Peggy Hinckley, the new interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, doesn’t much sound like she plans to be a caretaker. Could that present a dilemma for advocates of big-idea education reform in Indy?
Hinckley takes over from Eugene White, who accepted a buyout after he lost school board support. She retired last year after 11 years as superintendent of Warren Township schools.
The Indianapolis Star’s Scott Elliott recently pointed to reasons that Hinckley and IPS may not be a good match even for the short term. Her approach is “laser focused on standardizing instruction,” he writes. The dominant vision of reform in Indianapolis, by contrast, involves choices for parents and autonomy for schools. It’s modeled on the Mind Trust’s “opportunity schools” plan and the Center for the Reinvention of Public Education’s portfolio schools concept.
This approach seems to go hand-in-hand with a yearning for visionary, “cage-busting” leaders. Mind Trust founder and CEO David Harris argues in a recent Star op-ed that IPS should be free to hire non-educators as superintendents. Star opinion editor Tim Swarens adds that the district’s new leader should be a “reformer.”
But Hinckley suggests that meaningful reform involves what happens in the classroom. She is known as an advocate for a consistent and even a uniform approach to instruction. She pledges to move fast on personnel decisions, noting that principal turnover has made it harder for teachers to teach.
“I don’t believe you can have every school doing something different when everyone is measured by a standard assessment on ISTEP,” she says in a revealing interview with Elliott. “Systems can be flexible. But our first responsibility is to make sure every classroom is providing instruction to the state standards that they will be measured by.”
She apparently left Warren Township on solid footing, with most of its 17 schools earning respectable state grades last year. Of course, Warren Township isn’t IPS; it’s much smaller and it doesn’t struggle with the same level of poverty. But neither is it the suburban district it once was. Nearly two-thirds of its students are non-white and two-thirds qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Hinckley tells Elliott she has no interest in the long-term IPS job, which the board hopes to fill by August. But she’s only 60. The challenge of turning around such a district could be tempting. If there’s a sense by summer that she is succeeding, could there be pressure on the school board to keep her?
Hinckley may not be what Indy wants. Could she be what it needs?