Opinion and Forefront

HARRIS: Takeover threats have a way of moving the needle

January 7, 2012

David HarrisQuestion: The Indiana State Board of Education is proposing new rules that would expand to more than 100 the number of schools subject to state intervention or takeover due to poor performance. Should the rules be adopted?

Answer: In 2005, there were 95 schools on the path to state takeover by 2011. In the subsequent years, 88 of those schools improved enough to get taken off the list. Of the seven remaining schools, six are in Indianapolis Public Schools.

What are the lessons to be learned?

First, the threat of state takeover spurs efforts by most districts to improve school performance.

Second, with six of the seven takeover schools clustered in IPS, we need to face the fact that Indiana’s largest district is fundamentally broken. It’s not the people in the system but the system itself that is the problem. If, as some project, more than 100 schools would be at risk of state intervention under the new rules, it’s likely other districts around the state are broken, as well.

The Mind Trust was recently asked by the Indiana Department of Education to develop recommendations for how the state could deal with the challenge of failing schools. In particular, we were asked to look into larger structural ways to redesign urban districts so they could improve school quality.

In mid-December, The Mind Trust released an 18-month study that tried to tackle just this issue, with a special focus on IPS.

In “Creating Opportunity Schools: A Bold Plan for Transforming IPS,” we engaged local and national experts to evaluate high-performing urban schools across the country and distill the shared components of their success. The result? We found that these schools all existed within a framework of autonomy, accountability and choice.

Talented school leaders had autonomy to build their own staff, choose their own curriculum, set their own schedules, manage their own budgets, and create their own school cultures. Teachers had autonomy to innovate in the classroom. And schools had autonomy to respond to individual needs of students and parents.

These schools embraced accountability and focused relentlessly on data and student achievement. They wanted to be held to high standards and they held their teachers, students and parents to high standards, as well.

And these high-performing schools were most often schools of choice. By giving parents the opportunity, and responsibility, to choose the best school for their children, schools of choice often build high levels of family engagement.

As our report explains, IPS too rarely creates these conditions for success.

Today, only 41 cents of every dollar goes to schools; the remainder is controlled by a large central administration. Most principals don’t have enough say over who is on their team, limiting their ability to build the right school culture. Most teachers are fed a top-down, standardized curriculum, and a rigid formula decides how much they’re paid.

Too many schools aren’t held meaningfully accountable by the district for improving student achievement. And too many students are stuck going to poor-performing neighborhood schools, with few high-quality transfer options and long waiting lists for successful magnet schools.

In “Creating Opportunity Schools,” we explain how by shrinking the central office, refocusing it on a few targeted activities, and sending more resources and autonomy to the school level, IPS could create those optimal conditions for success: autonomy, accountability and choice.

In addition, we explain how the district could reprioritize resources to provide universal pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds, attract more top-flight teachers and school leaders, and incubate high-quality new schools. All without increasing taxes.

It’s a fundamentally new notion for how a school district should operate. And it’s a model we think districts across the state could pursue.

With the state continuing to apply pressure on districts to improve student achievement, it’s time for bold new ideas.

It’s time districts made the kinds of comprehensive reforms necessary for all students to excel.•

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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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