Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Vic’s Election Notes on Education #7– October 23, 2012

Dear Friends,

Tony Bennett’s policies have narrowed the curriculum to Math and English/Language Arts.

His focus on high stakes testing has put a huge priority on the two subjects schools must score well in for a high grade. Even survival as a school is at stake under the threat of state closure or takeover. Going further in this campaign, Tony Bennett has proposed state takeovers of whole school districts based on math and English/Language Arts scores.

The tremendous impact of this pressure on schools is not well understood by the public. Nor is it well understood by Tony Bennett, whose IDOE recently defended testing in the schools (“The Truth about Testing” posted 10/9/12 on the IDOE website) by saying that students only spend 6.5 hours per year taking ISTEP+ and that requirement only applies to seven grade levels. Tony Bennett apparently has not been in enough schools lately to know that the obsession to drive test scores higher, even if they are high already, is palpable in the life of our schools. It has undermined support for every other subject and elective.

We no longer have a balanced curriculum as we did up through the 1980’s. We used to a have state curriculum rule requiring a balanced curriculum, but this rule was repealed as the accountability movement picked up steam in the 1990’s. Now, school success is defined as success on math and language arts tests.

This is dangerous for the long term development of our democracy and our culture. Consider the areas of our curriculum and community life that are being left to atrophy as we push for higher math and English scores:

Music and Art

Specialists in music and art have suffered under the current priorities. They are grieving the decline of what they know is a vital portion of our curriculum. When Gov. Daniels and Dr. Bennett cut the already appropriated school budget by $300 million in December 2009 and never restored it as revenues improved, the consequences didn’t fall on reading and math teachers. They fell first on music and art teachers and on other “optional” specialists listed in areas below. Of course, state officials mandated the cuts, but local officials got blamed for the choices made for the cuts. It’s been tough to be a local school official in recent years, while Gov. Daniels and Dr. Bennett got praised for cutting the budget.

The irony is that research has well established that the arts can promote the brain development that unleashes reading and math development. That research is validated in my own experience as I look back to the 5th grade when I started playing cello in Elkhart’s outstanding music program. Looking back, it is clear now that my academic and intellectual development paralleled my intense interest and participation in music starting in the 5th grade. We need the arts in our schools.

Health and Physical Education

The Indianapolis Star proclaimed in a front page story in September (9/19/12) that Indiana is now tied for 8th among all states in the highest rate of obesity. Clearly health and physical education in our schools deserves a high priority.

Tony Bennett thinks otherwise. In the 2012 session of the General Assembly, he tried to repeal a long standing law that required a state health education curriculum and a state health education consultant. Years ago, health educators worked hard to pass a law that they thought would institutionalize a state role in health education. Tony Bennett didn’t want a health education consultant and three years into his term tried to repeal the law. Health and obesity issues apparently didn’t concern him. The heart association fought the repeal and in the end, Tony Bennett’s repeal bill failed. The law is still on the books, but there is obviously no priority on this program within IDOE.

Social Studies

Public schools have from their beginnings nearly 200 years ago been charged with building skilled citizens to protect and defend our democracy. This arena is often called the civic mission of schools, a mission which includes helping young people become informed voters, active participants in community concerns, and protectors of our Constitution.

Tony Bennett has ignored the civic mission of our schools.

Here is the record:
  1. A new strategic plan for the Indiana Department of Education, developed internally without public input, was issued in the opening weeks of the new administration, setting high goals for math and language arts test scores, for Advanced Placement tests, and for graduation rates. Dubbed the “90-25-90” plan, it omits any mention of developing the skills of responsible citizens.
  2. The two social studies consultants serving Indiana were fired in the first two weeks of the new administration and not replaced. Questions about geography, economics, civics and history were answered by staff not experienced in these areas. This was the first time IDOE had functioned without a social studies consultant since the position was first established in the 1960’s. I held the position for 2 years in the 1980’s and I know it plays a crucial role in citizenship education in Indiana. About a year and a half later, a part time social studies consultant was added because the new common core curriculum had a social studies strand. When I last asked the president of the Indiana Council for the Social Studies about social studies staff in IDOE, I was told there was a new part-time person but he wasn’t sure who it was. Tony Bennett has ended the long tradition of providing IDOE staff leadership for the civic mission.
  3. Funding for the extremely successful “Economic Education Mini-Grant” program which had planted seeds of entrepreneurial skills in students across Indiana for 30 years was cut off, as was the funding for staff to direct it. One would think that in the Great Recession, Tony Bennett would want to prominently support any program with a great track record of developing entrepreneurs. Not so.
Each fall from 2005 to 2010, I taught a social studies methods course for elementary teachers-in-training as an adjunct professor at IUPUI. The courses were always taught in a school building and had frequent observation and classroom participation time built in. Increasingly as the years went on, my students would report that the classes they were observing were too busy working on reading and math to do anything with social studies. This corroborates many studies and surveys showing that the accountability movement of the last decade is squeezing social studies out of elementary classrooms.

The laser focus on raising English and math scores is increasingly taking time and resources from the civic mission and, indeed, from any mission other than literacy and numeracy.


