Local | October 25, 2014

Swarens: The need for confession

This was supposed to be an inspirational story about an educator and economist who overcame steep obstacles as a child before emerging as one of the sharpest minds on the planet. Stay with me; we’ll get there. But first we need to detour into the often contentious world of education reform in Indiana.

On Thursday, an impressive collection of top academic, business, political and nonprofit leaders – from Glenda Ritz to Mark Miles, Ann Murtlow to Joe Hogsett, Maggie Lewis to Allan Hubbard – gathered in a ballroom on Ivy Tech’s Meridian Street campus to consider the most important question facing our city, state and nation: How do we significantly improve student achievement so as to equip new generations for the increasingly complex demands of this century?

Now, if you pay any attention at all to education issues in this state, you’re aware that the politics surrounding reform efforts has been only slightly less bruising than the Colts’ defense on most Sundays.

But a great, unexpected thing happened that day: A call for detente.

Or as UNCF (formerly known as the United Negro College Fund) President Michael Lomax put it, we need "community and conversation, not community and confrontation" about our shared education challenges.

Later in the program, former Mayor Bart Peterson, who’s something of a patron saint of education reform in this city, echoed Lomax’s appeal. Saint Bart’s plea was for reform advocates to stop talking down at educators and others perceived as roadblocks, rather than trying to engage them as partners.

The appeal to abandon the reform movement’s self-righteousness, as Peterson described it, is grounded in a sobering reality: Change driven from the top down – the kind pushed in this state by Tony Bennett, for example – often fails. In contrast, reform efforts built on grassroots support are much more likely to last. Not everyone will buy into those efforts, of course – some people are allergic to change – but the need for a broader base to achieve lasting reform is real.

As an education reform advocate for a couple of decades, let me make a confession: Many of us, myself included, have too often communicated impatience with too many of the professionals who serve in classrooms every day. We haven’t listened long enough, and we’ve been too quick to prescribe solutions that when tested haven’t always held up to scrutiny. Merit-based pay for teachers is but one example.

That acknowledgment in no way negates the necessity of promoting change. We simply must find ways to improve student success rates; too many lives are at stake to settle for anything less.

But we need more partners, and fewer opponents.

So that’s the confession. Now to the inspiration.

Those of us huddled in the Ivy Tech ballroom as guests of UNCF and The Mind Trust weren’t there only for the culinary students’ chicken salad and chocolate mousse (thumbs up, by the way). The main draw was Roland Fryer, whose resume, at age 37, makes most of us look like life-long slackers.

Fryer is a Harvard University economics professor with a passion and expertise in researching what works in America’s schools, and what doesn’t. But that description doesn’t come close to doing him justice. At age 30, he became the youngest African-American to earn tenure in the 378-year history of Harvard. He has been certified by the MacArthur Foundation as a genius, and Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2009.

Not bad for a troubled kid from Texas whose father landed in prison when Fryer was still a teen. In a 2005 profile, Fryer told The New York Times that eight of 10 close family members had either died young or been sent off to prison. Fryer appeared on that path himself as a teen until a rough encounter with police shook him awake. He eventually landed an athletic scholarship to the University of Texas at Arlington, where he discovered that he enjoyed the academic life. The rest is crimson and ivy.

For Fryer, our nation’s critical need to close the achievement gap, especially among African-American males, is personal. And it’s fueled his research.

Part of that research centers on questions associated with what separates highly effective schools from those that struggle. Fryer’s conclusions are boiled down into what he calls the five tenets for success: invest in human capital (teachers and principals); spend more time on task (longer school days and years); use data to drive instruction; commit to high-dosage tutoring; and set high expectations.

All of that may sound obvious, and Fryer readily acknowledges the point. But, as he put it, "If it’s so damn obvious, why aren’t we doing it?"

Why, indeed?

Swarens is The Star’s opinion editor. Email him at tim.swarens@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @tswarens.