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IUPUI report raises concerns about equity, democratic engagement under Mind Trust proposal for IPS schools

John Houser
John Houser View print-quality imageRob Helfenbein
Rob Helfenbein


June 25, 2012

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A new report from the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education at the School of Education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis raises several concerns about the viability of a proposed reform plan for Indianapolis Public Schools, particularly as regards issues of equity and democratic participation. The report “School Reform and the Mind Trust Proposal: Another Look at the Evidence” examines the plan put forward by the Mind Trust in December.

The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis non-profit whose mission is to promote education reform, put forward “Creating Opportunity Schools: A Bold Plan to Transform IPS.” The plan calls for providing pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, shrinking IPS central administration, eliminating the elected school board, establishing totally autonomous “opportunity schools” that give teachers and principals more freedom while holding them more accountable, and giving parents more school choices.

The Center for Urban and Multicultural Education review paints a mixed picture of results from the reforms promoted by the Mind Trust that have been tried elsewhere and suggests potential negative impacts for Indianapolis students. “We kept seeing these recurring themes in the different places,” said John Houser, research associate at the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education and lead author of the report. “There were concerns about equity for the most vulnerable students as well as protecting the democratic input for those most vulnerable students and their families.”

The Mind Trust report presents the market-based reforms in the school systems of New York City and New Orleans as strategies that “mirror” the group’s proposal to create “opportunity schools.” The Mind Trust report notes that the percentage of New Orleans students attending a “failing school” dropped from 62 percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2010. ““It’s really quite difficult to make comparisons,” Houser said, becuase New Orleans was transformed so much by Hurricane Katrina and the resulting exodus from there.” The city lost more than half its population in the year after the 2005 storm and still has 100,000 fewer residents than in 2005. Furthermore, the failing schools cutoff for standardized test scores in New Orleans changed many times in those five years.

The Mind Trust touts New York City for raising proficiency rates for 4th and 8th graders in math by 20 percent between 2002 and 2009. Report contributor Rob Helfenbein, associate professor of curriculum studies at the IU School of Education at IUPUI and Center for Urban and Multicultural Education associate director said a broader view of the New York scores provides a deeper context. The review examined National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, the test sometimes called “The Nation’s Report Card,” and found New York scores don’t stand out. “You could look at other urban areas that have not embraced the reforms that are being suggested in this report that have higher rates of achievement than New York,” he said. “It’s a correlation causation problem.”

The Mind Trust proposal recommends mayoral control for IPS, eliminating the current school board in favor of a five-member panel with three board members selected by the mayor. The Mind Trust proposal states placing the mayor as IPS leader saves money, coordinates city services for students and families, reduces special interest influence, and creates a single point of accountability. The Center for Urban and Multicultural Education analysis found several studies that find problems with mayoral control, particularly in predominantly African-American school districts. In particular, African-Americans tend to be disenfranchised by losing their school board representation, something Houser said could be particularly problematic in Indianapolis. “We’re in a unique situation where the boundaries of the school district are only one third of the population of the city,” he said. “So by going to mayoral control, two-thirds of those who would actually have a say about the mayor and therefore the school system would not actually even live in that district.”

“If the population of that district doesn’t like what the mayor is doing with their schools, they simply don’t have the electoral power to actually vote him out,” Helfenbein added. “You’ve got a real democratic problem here that at the very least is worth a very open and vibrant discussion with the communities that are going to be impacted.”

The authors further question the Mind Trust reliance on alternative teacher certification pipelines, particularly “Teach for America." Teach for America recruits college graduates in non-education majors to teach in high-needs districts, enlisting them for a two-year commitment with less than six weeks of preparation for classroom teaching. While the Mind Trust proposal notes Teach for America successes, the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education report notes significant issues with such teachers. “Depending on how you break down the different variables and how you look at different outcomes you really see a pretty mixed result in terms of these alternative certification programs and their effectiveness,” Houser said.

Helfenbein said one of the issues is the fact that few Teach for America teachers remain following their two-year commitment. “That’s not blaming Teach for America teachers, because that’s not the program,” he said. “It’s not designed for long term teaching positions, which is a problem given the research we know on teacher development.” Helfenbein said research shows that new teachers improve continuously until around their sixth year in a classroom, then begin to level off, meaning a cadre of teachers continuously in their first two years of teaching will likely never be at their best performance level. In addition, the constant turnover of Teach for America teachers is disruptive to the continuity in schools, and expensive for a district.

The Center for Urban and Multicultural Education analysis concludes the Mind Trust reforms risk further disenfranchising already underprivileged groups such as English language learners, students with disabilities, communities of color and students from families with low educational attainment.

Citing the work of University of Chicago researcher Charles Payne, the authors suggest Payne's framework for effective school reform as a way to change urban schools without damaging equity for vulnerable students:

•Instructional time protected or extended
•Intellectually ambitious instruction
•Professional community of teachers
•Academic press combined with social support
•Program coherence
•Teacher quality

The full Center for Urban and Multicultural Education report is available online

The Center for Urban and Multicultural Education is the research arm of the Indiana University School of Education at IUPUI. The center's mission is to create connections between research, theory and practice with the ultimate aim of improving the quality of education throughout the P-20 continuum, from early childhood through graduate school levels, and including formal, alternative and community-based education. The mission is furthered through sustainable partnerships created with schools and other educational organizations in communities around Indiana. The center's work seeks to support inquiry, facilitate public discussion, and critically challenge stereotypes about diverse students, families, and schools.