The same day the public learned that test scores fell at the vast majority of Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee got a $26,999 bonus.
Since arriving in Indianapolis in 2013, the superintendent has reduced the size of the central office, increased flexibility for principals and pioneered new ways of partnering with charter school managers to turn around failing schools.
The changes have all been made in the name of improving the lowest-performing schools in the district.
But three years later, the administration has little concrete evidence that the reforms are working. For the second year in a row, test scores fell in the district. Scores were down around the state but IPS scores dropped farther.
Across the state, the number of 3rd-8th grade students who passed the math and reading tests fell by 2.1 percentage points, while the passing rate in IPS fell by 3.7 percentage points.
That didn’t stop the school board from voting unanimously Thursday night to approve Ferebee’s annual performance bonus. The superintendent could have gotten as much as $35,000, but the board chose to give him 77.1 percent of the money.
The pay is based on performance criteria that Ferebee and the board had agreed to last year. The district would not release details because the information is in Ferebee’s confidential personnel file. A spokeswoman said the criteria will be released once private information is redacted.
Ferebee said the bonus reflects his work implementing the district’s strategic plan, including creating quality school options for families and improving efficiency.
The superintendent got a contract extension to 2019 in February that raised his annual potential compensation to $287,000.
School board president Mary Ann Sullivan acknowledged that the extra pay came on the same day the public learned of the drop in ISTEP scores but defended the district’s approach to improving schools.
“The strategies that we are engaged in as a district are long-term strategies, and we don’t expect quick fixes,” Sullivan said. But she added, “We do expect fixes.”
Like many Hoosier superintendents, Ferebee was dismissive of the low and declining ISTEP passing rates in the district. He said the test is not reliable and the 2016 results are not comparable to prior years.
“We will not use this to beat on our teachers and our principals,” he said. “We are going to be smart about how we measure progress, and we are not going to knee-jerk to results that we don’t have a lot of confidence in.”
But while Ferebee is quick to minimize the significance of the ISTEP scores, critics of the administration’s strategies for improvement say the decline in scores is evidence his approach is not working.
David Greene, president of Concerned Clergy, said the test has flaws but it does offer some useful information. He called on the district to start an open discussion with parents and community members about how to improve schools.
“If we are not seeing student achievement … we have a problem,” Green said. “We don’t need to mask that problem. We need to be upfront and honest, and everybody needs to work on it.”
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.