Tag Archives: IPS

Why We Blame The Victim

The Guardian recently ran a fascinating column explaining the evolutionary purpose of that all-too-human tendency to blame the victim.

Rape and sexual assault survivors are asked about what they wore and how they fought back. Poor people who work three jobs and still can’t support a family are blamed for “laziness” and failure, despite facing an economy that is stacked against them.

Recent research suggests that this tendency is actually a somewhat weird side effect of our human desire for fairness–a hard-wired “just world” bias.

The “just-world bias” happens because our brains crave predictability, and as such, we tend to blame victims of unfairness rather than reject the comforting worldview suggesting that good will be rewarded and evil punished.

“There’s just this really powerful urge for people to want to think good things to happen to good people and where the misperception comes in is that there’s this implied opposite: if something bad has happened to you, you must have done something bad to deserve that bad thing,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at Sewanee University.

It isn’t only human victims who are blamed for their own misfortune.

Case in point: In Indiana, local school districts rely upon state and federal tax dollars to operate. Since 2011, state per-pupil funding has been dramatically reduced. Those reductions initially cost Indianapolis Public Schools $9.4 million annually; the last three years, however, the annual loss has been $15.5 million. Federal funding has dropped by $14.2 million annually since 2010, and Indiana’s insane tax caps have cost the district an average of $16.8 million every year since 2011.

Meanwhile, expenses—especially teacher compensation and benefits, which represent the majority of the budget—have continued to rise.

So far, the district has met these punishing shortfalls without altering the academic programs that have led to recent, much-needed educational improvements. It has closed schools in order to save the expenses of operating underused facilities and it has sold off unused buildings and other properties. Where possible, it has leased facilities to third parties, to generate rental income. It has reduced its central office operations by $5.3 million annually. It has deferred maintenance on its remaining properties in order to protect instructional programs and refinanced debt when favorable interest rates made that feasible.

As I write in an upcoming column in the local business journal,

There’s nothing left to sell. At some point, deferring maintenance is no longer possible. Meanwhile, teachers need to be paid and provided with health-care benefits; and special education students must have their costly needs met.

The district is currently proposing to raise just over 65 million dollars a year for 8 years. Of that amount, 74% would go for compensation, 12% would go for supplies and services, 11% would go for transportation, and 3% for building maintenance. If the Referendum fails, teacher pay will be frozen, some transportation services eliminated, and educational programs cut back.

Predictably, opponents blame the district for poor management. But all school districts in Indiana—including IPS–are the victims of decisions made in the Indiana Statehouse, and to a lesser extent, in Congress. Among other indignities, Mike Pence and the legislature successfully diverted tax dollars from public schools to parochial ones. Indiana has the country’s largest voucher program, and Ball State researchers report that 98% of Hoosier children using vouchers attend religious schools. Taxpayers sent $146.1 million dollars to voucher schools last year; since 2011, the number is $520 million dollars.

None of those decisions were made by local school districts.

Blaming the numerous public school districts in Indiana that have been forced to propose Referenda is like accusing the victim of a robbery of being imprudent with the stolen money.



Ballots and Bullshit

Aside from all the (quite appropriate) angst over our Presidential choices and control of the U.S. Senate, voters in my state of Indiana will be faced with important local decisions. On my  ballot (I voted early) there were three important measures, only one of which was (in my opinion) a “slam-dunk.” That was the referendum for a very minor tax increase to support a very major improvement to our city’s terrible mass-transit, and as I have written previously, it deserves our support.

The other two issues require some background, and the ability to cut through spin and propaganda. (Okay, bullshit.)

The first is a state constitutional amendment supported primarily by the NRA, that would make hunting and fishing a constitutional right.

The Journal-Gazette said it best:

First, it’s completely unnecessary. Like the U.S. Constitution, the Indiana Constitution guarantees the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That covers hunting, fishing and a myriad other activities, as long as those pursuits don’t infringe upon other rights.

Not only does placing hunting and fishing rights alongside such core protections as freedom of speech and religion trivialize the Constitution, it threatens to undermine legitimate laws and regulations. If the right to hunt and fish is needlessly elevated above other kinds of concerns, who knows what kind of bizarre legal challenges to environmental, safety or endangered-species regulations could clog the state’s courts? Judges need to balance freedoms and responsibilities in a broad array of situations – one reason constitutional rights have traditionally been expressed in broad principles rather than narrow specifics.

Finally, there is this not inconsiderable point: No sentient human being can believe that the state of Indiana would actually ban hunting and fishing. From the beginning, this proposal has been a colossal waste of time and energy whose passage could work costly mischief with courts and regulators and trivialize a magnificent document.

Environmental groups opposing the measure also point out that it would make hunting and fishing the “preferred method of wildlife management” in Indiana, placing hunting legally ahead of non-lethal forms of wildlife management (relocation, fencing, contraception, etc.) and threatening to interfere with future efforts to find new ways to manage our wildlife.

And of course, the amendment would be one more nail in the coffin of local control; it would limit the ability of local municipalities to pass their own laws to protect wildlife in their jurisdictions as they see fit.

The second are school board elections. In my district, that has gotten very ugly.

As Abdul recently noted in the Indianapolis Star,

With respect to IPS, the district has come a long way since the dark days of Emperor Eugene White. Long gone are the days of the district spiraling into a fiscal abyss, and a board whose majorities of members were more concerned about employing adults and placating unions than educating children. And if there wasn’t a headline about the state getting ready to take over another failing school, we would have thought we were reading the wrong newspaper.

Looking objectively as to where the district is as opposed to where it was a few years ago, you can only see that progress is being made and things are going in the right direction.

