Indianapolis schools study: Less than meets the eye?

A study of Indianapolis schools released last week seeks to quantify the need for “high-performing seats” in the city – with high-performing defined as seats in schools that earn an A or B on Indiana’s grading system.

But the study, by the Illinois Facilities Fund, ends up providing more evidence of what we already knew: School grades correlate with school poverty, and there’s not much evidence A and B schools have cornered the market on successful educational practices.

The study, funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, was done in support of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s Neighborhoods of Educational Opportunity plan. Indy hoped to win $1 million from Michael Bloomberg’s Mayor’s Challenge, but fell short. IFF, which specializes in arranging loans and financing for charter schools (including 14 in Indiana), has done similar studies in Washington, D.C., and other cities, with similar results.

You know how reformers are always saying a child’s zip code shouldn’t dictate the quality of his or her education? IFF takes the idea literally. It identifies 11 “priority areas” – Indianapolis zip codes where, it says, there is a gap between school-age children and high-performing seats.

The study identifies 80 Indianapolis schools, including public, charter and private schools, that earned As or Bs from the state in both 2011 and 2012. In a “close analysis,” the authors find 17 that, they say, serve an above-average percentage of poor children.

“In light of the increase in low-income households in Indianapolis and the higher percent of children from low-income households in the Priority Areas, these local schools and districts are an important resource for improving schools across the city,” the study says.

But a close analysis should raise questions about whether these schools can serve as models:

// Lutheran High School, one of the schools, charges tuition of $8,700 for church members and $9,500 for non-members. IFF says 91 percent of its students qualify for free lunches, data that comes from the Indiana Department of Education. But head of school Michael Brandt said by email the figure is “not accurate.” The school doesn’t participate in the government lunch program, so there’s no telling how many students are poor. Ten percent receive state vouchers, so a few families fall below 277 percent of the poverty level. That’s a far cry from 91 percent poor.

// Providence Cristo Rey is a tiny, Catholic, college-prep school with selective admissions. Last year it had 140 students and spent $2.4 million, much of it from fund-raising. It’s laudable that the school serves poor students, but its approach is not likely to be widely replicated.

// Merle Sidener Gifted Academy is an IPS magnet school “designed to meet the unique needs of students who are academically advanced.” Students test into the program in first grade. Again, that approach is not going to help most students in the typical D or F school.

// Student poverty levels in five of the schools — Central Elementary and South Grove Intermediate in Beech Grove, Ben Davis University in Wayne Township, Charles A. Tindley Accelerated in Indianapolis and James Allison Elementary in Speedway – are actually average for Indianapolis, or at least not significantly above average.

// Several charter and private schools serve a lot of students who qualify for reduced-price lunches but not free lunches. That means many of their families have modest incomes but aren’t poor. Here’s a little secret: Quite a few college-educated professionals – say a journalist or a schoolteacher with two or three kids and a stay-at-home spouse – fall in that category.

The report argues Indianapolis should replicate or expand A and B schools and close or restructure failing schools. But a closer look suggests some schools may be successful because of the students they serve, not anything they do in the classroom. And closing schools makes no sense unless they can be replaced with something better. IFF doesn’t show how to do that.

The report runs for 72 pages, includes a lot of data and number-crunching and does provide some useful information and reasonable suggestions. For example, nearly half the students in priority areas attend neighborhood schools that get Cs. If the goal is to have more students in A and B schools, IFF says, you might want to focus on improving schools that earn high Cs.

But there’s the rub, isn’t it? The study assumes that a seat in a school that gets an A or B is a “high-performing” seat and that any student will perform better as a result of sitting there.

As the superintendents of Indianapolis’ 11 public school districts point out in a response to the study, the state’s A-to-F grading system has come in for a lot of criticism, to the point that state legislators have given serious consideration to repealing it.

“As district leaders, each of us is intimately aware of the demographics we serve,” they say. “Each district provides targeted support to meet the needs of all children. Each district offers some form of choice that allows parents the opportunity to select the best ‘seat’ for their child.”

6 thoughts on “Indianapolis schools study: Less than meets the eye?

  1. I think some of those schools have aspects that can be replicated — for example, BDU’s relentless focus on college and Providence Cristo Rey’s partnerships with local businesses to provide internships. Of course one must ask how much stock to put in the “A” or “B” rating, but several if not all of those schools have proven themselves exemplary in Indianapolis. Rather than whine that the traditional public school down the road can never be like that, let’s think about what we CAN do and what aspects might line up. School 19 in IPS has found a method incorporating PE that works for them and they’re chasing a grant to make it happen school-wide. Good for them!!

    • Thanks, Sara. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m whining, or suggesting that schools can’t or shouldn’t improve. Of course schools should learn from all relevant sources, but some are more relevant than others. School 19 for sure, and BGDU, IPS Carl Wilde and Ernie Pyle (although I don’t know anything about them other than what’s on their websites and state COMPASS data). I’d say there are lessons from the high-flying charters too. So, of the IFF recommendations re: those high-performing schools, “share their successes,” sure; but “replicate” the schools and “expand” their programs, I’m not convinced.

  2. Again, the IPS problem lies within its administrative team, which protects the good, bad, ugly and pretty, depending on whether or not they meet the requirements of this inner family circle. Dr. White didn’t buck that system, and that is why he failed.

  3. I agree there are areas to learn from. Keep in mind though that Providence Cristo Rey has 140 students total…finding internships for them is much easier than doing the same for a high school with thousands of students. Also, some of the kids who are in the D/F schools are battling significant personal issues…their own drug addiction, pregnancy, possible gang affiliation etc that would dramatically hinder the ability for an internship. Someone would have to be willing to take them under their wing and provide that intense social support they would need to be successful in an internship. Possible but again much easier for a school of 140 than thousands.

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