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School & District Management Opinion

Indiana’s Phased Turnaround Model

By Rick Hess — September 21, 2011 3 min read
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Turnarounds are all the rage. Under the guiding hand of its stellar state chief, Tony Bennett, Indiana has recently tried out an interesting spin in its approach to tackling consistently low-performing schools. Due partly to necessity and partly to calculation, the plan includes a wrinkle or two I thought worth noting. Recently, I had the chance to chat with Dale Chu, Bennett’s assistant superintendent for innovation and improvement, about what’s going on.

A few weeks back, the Indiana Department of Ed opted to intervene in seven schools across Indiana. Six of the schools are in Indianapolis and one is in Gary. Of the seven, the Indiana Department of Ed is taking over five, and contracting with three different external operators to take the lead on these schools. The lever was provided by Public Law 221, which allows the state superintendent to bring in external turnaround school operators for a school that has received the state’s lowest grade for six consecutive years. The operators are Edison Learning, EdPower, and Charter School USA. (The other two schools will remain under the auspices of the local school district.)

Chu explained that contractors will only study, monitor, assist, and engage the community in the first year, and not take over the schools in question until year two. He said, “The first year is a transition year, which will be run by the local school district. The following year, the outside operators will actually start to run the school.”

He said, “In the transition year, the operators are getting to know stakeholders, assets, and liabilities in the school; figuring out which staff they’ll keep and which to let go; [looking at the schedule and curriculum]; and concurrently recruiting folks they might need... By the end of the transition year, they’ll have a comprehensive plan for operational authority for the following years.” Also during this transition year, the operators will be required to craft targets and metrics to gauge school improvement for future years.

When asked where this phased approach came from, Chu noted that the Indiana team had visited Louisiana’s famed Recovery School District several times. “But one of the things we found,” he said, “is that when the RSD started up, they were dealt a hand in terms of Katrina [and so Louisiana] had to do something dramatic. [But] they had no exit strategy going in... [and] they created sort of another bureaucracy.” Chu cautioned that Indiana doesn’t want to create “another layer” where the state becomes in effect “the largest school district.”

When it comes to contracts and compensation, the six schools will no longer be under the Indianapolis Public Schools master contract. This will give the operators a free hand with regard to personnel decisions, and will challenge IPS to make tough calls about how it will handle educators who don’t make the cut at the contract schools.

Federal dollars are the primary funding source for all this. The phased transition varies in cost by school to school, but totals in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Chu explained that, for better or worse, “In this first year, the transition year, we want to minimize any sort of withholding of dollars.”

It’s hard to know a priori whether the phase-in year is going to prove a terrific way to facilitate the change in management and support smart decision-making, or more of a moderately expensive delay. Nor is it yet clear how this approach, and its accompanying “exit” strategy, will compare to Louisiana’s RSD model or imitators in Tennessee and Michigan. So long as we’re honest about this, with ourselves and each other, we have the chance to learn a whole lot about how to do this work better.

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