Brown: 2 New Studies of Indianapolis Schools, by CREDO and Indiana & Purdue Universities, Show the Promise of Locally Driven Reforms

For decades, cities across the country have fallen short in building education systems capable of giving every child the opportunity to fulfill the American dream. Despite many well-intentioned efforts, stark opportunity gaps continue to persist for low-income students and students of color.

Two recent studies of Indianapolis schools, however, provide some of the clearest evidence yet of the transformative potential of locally driven strategies that empower school leaders with autonomy and hold them accountable for producing results.

The first study, conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO), is part of a 10-study series analyzing city-based efforts to improve education outcomes. The study analyzed the performance of traditional public schools within Indianapolis Public Schools alongside charter schools and Indianapolis’s unique Innovation Network schools, district schools that have full operational autonomy.

The study found that in 2016-17, students in Indianapolis charter schools gained the equivalent of 77 additional days of learning in reading and 100 additional days of learning in math relative to their traditional public school peers in the district.

It also found that Innovation Network schools, many of which are in the first or second year of school turnaround, helped their students achieve an additional 53 learning days in reading and 89 additional learning days in math compared with their traditional public school peers in the district.

The second study zeroed in on charter schools authorized by the mayor of Indianapolis. To account for the impact on achievement when students transfer to a new school, researchers from Indiana University and Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis analyzed academic results for elementary students who continuously enrolled in either a mayor-sponsored charter school or a traditional public school from kindergarten through fifth grade.

They found significantly higher student achievement in mayor-sponsored charter schools than in the city’s traditional public schools. In 82 of the 96 separate statistical comparisons run in the study, mayor-sponsored charter students had greater gains for both reading and math achievement. Specifically, the study found that for elementary students who attended the same school from 2011 through 2017, those in mayor-sponsored charter schools had fifth-grade gains that were 18 points higher in reading and 19 points higher in math on the Indiana state assessment than students in traditional public schools.

City and education leaders should take a closer look at how Indianapolis has stewarded the growth of autonomous schools over the past two decades, both outside and within its flagship school district.

A primary factor in Indianapolis’s success is the fact that its charter school sector has been locally driven. When Indiana’s charter school law passed in 2001, then-Mayor Bart Peterson stepped up to directly authorize charter schools in the city. As a result, the leader of Indianapolis’s charter school movement had deep insight into the needs of local neighborhoods from day one.

Moreover, Indianapolis’s model of mayoral authorizing allowed for heightened accountability on the authorizing process. Constituents possessed an array of avenues to express concerns about their schools, whether through the city’s constituent hotline, their city councilors, or the ballot box.

Another critical factor was the mayor’s ardent focus on quality. In its first year, the mayor’s office rejected the vast majority of applicants and opened only three schools, setting a high bar for the quality expected of charter schools in Indianapolis.

Peterson’s successors, one a Republican and one a Democrat, continued this laser-like focus on quality while consistently growing the number of charters. By 2014, charter schools served approximately one-third of students enrolled in Indianapolis Public Schools.

In fact, this quality track record was a critical factor in building a foundation for the unique partnerships that exist today between the district and charter schools. Since 2014, the district has partnered with the mayor’s office and The Mind Trust to launch Innovation Network Schools, contractually autonomous schools that operate within the district. Today, there are 20 Innovation Network schools, each empowered with the freedoms and flexibilities needed to serve more than 8,500 students.

The CREDO and Indiana University–Purdue findings also underscore the importance of providing planning time, resources, and support to school leaders working to open a new school. No city can realistically expect its school leaders to design trailblazing, high-quality school models on weekends and during summer break.

Indianapolis’s infrastructure for supporting new schools is a key reason Innovation Network Schools have shown strong academic improvement after just one or two years. The Mind Trust, the district, and the mayor’s office together created the Innovation School Fellowship to recruit diverse leaders and provide them with the supports they need to launch a strong school on day one. Fellows receive one or two full years of salary and benefits in addition to an array of other resources and expert supports.

This combination of locally driven reform, quality authorizing, and a supportive runway for new schools are critical components of the transformative change that has taken place in Indianapolis over the past two decades.

At the same time, there is no blueprint, no formula, no magic bullet for transforming a city’s education system. The path we have taken in Indianapolis has been driven by our local context. And though we have made significant progress, much work remains if we are going to provide every student in our city access to a truly high-quality education.

This said, the Indianapolis story shows that with the right amount of patience and persistence, city-specific and locally led strategies for transforming education systems can yield sustainable systemic change, including some that transcend city leaders’ original imaginations.

Brandon Brown is CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education nonprofit.

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