants. I also really began to enjoy biking. I think we’re one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation, and Saturdays and Sundays on the Monon will be missed.

upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent come from families with incomes so low that they are eligible for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”