National | September 12, 2014

Liberating Indianapolis Schools From District Control

Sept. 12, 2014 6:59 p.m. ET

One of the biggest challenges facing America today is the lackluster state of the K-12 education system. More than half of American workers are not prepared for today’s jobs and therefore are condemned to declining wages, with dire implications for the economy and for individuals’ ability to thrive in a 21st century workforce.

The wages of male high-school dropouts, for example, adjusted for inflation, have contracted an alarming 33% between 1980 and 2013, according to data from the Digest of Education Statistics. Those with only a high-school diploma saw their wages drop 26%, and those with some college but no degree saw a decline of 17%. This is especially worrying because noncollege graduates make up the majority of the population-64%.

Without dramatic action to reform K-12 education, this is unlikely to change soon. The good news is that change is possible. We’re seeing it first-hand here in Indianapolis, because of bold action by the state legislature this spring, and at schools like H.L. Harshman Magnet Middle School. In 2009, thanks in large part to Robert Guffin, Harshman’s principal at the time, the school was granted autonomy from the school district’s central office and given the power to make changes, including staffing changes. The results have been impressive. Harshman has increased the percentage of its students passing math to 93% in 2013 from 39% in 2009. This occurred even as the percentage of students in poverty at Harshman grew to 92% from 72%.

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Dramatic action needs to be taken to reform K-12 education. Associated Press
But such improvements can be found across the country, if you know where to look. Schools are proving that students-regardless of economic or other life circumstances-can excel. Take Uncommon Schools, a Boston-based network of public charter schools, where three-fourths of students are considered economically disadvantaged, yet more than 80% are English proficient and 85% are math proficient.

What these effective schools have in common is not extra funding, dazzling curricular models or other factors that one might assume lead to success. They simply have the conditions that attract excellent teachers and maximize their transformative power.

Specifically, these schools have autonomy from the centralized bureaucracy of school districts, which gives them more control over curricula and hiring. Because principals control budgets at autonomous schools, they’re able to pay great teachers more and reward high performers.

Why is a teacher-centric approach so vital? Ample research shows that excellent teachers are the most critical factor in student success. A 2011 analysis by Stanford University’s Erik Hanushek showed that by replacing the bottom 10% of teachers with average teachers, the U.S. could reach the education achievement levels of top-performing countries such as Finland and Canada.

Paying teachers more is an important part of the solution. Many believe this must be done through increased spending, but the answer often lies in more effective allocation of existing resources.

In Indiana the growth rate for non-teaching staff and teaching assistants from 1987 to 2012 was 70.3%, nearly 10 times the 7.7% growth rate among students, according to a 2013 analysis by Ben Scafidi, director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University. Had growth among non-teaching staff and teaching assistants merely kept pace with that of students, Mr. Scafidi estimated that every Indiana teacher could have seen a nearly $26,000 salary increase on the $51,000 base that average midcareer Indiana teachers receive today.

Such facts underscore the need for shifting dollars and decision-making to the school level, which would enable principals to reward excellent teachers by compensating them well. Creating such a system is not easy, in part because there is significant resistance.

Some of that resistance is driven by self-preservation. The jobs of thousands of administrators in top-heavy district offices depend on keeping centralized control. Unions want to protect jobs and seniority-based hiring and compensation. They fight giving school administrators the authority to assemble teams of quality teachers, regardless of experience, and the power to terminate underperforming teachers.

Yet with strong local leadership and enough political will, educators and families can defeat the forces against change. New Orleans is a prime example. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city has restructured its top-down model into a system of autonomous public charter schools. The percentage of proficient 3rd through 8th grade students has grown to 63% from 35%, according to a 2013 analysis of state data by the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans. That growth puts New Orleans on track to become the nation’s only high-poverty urban district to surpass its state’s proficiency rate.

Here in Indiana, the state legislature passed an innovative law in March allowing Indianapolis’s largest school district to create public schools that have contractually guaranteed autonomy from the district’s central office, while being exempt from the district’s collective-bargaining agreement. Such exemptions give school leaders more power to recruit high-quality teachers and pay them based on merit and market value.

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee championed the new law, and the district is working with The Mind Trust, a local nonprofit, to recruit and train talented administrators and teachers to launch and run the autonomous schools. This could lead to more success stories like Harshman Magnet Middle School throughout the city, establishing a national model.

We all know that changing K-12 education is difficult. Achieving it begins with allowing more autonomy for schools and teachers, and less control from unions and administrators. The future of the American economy-and of today’s students-depends on it.

Mr. Hubbard, a former director of the National Economic Council during the George W. Bush administration, is chairman of Indianapolis-based E&A Companies.