Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hear! Hear!

School turnaround companies not a sure thing; let community try 1st

Dear Mr. Tully,

I agree with you and the state's superintendent of public instruction, Tony Bennett, on one thing:  It's sad that we as a community have let Indianapolis Public Schools get to this point. Few could look at the performance of the seven district schools under threat of a state takeover and feel any other way.

Everyone wants to do something to turn things around. Continuing to do nothing is absolutely unacceptable. But doing something doesn't mean we should try anything. And, in my book, allowing the state to take over any of the schools and then turn them over to a management company definitely counts as "anything."

Who's to say a private and possibly out-of-state company would do any better than a locally run and elected school board?

After all, the research on the effectiveness of these turnaround companies is anything but conclusive. Even those who support them admit that.  "There really isn't a big track record for many of these groups to stand on," said M. RenĂ© Islas, an education consultant who has worked in Indianapolis and is the director of the Learning Forward Center for Results. "We're kind of in uncharted territory."

Kind of like California during the Gold Rush. Never before has there been $5 billion of federal funding available to turn around failing schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan hopes to overhaul 5,000 of the nation's 100,000 public schools in the next few years.

A lot of those turnaround efforts, as is the case here, involve paying a private, for-profit company to overhaul schools. Yet nationwide, oversight of these companies hasn't been the best. Many of them are new, formed in response to a burgeoning market for fixing schools, and they have yet to establish proven records of success.

And the privatization of government services doesn't always work. The botched attempt to modernize Indiana's welfare system comes to mind. Gov. Mitch Daniels pulled the plug on the $1.3 billion contract with IBM less than three years into the supposed 10-year implementation.

Do we really want to take that chance with our schools? With our children? What happens if the state hires a turnaround company, and then a year from now or two years from now, test scores at a school don't go up?  Will Bennett fire that company and hire a new one? Will that new company once again fire half the staff and oust the principal?

These are things we need to think about long before we consider crossing the bridge into state takeover land.
Why? Because, above all else, students need stability and consistency.

This came through loud and clear at both of last week's meetings to gather public feedback on the possible state takeover. At Arlington Community High School, teachers and parents complained about the inconsistent meting out of discipline and the rotating cast of principals and teachers over the past four years.

At Broad Ripple, IPS Superintendent Eugene White pointed out that the school is only in its second year of being a full magnet high school for the arts. My point is, there hasn't been enough consistency or stability at either of these schools for the students or teachers to develop any kind of traction for success."The research tells us that the full turnaround of any organization takes three to five years," Islas said.Ripping everything up again at these schools likely would do more harm than good.

What do we do instead? Let the community take up this fight first.

One result of Bennett saying the state should intervene has been that parents and community groups appear to be serious about improving education. The Indianapolis Urban League has vowed to work with the NAACP and the National Council on Educating Black Children to help implement improvement plans at all the schools.

This should have happened years ago when students' grades first started to slide, but that's a gripe for another day. The success of students depends as much on what goes on in the classroom as at home. Without support from parents and the community, kids, especially kids in poor urban districts, have a much harder time making the grade. Their involvement could make all the difference.

Let the community and parents try again. Don't take these schools out of their hands just yet.
That's a "something" I can get behind.

Call Star columnist Erika D. Smith at, or reach on Twitter @indystar_erika.


  1. The trajectory our public schools are now following is unsustainable; I think we all agree on that. Yet asking for the parents and community groups to retain control of the schools does nothing but maintain the status quo. The students have been subject to promises of improvement for years, each one more empty than the last. Why should we, and the students, believe that this time things will work out, that this time the school boards are actually serious about making improvements? At what point will you agree that enough is enough? Should we wait until the graduation rate sinks lower, as it is sure to do if we follow the status quo and let the community and parents "try again?"

  2. Very clever, showing neither Mr. Tully's original argument nor his rebuttal. There are two sides to this coin, Indiana Citizens, and a public introduced to only one of it via media such as this blog cannot be informed.