Tag Archives: Mind Trust

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.