COLUMBUS, Ind. — Bartholomew County educators are looking forward to working with incoming State Superintendent Glenda Ritz to improve education in Indiana.
At the same time, they are eager to put the past four years behind them — years that they claim unfairly blamed teachers for so-called educational shortcomings based on ridiculous criteria.
"Getting Glenda Ritz in as superintendent is a huge victory for schools across the state," said Bill Jensen, director of secondary education for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. "She's a true educator."
Ritz, the Democratic Party nominee and an elementary school library media specialist in Indianapolis, defeated one-term incumbent Republican Tony Bennett on Tuesday, 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent statewide, marking the first time in 40 years that a Democrat has won the state's highest position in the field of education.
The new officeholder has pledged to roll back many of Bennett's initiatives, including the A-F Accountability scale, which she has said unfairly evaluates schools based on standardized tests that take far few criteria into account.
Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. improved significantly on that scale in results announced Oct. 31. It had only one A and three F's among its schools in 2010-2011, while in 2011-2012 improved to 10 A's and one F among its 15 schools.
Jensen credited the improvement partly to students doing a better job and partly to the Indiana Department of Education's revisions between the first and second years. Despite the improvements, Jensen said that system is still deeply flawed.
"The A-through-F thing put too much emphasis on math and English and was not concerned with social studies and sciences and about being citizens in our democracy," he said.
He said he does not know how a fair accountability system might look. But he said one improvement would be to take into consideration the number of middle school students who earn high school credits in foreign language, math and biology.
Rose Maudlin, president of the Columbus Educators Association and a teacher in the English as a second language program, said the Department of Education's policies under Bennett hurt children. She said teachers in the meantime were becoming demoralized, leading to many across the state leaving the profession.
Something had to change, Ritz said. And that's why the teachers union campaigned so actively for Ritz during the past several months.
"We campaigned. We distributed signs, and we talked to any parent or grandparent who asked us about it," Maudlin said.
She said she believes the only reason Bennett won the election in Bartholomew County by a spread of 55.7 percent to 44.3 percent — a 9-point difference from the statewide vote — was that this county is so strongly Republican, the party Bennett represents.
Nate Bean, a fifth-grade teacher at Southside Elementary School, said Ritz is a lifetime educator who will build policies from the ground up. He said Ritz, unlike the current office holder, will converse first with teachers and parents.
"Teachers feel vilified and beat up over things that they may not have much control over," he said. "I think that has to change."
Bean said too much pressure was being put on teachers and schools to perform. Improving student performance should be a team effort, not a threatening situation filled with consequences, he said.
Many educators stateside have opposed changes under Bennett that include expanding charter school access, limiting teachers' collective bargaining and basing teacher pay raises on annual evaluations.
"His reform agenda was so aggressive," said Linda DeClue, assistant superintendent for human resources for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. "From the very beginning, we were all struggling to keep up. It was so combative."
Brian Irwin, a visual arts teacher at Northside Middle School and vice president of the local teachers association, said proof that the A-F Accountability system is flawed can be seen in the fact that Northside, an outstanding school, had to settle for an overall B grade for students.
"So many parts of learning are not measurable," he said. "Finally, we'll have someone in Glenda Ritz who understands that the entire child must be taken into account."