News and Tribune

September 25, 2013

HICKS: Keeping school reforms on track in Indiana

By MICHAEL HICKS
Indiana columnist

— My local paper recently published an opinion piece criticizing virtually all recent education reform efforts, including those by the Bush, Obama, Daniels and Pence administrations. The piece was naively rich with irony.

The writer, a 37-year veteran of teaching, argues for an end to reforms [which is, of course, yet another reform]. What she wishes, it appears, is for the teaching profession to be in charge of schooling and for elected officials to steer clear.

One irony is that she teaches in Blackford County, a place of historically dismal educational conditions mirroring large swaths of Mississippi. The current educational attainment in the county is a half-century behind the United States as a whole, so it is actually good news that the county’s standard of living has advanced to that of the average American in 1984.

The lengthy population decline means residents have been voting with their feet against the status quo for five decades. Worse, until the recent Indiana reforms, Blackford County schools persistently ranked as low-achieving and low-growth.

But there is good news laced with irony: After the reforms, the system moved into the high-achieving, high-growth status. Few places in Indiana have benefited more from the Daniels/Bennett reforms than Blackford County.

That a teacher in that district would now seek to end these reforms tells us much about her priorities and judgment.

The second great irony is the target of the criticisms. When we see the Daniels, Obama, Bush and Pence administrations agree on the need for educational reforms, we must take notice. The United States ranks at the top in educational attainment for elementary-age kids. We then slip to last place by the time these kids get to high school.

This tells us that at least one part of the problem lies in schools [and teacher education]. It also rightfully scares anyone with an inkling of the economic disaster this foretells for the nation.

What separates the two parties on education reform is simply that the courage to act lies largely with the GOP.

Indiana remains on the leading edge of school reforms. These changes have clearly been difficult to implement, but the plain fact is that when it comes to educational achievement metrics, our state ranks from dismal to undistinguished. We desperately needed school reform, and should hope that the General Assembly, governor and superintendent of public instruction strengthen and improve it.

— Michael Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University.