MEREDITH: Let's not be so quick to abandon schools in peril

January 7, 2012

Teresa MeredithQuestion: The Indiana State Board of Education is proposing new rules that would expand to more than 100 the number of schools subject to state intervention or takeover due to poor performance. Should the rules be adopted?

The State Board of Education has taken over seven schools in Indiana—six in the Indianapolis area and one in Gary. New proposals this legislative session include plans to increase to more than 100 the number of schools that might require intervention or takeover due to poor performance.

As a 20-year educator, my simple answer to whether the state should adopt such rules and put more schools in jeopardy is, no.

In 1999, the state adopted tougher standards and accountability. In 2003, the Education Roundtable outlined programs to achieve excellence and close achievement gaps, but the state never finished either job with financial backing.

The state has yet to fully fund full-day kindergarten or preschool for anyone other than federally mandated special-ed students. Indiana has lost programs for alternative ed, summer school, after-school tutoring, remediation, library, foreign language, music, art. The list goes on.

The state is failing our schools and then punishing the very schools that carry the heaviest burden by placing them under the care of companies allowed to earn profits from their efforts. It is not just a disservice but abandonment.

A 1999 law says low-performing schools failing Indiana’s school-accountability system for six consecutive years can be taken over or subjected to other state actions. Those grades are based on test scores. With the new proposals, schools that fail in four consecutive years would be subject to takeover.

The changes, as proposed, would go into effect for next school year—but only after a series of public hearings and a final vote by the state board.

Yes, I know of Indiana schools that are desperate for improvement, but the proposals often look to be more about politics than about true benefits for children. If the state cannot currently provide adequate resources and support to existing public schools, why should I have confidence that it can take over schools and do a better job? There is no evidence to show the state will succeed in these schools, so I must question the real motive of such wisdom.

Proponents say schools destined for takeover have been failing for more than six years, but I wonder how long the state has ignored what schools have really needed to thrive.

Critics of the takeover plan claim the state fails to understand the role of poverty and diversity in low-performing schools and that many schools have already put into action recovery plans where positive trends may take years to prove successful.

I recently heard of a school in peril in Lawrence Township that is a perfect example of a school where change is in progress. The district has changed the principal, added literacy instructional coaches and introduced new teaching practices. The district hopes its efforts will pay off but expects the improvement will take time.

State officials who want to restructure low-performing schools by takeover are taking on a challenging task at an alarming rate. Policymakers have minimal positive information from which to draw and the few states that have initiated takeovers have struggled with hostility on both district and local levels. Community reaction to takeovers is rarely positive.

As a teacher and a parent, I would rather the state provide more resources and support and actually listen to the educators who are making a difference in classrooms every day. Punishing schools on the basis of test scores is a disservice to our students, our teachers and our communities.

We must work toward exercising better judgment about what makes a child and a school successful, then help them prosper rather than stacking the deck to assure more failure so profiteers can collect on the backs of Indiana’s youngest citizens.•


Meredith is vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association and has taught for more than 18 years in Indiana schools. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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