Decision Point

Last night, Education Reform Now hosted a presentation and panel discussion at Central Library. The main speakers were a representative from the New Orleans system and David Harris, CEO of the Mind Trust; they were joined by two (very impressive) teachers currently working for IPS–one from Howe, a “traditional” school that has just been taken over by the state, the other from Herron High School, a high-achieving public charter school.

Often, when people from elsewhere (isn’t that the definition of an expert?) come to lecture about education, they deliver bromides, based upon their own pet theories and unacknowledged values/prejudices. The New Orleans representative (name escapes me) was very different. He didn’t come to throw bombs or accusations; he was very clear that the failure of urban systems is a systemic failure, not a result of teacher’s unions, or bad teachers or even poverty. New Orleans recognized that what had to change was the top-down system itself–that even the most well-meaning, hard-working people could not achieve results until the system changed.

He was also very candid that the New Orleans schools–despite impressive gains–still has a long way to go.

They key to the improvements in New Orleans was relinquishment–recasting the central office as an administrative support unit, not a command center. As he pointed out, you cannot micromanage what happens in the classroom if you want to hold schools accountable for results. (There’s an analogy to what architects call “performance specifications”–unlike detailed drawings, performance specifications set out the required results, and let the architect or engineer figure out how to achieve those results.)

The systemic changes in New Orleans sounded a lot like the proposals recently made by the Mind Trust, as both presentations made clear.

During the panel discussion, moderated by Amos Brown, the two teachers on the panel explained why they endorsed the Mind Trust’s approach, and shared their own experiences and frustrations.

All in all, the program was the best analysis I’ve heard of the challenges urban school systems face, and the best explanation of the Mind Trust’s proposals for change. That change won’t be easy; the representative from New Orleans downplayed the role of the hurricane in that city, but that disaster clearly created–along with so much tragedy–an opening and mandate for the reinvention of that city’s schools. The tragedy we face is much less obvious–a steady stream of children we are failing. They aren’t being swept away by tidal waters, but they are drowning in a dysfunctional system.

There are no panaceas, and no one on the panel suggested they had all the answers. But the program made a compelling case for change–not just the typical handwringing “we have to do something,” but a well-researched, carefully constructed plan to help us improve the school system and the lives of the children that system is currently failing.

The question is, do we have the will to make the changes we need? Or will we continue to bicker and tinker at the edges of a broken system?


  1. If I understand the somewhat universally proposed changes, all seem to require either action by the Indiana legislature, or at least a drastic change of thinking by the IPS Board. Since the next school board election is in November, and around the time the next legislature convenes, changes are going to come, if at all, from the school board we have in place today, and a legislature that doesn’t seem deeply interested in Indianapolis’ problems. Throw into that mix the possibility that the current IPS Superintendent may well leave at the end of the school year, likely to be replaced (assuming someone actually wants a job that potentially offers little job security) by a Board that probably would want to hire someone aligned with the current structure, and you have to imagine a bumpy road ahead.

  2. Neerav Kingsland was the panelist with New Schools for New Orleans. I, too, am a proponent of systematic, transformational change for K-12 education that provides high quality learning opportunities for all students. Great points, professor!

  3. If we can agree on the liklihood of need for “systematic” and “top-down” IPS overhaul, why is it rabid ravings from the far-right to believe in a similar decentralization of our ponderous, ineffectual, and unaffordable federal government?

  4. While I agree with the need for “systemic” changes, definitions of the needed “changes” are often proclaimed by people who have no understanding of the culturally responsive and relevant conceptual framework needed for success. Educational reform is a complex, multi-factor endeavor which does not lend itself to solutions aimed at any one component of the “system,” e.g., administrators, teachers, unions, “standardized” testing, etc. Furthermore, I believe real reform cannot occur without considering the totality of the health of a community – a totality that would include the quality and quality of jobs, the accessibility of good public transportation, and equitable access to healthcare services.

    While some of the Mind Trust’s proposals may have merit, I am VERY concerned about their proposal to put control of IPS in the hands of the Indianapolis Mayor (current or future).

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