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School survey has resistance

Public teachers, districts question motive of project

– Indianapolis school leaders are balking at efforts by a national nonprofit education group to survey teachers about the environment inside city schools, saying it’s a thinly veiled attempt to steer parents and students to private and charter schools.

GreatSchools.org has chosen Indianapolis to pilot the teacher survey that asks about conditions inside a school, whether it encourages creativity and independent thinking, and how its staff communicates with parents. The goal is to go beyond test scores and provide more useful information to parents, supporters say.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett told the Indianapolis Star he agreed to allow the survey not just to give parents more information, but to give teachers “the opportunity to make their voices heard.” The survey also has the support of Mayor Greg Ballard.

But few Marion County districts are cooperating.

Washington Township Superintendent Nikki Woodson sent an email discouraging teachers from participating.

“We are asking you to disregard the email if it was sent directly to you,” stated the email from Woodson and teachers union president Glenda Ritz, who is challenging Bennett in the November election.

“We have our own pieces in place for stakeholder input that are conducted internally and externally,” the district said in a statement. “Our WTEA teacher’s union does not support participation in this particular survey.”

Opponents of the survey contend it is designed to erode public schools already struggling with increased competition under the state’s new school voucher law.

Ritz said GreatSchools is funded by groups that have been major supporters of charter schools and other choice initiatives.

“Public schools shy away from all kinds of entities that want to make us look bad all the time,” she said.

Jody Goldberg, GreatSchools’ director of local strategy and innovation, said the group works to remain neutral and that it’s common to meet resistance in communities where school choice has been an issue.

“When things are heated, there’s just a lot of fear,” she said. “I’m sorry that’s the case. I think the survey is something that can help schools. Test scores don’t tell the whole story.”

Ritz agrees that schools should be judged on more than test scores, but she doesn’t think GreatSchools should do the judging.

“To have an outside entity determine the quality of our schools based on who knows how many people respond is not a valid way scientifically to evaluate a culture in a school,” Ritz said.

GreatSchools was founded 12 years ago in San Francisco by a former teacher to help families moving to the Bay Area learn about local schools. Its website features profiles for public, private and charter schools nationwide.

The organization also works directly in cities such as Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., with active school-choice marketplaces.

Indiana was a natural location because it has the nation’s fastest-growing school voucher program, which allows parents who meet income guidelines to use public money to pay tuition at private schools.

Mindy Schlegel, one of Bennett’s key lieutenants, was hired to run GreatSchools’ Indianapolis office and to promote the 25-question school climate pilot survey.

Schlegel said about 400 teachers have taken the survey so far, and they have been upbeat about the places where they teach.

Sharon Wise, president of the Indiana Parent Teacher Association, said she likes what GreatSchools is doing and will ask her board to support its efforts. Still, she can understand why school districts are hesitant.

“I kind of see where they’re coming from,” Wise said. “This is all new territory for them to share this much information with parents and the community. It probably scares them.”

Jacob Pactor, a Speedway High School English teacher who filled out the survey, said he was excited to be asked about his school. He said the state’s A-to-F grading system for schools doesn’t capture whether a school is safe and nurturing.

“We brag about it internally, and we should brag externally,” he said. “It’s hard to judge anything if you judge based just on test scores.”

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