Op-eds | September 24, 2015

The Next Wave of Charter School Innovation

Title: The Next Wave of Charter School Innovation
Author: David Harris, Founder & CEO, The Mind Trust
Date: August 26, 2015

Indianapolis is among the most exciting cities in the nation to develop and launch an innovative new school or education venture, and the opportunities for success here are unlike anywhere else in the country. We boast an unusually strong education innovation ecosystem featuring a host of national and local organizations that are working to expand educational opportunities for all families in Indianapolis.

As a result, school options for Indianapolis families over the past 15 years have dramatically increased, particularly in the form of charter schools. Charter schools are free, autonomous public schools that operate independent of traditional school district policies and many state regulations, giving them the autonomy and flexibility that are the hallmarks of high-performing schools across the country.

Charters have been in existence in the U.S. for close to 25 years and have demonstrated that all students can learn at high levels, even in urban areas where the challenges of schooling are intense. Stanford University researchers comparing charter school students’ growth with that of similar peers in district schools found a striking charter school advantage in most cities. For instance:

• In Indianapolis, charter schools students gain an additional 47 days of learning in math and 55 days in reading compared to district peers each year.
• Nationwide, urban charter students learned about 40 days more in math and 28 days more in reading.
• In more than 60 percent of cities, charter students outpaced their district peers.

Most charter schools have been successful because their leaders have had the ability to innovate in ways their counterparts in traditional public schools systems cannot. Charters have been pioneers in expanding learning time for students, using technology to personalize learning, creating school cultures that foster near-universal college attendance, involving parents and community members in school governance and providing wrap-around services to meet the needs of the whole child.

Yet most charter schools, like most district schools, continue to look fairly similar to the schools Americans have attended for the last 100 years, while the world has changed dramatically. The global economy, the emergence of new technologies and the massive improvements in other nations’ educational systems have raised the stakes for U.S. students. And while today’s schools adequately prepare some students for that future, far too many fall through the cracks.

Of course exceptions exist, and many worthwhile efforts are underway to spark new models in schooling. Still, the country needs even more innovation than existing efforts are able to supply.

To meet this need, The Mind Trust created the Charter School Design Challenge, through which we hope to create the next wave of charter schools by identifying the nation’s most innovative social entrepreneurs and encouraging them to design transformational, new charter school models that have never before been tried.

To generate interest in the Design Challenge, The Mind Trust will host a national innovation symposium in Indianapolis in April 2016 to explore new school models. Among the activities will be a preliminary design competition where innovators will present ideas for new school models. The winner will receive a $50,000 grant to be used to further develop a plan to submit to the Charter School Design Challenge. The Mind Trust also will offer planning grants of $10,000 to up to 10 teams of entrepreneurs to develop ideas for the Design Challenge competition.

Finally, the Mind Trust will award four $250,000 grants through the Charter School Design Challenge to design and launch the school in Indianapolis. Other supports from The Mind Trust include visits to world-class schools across the country; expert consulting on school design, school startups and management; and other consulting and research support.

It is clear that today’s charter schools cannot afford to rest upon their laurels when it comes to innovation. That’s why this challenge is so important and so unique. Not only will it increase opportunities for Indianapolis students, but it also will restore the promise of innovation and transformation for charter schools in Indianapolis and beyond.