He followed that introduction with objective data confirming the “right direction” assertion. I encourage readers to click through and review that data.

Now, people can differ about change, and everyone who disagrees about particular reforms isn’t a conspiracy theorist. But some are. (This is apparently the season for conspiracy theories.)The incumbents running for re-election–the people who are finally steering the ship in the right direction–are stridently opposed by a couple of “groups.” (The quotation marks are because at least one of these groups appeared pretty much out of nowhere, and has been anything but transparent, so for all we know, it’s three parents pissed off about something.)

Now, I am hardly a dispassionate observer; my stepdaughter serves on the Board, and although she is not one of those running for re-election this year, she has regularly shared Board policies and debates; furthermore, I personally know all the members who are on this year’s ballot. Agree or not with their actions or priorities, but they are good people, earnestly trying to do what is best for IPS children–and they don’t deserve to be called “child molesters” and “pawns of the plutocracy.” They don’t deserve to have their motives questioned and their honesty impugned.

Evidently, 2016 is the year for unhinged conspiracy theories, outright lies, demeaning insults and vulgar language. In my view, people who engage in these sorts of behaviors–from Trump to “Our IPS”–are for that reason alone unfit to serve.


Out-of-State Money

Ah, campaign finance!

Anyone who follows politics–even slightly–knows what a mess our campaign finance laws are, and the multiple ways in which money has screwed up our politics and confused even the most local of campaigns. The most recent example of the latter is debate over the upcoming Indianapolis’ School board races.

Full disclosure: our daughter, Kelly Bentley, is running for her former seat on that Board. (She previously served three terms, then didn’t run four years ago.)

Kelly and other candidates have been endorsed by an assortment of organizations–among them the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, and a national group called Stand for Children. As I understand it, the Chamber made contributions to the campaigns of its preferred candidates.  Stand for Children did not–instead, it has done mailings urging support for those candidates that its local membership (consisting of IPS parents) endorsed.

As an independent organization, Stand for Children is legally prohibited from coordinating with its endorsees, and those candidates have no say in what Stand for Children does or says on their behalf. (I don’t like the current law, especially the fact that independent organizations don’t have the same reporting requirements as candidates, but it is what it is.) Stand for Children has given Kelly’s campaign exactly zero dollars, and has never even informed her of its activities on her behalf.

This endorsement by a national education reform organization has generated a broader discussion–in blogs, on Facebook and elsewhere–about the propriety of accepting “out of state” money.

My favorite example involved a $2,500 gift from a mysterious “New York based” donor, Stephen Suess, to Kelly’s campaign. Stephen, of course, is our son–Kelly’s brother. He’s a web designer, and the $2,500 in-kind contribution was the value of the work he did creating her campaign website.

More to the point, this is yet another debate generating more heat than light. Politics in 21st Century America is increasingly nationalized around philosophical issues: a woman’s right to choose, same-sex marriage, minimum wage….these issues play out in local arenas, but they are anything but local. My husband and I are not wealthy, but we often send small contributions to national organizations working in other states on issues that matter to us, and I’d wager that many of the folks raising red flags about out-of-state contributions do likewise.

If a candidate for a local office were to be entirely funded by people from elsewhere, that would tells us something useful, but when–as here–the bulk of the candidates’ contributions come from local folks, refusing to accept support from people living elsewhere who agree with your positions on the issues–or refusing help from your brother because he lives in New York– would be pretty silly.

If you live in IPS District #3 and you don’t agree with Kelly’s positions on education, or the path that IPS should be pursuing, don’t vote for her. But I can vouch for her integrity, her passion for focusing on the well-being of children, and her grasp of education policy.

Is a parent’s endorsement also “improper”?



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?

Entering the Minefield

The Mind Trust is one of those “do good” organizations that virtually everyone supports. It has spent its relatively brief organizational life doing work that is essentially uncontroversial–studying what sorts of methods work in the classroom, offering Fellowships to good teachers, and reminding the public generally about the importance of education to everything from economic development to quality of life.

Now–as Chef Emeril might say–they are “stepping it up a notch.”

A news release issued this morning introduces a dramatic proposal to restructure and improve Indianapolis Public Schools. In the words of the release, it “describes how by shrinking the central administration of IPS and giving schools more autonomy we could: 

  • send about $200 million more a year to schools without raising taxes,
  • provide high-quality universal pre-kindergarten to all four-year-olds,
  • invest $10 million each year to recruit great teachers and principals and incubate great new schools,
  • empower teachers to innovate in the classroom and reward them for strong results,
  • ensure there is a great school in every IPS neighborhood, and
  • provide parents with dramatically more quality school choices.

It is the boldest urban reform plan in the United States. 

In developing this plan, The Mind Trust engaged local and national experts to analyze high-performing urban public schools across the country and distill the key conditions for their success- autonomy, accountability, and parental choice. Crafted after 18 months of research and design, The Mind Trust’s plan presents a new vision for how IPS and other urban districts could be restructured to create these conditions for all public schools.”

The plan is available online, and deserves a careful reading. There may be provisions that raise red flags–certainly, there will be ample debate and discussion, especially about proposals to turn control over to the Mayor and Council, who have shown little interest in education to date and who have many other responsibilities to discharge. (On the other hand, to suggest–as Matt Tully did this morning–that such a change somehow divests control from the voters is silly; citizens vote in far greater numbers for Mayor and Council than they do for School Board, and I’d be willing to wager a tidy sum that more people can name their Councilor than can identify their School Board representative.)                                                                                                          
There is wide agreement that IPS is failing. Whether this is the plan that will fix it is an open question. But any plan that begins by admitting the obvious–that the current bloated administration is a problem rather than a solution–deserves consideration and support.