By KIM KILBRIDE
South Bend Tribune
6:50 PM EST, February 23, 2013
SOUTH BEND -- "Raise your hand if you're a teacher in this area," state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz told the audience in the Jordan Hall of Science at the University of Notre Dame Saturday morning.
A couple dozen hands went up.
"Yeah, see!" Ritz said encouragingly to the teachers, a microcosm of the group that helped her defeat former state schools Superintendent Tony Bennett last fall.
"Giving up a Saturday ...," she said to her supporters, smiling.
Ritz stopped in for a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math forum to give a brief talk and then participate in a panel discussion on high-quality teaching.
During her opening remarks, she told the audience she's in the process of doing some restructuring of the Indiana Department of Education.
Outreach coordinators, who will be the first line of contact with the Indiana DOE for schools, are being established in nine regions throughout the state.
And she'd like to make a change in the school improvement process, she said, that would emphasize new things, like a school's culture and its safety structures.
"A lot of policies in Indiana have to be undone for us to move forward," she said.
A Republican-controlled state Senate committee agreed last week with her that Indiana's new A-F grading scale for schools should be thrown out.
But that victory for Ritz, who is a Democrat, came on the heels of a House committee approval of a bill that would take away from her the administration of the state's private school voucher program.
The STEM angle
When it comes to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education in the United States, panelist Matthew Kloser, with the Institute for Educational Initiatives at Notre Dame, said "the picture isn't that rosy."
Other panelists Saturday included Principal Nathan Boyd and teacher Patricia Chrenka, both from LaSalle Intermediate Academy in South Bend.
Students in the country are below average on achievement in STEM subjects, Kloser said, as well as being less interested in those subjects.
Research, he said, shows that while the type of curriculum used is important, as are the class size and an instructor's experience and own educational background, the quality of teaching is the most important variable.
"So if we focus on instructional process, we have a lever," he said, to improve student achievement and interest in STEM areas.
Among other things, Boyd said expectations for teachers at LaSalle are high.
They're required to show students real-world applications of material they're taught.
Ritz responded that she liked a lot of things she heard during the discussion.
"I see it's my job to support your efforts," she said.
More IDOE focus areas
Ritz emphasized that she believes there is too much focus on student assessment in Indiana.
"We have an Algebra 1 test to graduate," she said, "but you have kids who don't see the relevance of math because they've taken algebra again and again to get a waiver or graduate."
Math should be infused with other curriculum, she said, and students need real-world experience along with it.
Other initiatives Ritz said her office is working on include a family literacy program that'll be rolled out this summer "to create a culture of readers in the state."
She'd also like to augment funding for professional development for teachers.
And, she said, she's revisiting licensing requirements for teachers.
In the pedagogy vs. content debate, she said, "Our licensing requirements have gone too far over in one direction. ...We're too far in the content area, (lacking) pedagogy."
And, Ritz said, discussions will take place about potentially adding specialized diplomas in the state, such as a STEM diploma.
At the end of the forum, she took a couple questions from the audience.
Amanda Serenevy, executive director of the nonprofit Riverbend Community Math Center, told Ritz that area educators have invested much time in getting ready for the Common Core, a set of academic standards used by many states that are set to go into effect in Indiana.
"The old Indiana standards were a mile wide and an inch deep," Serenevy said. "The Common Core make students understand things conceptually."
"I can see huge leaps teachers are making, (but) I hear you saying you're not comfortable with the Common Core math (standards)," she said.
Teachers, Serenevy said, have asked her if they've wasted their time with Common Core.
Though she wants to review it, Ritz said, her intentions are not to do away with it before it's even implemented.
"Oh no, no, no," Ritz responded. "I'm not wanting to stop Common Core at all. I want to keep it right on going."
Just before leaving, Ritz said she was heartened by the conversations that had taken place.
"What we're having here," she said, "is the exact dialogue I want to have."
Staff writer Kim Kilbride:
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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