Local | January 11, 2013

Perspectives in Education: David Harris

 Editor’s Note: "Perspectives in Education" is meant to be an open and continuous forum through which the people of Indianapolis can contemplate the present and future of the city’s educational landscape. A new submission will be posted each Thursday, except for weeks in which the community offered no submissions. Anyone interested in contributing a "Perspective" is welcomed and encouraged to do so. Please direct submissions to rtownsend@nuvo.net. To the extent that statistics or research findings are referenced, please include hyperlinks or at least cite the primary source of the material.

Let’s make IPS the best place in the nation to teach

By David Harris

Having a great teacher is the most critical factor in helping students to excel.

A 2005 study, which controlled for the previous test scores and demographic factors of roughly 150,000 Los Angeles students, ranked teacher performance based on the outcomes achieved with those students over a two-year period. The authors concluded in a Brookings Institute white paper that teachers who ranked among the top 25 percent in terms of student outcomes, if given four consecutive years of influence, could close the test-score gap between white and African-American students. And a 2011 study by researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities showed students taught by highly effective teachers are more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, and save for retirement.

Outstanding teachers change lives. That’s why we must do everything we can to encourage the many great teachers in Indianapolis Public Schools to remain in the district – and make IPS a magnet to attract additional education talent from across the nation.

To do that, we have to create the right conditions within every school in IPS. That means giving schools ample autonomy from district control in exchange for strong accountability for achieving top performance. That way, school leaders would be able to make critical decisions about how to run their schools, and teachers would receive the professional freedom, pay and respect they deserve.

Within IPS, a handful of schools today are granted these conditions under special circumstances.

For example, the district gave Harshman Middle School autonomy to execute a turnaround in 2009. Because of this agreement, Harshman’s excellent school leader was able to assemble a high-quality teaching and leadership team, and Harshman teachers were given the freedom to deliver instruction in the way they determined would best help students to excel.

As a result, student performance skyrocketed. ISTEP scores have improved, on average, by 118 percent in English Language Arts and 104 percent in math from 2009 to 2012.

If every IPS school gave school leaders the freedom to make those kinds of management decisions, the best school leaders in IPS would remain in the district, and excellent new leaders would flock there. With top-notch school leadership in place across the board, talented teachers also would be encouraged to remain in or move to the district.

That is what The Mind Trust envisioned when we released our "Creating Opportunity Schools" report proposing a dramatic overhaul of IPS in December 2011. The key recommendation of our 160-page report is shifting control over key spending and decision-making from the district’s central office to individual schools.

Under the conditions we propose, teachers would have more professional flexibility to deliver their best instruction.Today in IPS, teachers receive pacing guides designed by the central office that lay out which state standards to prioritize and how long to focus on each set of standards. That schedule also is rigidly enforced by a series of tests mandated by the district. Both of these things put guardrails on the level of creativity and innovation that teachers can unleash in delivering high-quality instruction.

Instead of this top-down structure, qualified school leaders who best know their students’ needs should be empowered to set their own benchmarks for success. In turn, those leaders should be able to give teachers freedom to determine what to teach and when – in ways that teachers determine would best help their students to learn.

With most decisions and resources shifted to the school level, great teachers also likely would be paid more. School leaders would be able to assemble their own teams of teachers. To get the best teaching talent at their schools, they would likely have to offer more competitive salaries, and they could do that because they would control significantly more resources.

Those enticing conditions would make IPS a draw for excellent teachers, both those already in the system and talented newcomers. That would be a tremendous asset to our city – and a game-changer for the children who represent its future.

David Harris is the founder and chief executive officer of The Mind Trust. Harris has also served as former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson’s Charter Schools Director. He received a BA from Northwestern University and a law degree from Indiana University. Harris sits on the State of Indiana’s Charter Schools Review Panel and serves on the advisory boards of Western Governors University Indiana, Teach Plus and Teach For America Indianapolis.