Science is part of the STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) emphasis that gets much attention at the national level. Despite that status, science is suffering the same neglect as social studies in the elementary schools, and the lack of a strong foundation at the elementary level leaves science educators very concerned. Indiana gives science tests at 4th and 6th, just as they give social studies tests at the 5th and 7th grade. Everyone knows, however, that these subject matter tests do not count toward the letter grade system of the school which carries life or death consequences for the school, and potentially if Tony Bennett is re-elected, for the school district. Given the stakes, it is not surprising that all the attention is flowing to math and English. Science, for all of its importance for our future, is suffering.

Vocational programs

Seemingly every candidate is talking about a revival of vocational education in this year’s campaign. As I see it, candidates are responding to frustrated advocates for vocational education who have seen vocational electives erode in the face of other mandated courses. Why are there fewer electives available in a student’s schedule for vocational courses? When a high school student fails the math or English end-of-course assessment, they are generally placed in another math or English course to make up the deficiencies in order to qualify for graduation. Taking additional math or English means taking fewer electives, and vocational courses are among those that take the hit.

World Language programs

In today’s global economy, we need more people who are fluent in the languages of other nations. In Tony Bennett’s reforms, this need is ignored. At the high school, electives in foreign language are being squeezed out for the same reasons described above for vocational programs. Additional math and English courses have to replace something, and foreign languages classes have been hit hard. Research shows that the younger the student is, the easier they will learn another language, which would suggest more such programs at the elementary level. Budget cuts have prevented additional elementary programs to blossom, along with the relentless pressure elementary and middle schools face to raise math and English scores. The entire school letter grade in elementary and middle schools is entirely based on math and English scores, and this puts everything else such as foreign languages in a second class status.

Priorities: Taking a Broader View

Tony Bennett has pushed Indiana to focus nearly exclusively on reading and math. In defending the 2010 3rd grade reading retention bill and contradicting Gov. Daniels claim that the bill “needn’t, shouldn’t, won’t cost one extra cent,” Dr. Bennett “acknowledged the reality of potential expenses but said none of the funding would have to come from new state dollars. All of it, he said, is funding that is already available to local schools; it would simply need to be redirected. ‘I was thinking that this is about us focusing local resources on this initiative.’ Bennett said it’s a question of priorities.” (Indpls Star, 1/22/10, p. A23)

Going on, the article reported that Dr. Bennett “suggested the cost of an extra 90 minutes a day of reading intervention could be mitigated by embedding it within the normal school day, perhaps at the expense of recess or an arts class, which students would have to give up to focus on reading.”

English and math scores have dominated schools since PL221 (1999) and No Child Left Behind (2002) made scores in both subjects the determinants of whether a school lived or died under accountability rules. Now in 2011 legislation, Tony Bennett brought a quantum leap in the same direction. Now teacher evaluations and merit pay will be based on reading and math scores. When jobs are on the line, everything else will be put on the back burner.

Reading and math are indeed crucial priorities, but should they be the only priorities? Our democracy cannot survive without instruction in basic civics, geography, economics and history. At the elementary level, these subjects are disappearing and at the secondary level, IDOE leadership to promote vibrant programs like We the People, Project Citizen, History Day, Geography Bee and the Indiana Kids Election is missing. Our economy cannot survive without instruction in science, foreign language and economics to give us more inventors, exporters and entrepreneurs. Our culture cannot survive without instruction in music and art. Does anyone doubt that the loss of public and private support for the world renown Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is rooted in part in the loss of music and arts programs in the last decade, since the accountability movement began crowding them out of the curriculum in the late 1990’s. These vitally important programs struggle for attention in a test-driven curriculum.

Only about half of all Americans of voting age cast votes in Presidential elections. Even with all the interest shown in the 2008 elections, participation only rose to 57%, the highest in 40 years. In crucial Congressional elections in non-Presidential years, less than 40% vote. Citizen participation needs an upgrade. Participation in our representative government is based on knowledge that for many students is gained only through the civic mission of our public schools. We must not ignore the mission of building responsible citizens with breadth in their knowledge and balance in their perspectives. Extending to the next generation our priceless heritage of freedom under the Constitution depends on it.

Glenda Ritz Needs Your Support

For the sake of our democracy, our economy and our culture, we must broaden our priorities. Glenda Ritz has called for the restoration of common sense in pulling back from the overemphasis on high stakes testing and for restoration of the balance in our curriculum. I hope you will support Glenda Ritz by participating in the grassroots campaign to elect her as State Superintendent of Public Instruction. We must have a new direction.

The November 6th election is now two weeks away and will have huge consequences for education in Indiana. I urge you to support Glenda Ritz in any way you can by talking with family members, neighbors and friends, especially those with no connection to education issues. Her name recognition is rising but is still low. The Wabash College debate tomorrow night will help. Tony Bennett’s expensive TV commercials are everywhere. Glenda Ritz needs your involvement and your support at the grassroots level. Please do what you can to speak up for her before Election Day.

Best wishes,

Vic Smith

“Vic’s Election Notes on Education” is not linked to any organization and is not being distributed by me to any organization. It is only being distributed to those who have previously sent personal requests for my commentaries. If you want to pass it along to others, you do not need to ask my permission. If you want to be taken off the distribution list, just let me know. If you know of others who want to be added to the list, just send me an email.

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