HARRIS: A better structure would let standout schools emerge

September 10, 2011

David HarrisQuestion: If you could design an urban school district from scratch, what would it look like?

Urban school systems across the country are in crisis. Longtime New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein recently said, “Public education in the large urban areas in the United States has failed … more than half of our students are not remotely getting the education they deserve.”

Yet some individual urban schools are thriving. For example, Herron High School, a public charter in Indianapolis, boasts a 92-percent graduation rate and a 98-percent college admission rate. IPS’ Center for Inquiry—a magnet school—has been named a national Blue Ribbon school and met state testing targets every year.

If school systems are failing, yet some individual schools are proving that all kids can succeed, how can we build a system that creates optimal conditions for more great schools to emerge?

Instead of a centralized, bureaucratic school system, what if we built a system of great individual schools?

In this model, the focus would be to ensure that every student inside the city has access to an excellent school. It would be up to each school to decide its instructional focus, staffing, scheduling, budgeting and the like. It wouldn’t matter who ran the school.

Whether it’s part of the traditional system or a public charter school, great schools that are thriving would be given more autonomy and more resources to expand. Programs that have consistently failed would be closed, and new leaders and teachers recruited to take their place. That way, the school building would continue as the hub of the neighborhood, but what happens inside the classrooms would be new … and better.

In such a system, the role of the district office would fundamentally change. Instead of operating schools from on high, dictating curriculum and assigning staff, the slimmed-down central office would have three primary roles:

Authorizer. The district would set standards all schools must meet, review applications for new programs, monitor schools’ performance, and act quickly in struggling schools.

Coordinator. To ensure each child is in a school that meets his or her needs, the district would administer the annual enrollment process, including informing families about their choices.

Service provider. The district would distribute funds to schools, manage facilities, administer state assessments, and operate the citywide transportation system that’s needed for choice to be a realistic possibility for families across the city.

The district also could offer services such as group purchasing, food service and professional development. But individual schools would be free to shop around.

This new system would have four key advantages:

Greater autonomy. Those closest to the students—teachers and principals—would have the power to make educational decisions. School leaders could hire and fire staff, pay great teachers more, choose a curriculum, and extend the school day and year.

More accountability. Schools would be evaluated every few years for gains in student achievement, financial well-being and other indicators of excellence. Successful schools could expand; failing programs would be replaced by superior options.

More choice. Instead of the district assigning a school based on where a child lives, families could choose the school they want a child to attend—based on achievement results, the educational program, extracurricular offerings and other criteria.

More community involvement and local control. Individual schools would be governed by not-for-profit boards of community leaders instead of elected school boards.

Is such a system of great schools possible here? With autonomy, accountability, choice and local control, Indianapolis could become a beacon for the best educators in the country. A bold dream, yes. But Hoosiers have a proud legacy of successful civic transformations.•


Harris is CEO of The Mind Trust, a not-for-profit supporting entrepreneurial education initiatives. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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