School & District Management

Bold Remake Proposed for Indianapolis Schools

By Christina A. Samuels — January 24, 2012 6 min read
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An Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization has crafted a sweeping plan for reworking the 33,000-student Indianapolis school system that would place the district under the control of the city’s mayor, pare down the money spent in central administration, and give principals broad authority to hire and fire teachers.

The reform plan created by the Mind Trust organization would transform the district’s schools into what the report calls “Opportunity Schools,” which would be given “unprecedented freedom over staffing, budgets, curriculum, and culture,” as long as they continued to meet high standards. Those schools would compete for students who live within the district’s boundaries.

Whether these ambitious plans would come to fruition is still in question. But the state’s superintendent of public instruction, whose office funded the bulk of the report, said he would want to see the reform measures outlined in the report adopted not just in Indianapolis, but in districts statewide.

“There’s nothing stopping an innovative superintendent and school board from saying, ‘We want to do this in our school district,’ ” said Tony Bennett, a founding member of Chiefs for Change, a coalition of state superintendents who are supportive of reforms such as school choice and paying teachers based on their students’ achievement. “What this offers is a menu of resources that districts can consider.”

The Indiana department of education contributed $500,000 of the nearly $700,000 used to produce the report from the Mind Trust, which has promoted entrepreneurial education ventures in the city since the foundation was created in 2006. The report was released last month.

Policy Shifts

The state has already passed an expansive reform agenda. During last year’s legislative session, the Republican-led legislature passed a broad, needs-based voucher bill, eliminated teacher tenure and allowed districts to use merit pay, and expanded the number of entities that could create charter schools. (“Indiana Schools Grapple With Voucher Law’s Impact,” Dec. 19, 2011.)

Mr. Bennett said he doubts, however, that legislators this session will take up any changes to state law that might be required to enact the Indianapolis plan.

Still, the time might be ripe for major changes in the state’s largest school district, said David Harris, the founder and chief executive officer of the education nonprofit that produced the Indianapolis report.

“People seem pretty open to this in ways that have surprised us,” Mr. Harris said. “We expected more of a negative reaction from some quarters, but a lot of the ideas are those that people who have been involved in the public education system have long thought needed to happen.”

But one major critic of the plan is Eugene G. White, the superintendent who has led the school district since 2005. Under the proposed reforms, the mayor would be in charge of appointing the superintendent, who could then be directed to implement the other changes, like creating the Opportunity Schools network.

Instead of offering anything new, Mr. White says that the agenda proposed by the Mind Trust offers rehashed ideas that have not been successful elsewhere.

“There is no doubt that we have to improve,” said Mr. White, who was on the Mind Trust board from its founding until May, when he resigned over the organization’s endorsement of mayoral control. “What we’re saying is we are demonstrating improvement.”

The report, he said, is more political than educational,” driven by Indiana’s desire to be a national leader in school reform, he said.

“They have to make us look as dysfunctional as possible,” Mr. White added.

Discussion ‘Jump-Start’

The Indianapolis district has struggled with some schools because of poverty, Mr. White said. The school system is about 54 percent black, 23 percent white, and 17 percent Hispanic. Seventy-four percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

However, the district recently achieved a graduation rate of 69 percent, up 20 percentage points from two years ago, according to Mr. White.

But the state recently took over five schools for persistent low performance, and four of them were in Indianapolis, said the state superintendent.

Indianapolis superintendents have made promises and launched plans, but “by and large, the results are not getting appreciably better,” Mr. Bennett said.

The reform plan, which hinges on mayoral control, did not prompt an automatic endorsement from Mayor Greg Ballard, who also did not say he wants to take over the school system.

In a statement responding to the plan, he said the report had “interesting ideas.”

“It is my sincere hope this report jump-starts a much-needed discussion about the future of education in our community,” he said.

Moving Resources

The Mind Trust is the brainchild of former Indianapolis Mayor Barton R. Peterson, a Democrat who served from 2000 to 2007. In 2001, the mayor’s office was granted the direct authority to create charter schools, a first in the nation, and Mr. Harris served as the charter schools director in Mr. Peterson’s administration. The organization’s financing comes from local groups and national philanthropies, such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Joyce Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation. Those foundations also provide support for some news coverage in Education Week.

The prescriptions from the report show some of the same basic assumptions as school reform efforts elsewhere. One is that the Indianapolis district’s central office is seen as an entity that stifles good education ideas. The thinking is that the reforms needed for the system can’t be accomplished under the diffuse power structure created by the superintendent and the district’s seven-member school board.

One of the Mind Trust’s proposals for Indianapolis calls for shifting money away from the central office by cutting staff and directing the $188 million saved back to the schools.

The district should also pay for all 4-year-olds to attend high-quality preschools and invest up to $10million a year to attract talented principals and teachers who can start more strong schools, the report says.

“This is pro-teacher and pro-school-leader,” Mr. Harris said. “One of the things we just heard very loudly from teachers in ips is not that the central office was neutral—it was a destructive force in the work that they’re doing.”

The superintendent, however, believes that many of the ideas in the report have been tried in the city before, to little success.

For example, he said that site-based management of schools led to different textbook adoptions and different curriculum pacing, which is a problem for a district such as Indianapolis with a high mobility rate. Students could move from school to school and lose their place in the curricula, he said.

Mr. White said he plans to introduce his own reform plan in February, after the attention from Indianapolis’ hosting of the Super Bowl dies down. He said his proposal would create traditional schools, high-needs schools that would receive more central office support, and semiautonomous schools that would be given training in human-capital management and budgeting.

“We want to be in the competition, but it’s discouraging when the politics of for-profits and charters and all these things come down against you,” he said.

The reform agenda proposed by the Mind Trust puts Indianapolis “on the leading edge of local think-tank and philanthropy-driven efforts to redefine the school system,” said Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public

Education, based at the University of Washington. The report says it drew its conclusions in part on Mr. Hill’s research on portfolio school districts, which he says offer the possibility of new and successful approaches to providing education. Portfolio districts, which stress school autonomy and choice, include New York, the Recovery School District in Louisiana, and District of Columbia public schools.

“My belief has been for a long time that you need to this kind of civic engagement—not just ‘rah rah’ people—so that [reform] can be sustained a long time,” Mr. Hill said.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Indianapolis Plan Suggests Blueprint for Other Districts

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