Six months after the Mind Trust released its plan to reform Indianapolis Public Schools, researchers at Indiana University say the strategy relies on experiments in other cities that ultimately led to greater inequity among students and did not produce dramatic academic gains.
That contention is the main message of an nine-page analysis released Thursday by the IU Center for Urban and Multicultural Education. Written by John Houser, a research associate at the center, the report examines academic studies about school reforms tried in New Orleans and New York.
Those two cities were the primary models after which the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform group, patterned its plan, which it released in December.
The plan, called “Creating Opportunity Schools,” recommends gutting the staff and budgetary control of the IPS central office and turning the school into a network of charter-like schools. School-level leaders would compete for autonomy that would allow them to make all hiring, salary, purchasing and curriculum decisions.
Most controversially, the Mind Trust has called for an end to popular elections of the IPS school board members, so that the board could instead be appointed by the Indianapolis mayor and the City-County Council.
The IU researchers said the experience of other cities with mayoral control suggests “no inherent advantages relative to traditional school board control, and may be problematic for democratic aims.”
“A call for major transformation of a school district calls for major evidence or some support for that to happen. And I don’t see the evidence for a fundamental transformation for how IPS is run,” said Houser, who compiled his report with contributions from fellow researchers at the IU center, Joshua Smith and Rob Helfenbein. All three holds doctorate degrees in education.
Mind Trust CEO David Harris bristled at the suggestion that his group’s plan was not based on evidence or research. In a written response to the IU study, Harris noted that the Mind Trust plan included 150 footnotes and 15 appendices with supporting information. He also noted that, in addition to New Orleans and New York, the Mind Trust staff and contractors spent 18 months studying schools in numerous other cities.
“We do not claim that these strategies are perfect or infallible,” Harris wrote of the Mind Trust plan, titled, “Creating Opportunity Schools.” Referring to the IU center by its acronym, he added, “But contrary to CUME’s claims, they do have a strong research basis, citations for which appear in the report itself.”
The claim of the IU researchers is that the Mind Trust report does not fully portray the results seen in New Orleans, New York and cities that have tried mayoral control.
New Orleans draws the sharpest differences of opinion. The public school system there was overhauled out of necessity after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. About 70 percent of the schools are charters.
IU’s Houser argues that those charter schools in New Orleans posted better student outcomes mainly because they have attracted larger percentages of white, affluent and non-special education students than the remaining traditional public schools.
In short, the system of broad choices instituted in New Orleans—as well as the transportation problems that came with it—funneled stronger students to the charter schools and weaker students to the traditional public schools.
"The idea that we would hold up New Orleans as a model for reform doesn’t fit with what I’m hearing,” wrote Houser, referring to people he knows who work in New Orleans public schools.
Harris at the Mind Trust partly agreed with Houser’s analysis—but said the Mind Trust’s plan includes new elements designed to head off the problems schools in New Orleans experienced.
“New Orleans succeeded by replacing its failing schools gradually over the years with higher-performing schools,” Harris wrote. “CUME is right that the city faces significant challenges in making these reforms work for all students. Learning from the New Orleans experience, the Opportunity Schools plan includes several features designed to address that city’s challenges, such as a fair district-wide enrollment process, transportation for all students, and a comprehensive, well-funded approach to special education.”
In New York, Houser noted, a decade of mayoral control produced a lot of change, but not much improvement in student test scores across the entire district. He also noted that the school choice system has not worked as well for recent immigrants or English-language learners, and has led some parents to say they are shut out of decision-making processes.
“We are particularly concerned for the possible implications of this plan regarding issues of equity and democratic control,” Houser wrote.