Indianapolis’ largest district is pursuing a new vision for education that aims to shift power from the central office to building principals. But as leaders move forward with their plan, they are facing a host of questions over how — and when — to cede control.
If schools are historically low-performing, should their principals still get full freedom? How can central office staff be encouraged to give up power? What decisions should be left up to principals?
Those are a few of the issues facing Indianapolis Public Schools leaders as they pursue a plan to give principals at all traditional schools in the district more control over instruction, budgets, and staffing by 2020.
Twelve schools have already been designated “autonomous” schools and given some of that freedom by the district, though they are still bound by the teachers union contract. That’s a separate effort from the district’s innovation schools, which are not unionized and are managed by outside partners who have near complete control over their operations.
The task ahead of the district is to figure out how to keep its promise to grant new freedom to dozens more schools – including schools that have struggled in the past.
Board members grappled with how that should work this week during a board retreat. Here are some of the big questions the board discussed.
Should all principals get the same level of flexibility?
Although most board members support giving principals more freedom, there was little consensus on just what that should ultimately look like.
Board member Diane Arnold said that low-performing schools often rely on support from the district, and giving them too much freedom could lead to “disaster.”
“For me the key is performance,” she said. “I think if all of our schools had great building leaders, I would be comfortable. But I don’t think we are there yet.”
Board member Elizabeth Gore disagreed. “No matter what the school performance is, that particular principal should be able to have the same flexibility as a high-performing school,” she said.
How will district staff need to adapt?
Nearly all of the board members agreed that for autonomous schools to succeed, the district needs leaders who are OK with giving up power and principals ready to take on new responsibilities.
Some are not yet ready for the change, many board members agreed.
The district needs people in the central office who “innately trust in the leadership of their buildings,” said board member Kelly Bentley, and “the right leaders in those buildings that can handle that kind of autonomy.”
Are there some things — such as the arts — schools should be required to offer?
Some board members argued that the district should set requirements for how schools use their time, including what courses they offer or how much time they allot for things like recess. Others suggested that the focus should be on establishing goals and allowing school leaders to reach them however they wish.
“There ought to be some minimum requirements on what has to be offered across the board,” said Bentley. “If schools want to go above that, I think they should be free to do that.”
Board member Mary Ann Sullivan thought otherwise. The district leadership could instead set goals for things like musical exposure, for example.
“How the schools do that is up to the school,” she said. “I don’t think we should get that prescriptive.”