Future of Schools

The Mind Trust’s new CEO pledges to listen to critics and look to parents to lead changes

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown (left) is CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis non-profit that David Harris (right) previously led.

What’s next for Indianapolis’ most influential — and most controversial — education organization?

That was one of the big questions raised by both supporters and critics when The Mind Trust’s longtime leader, David Harris, announced earlier this year that he was leaving to start a new national education group.

The Mind Trust has been instrumental in transforming the city’s education landscape by promoting more school autonomy. The education nonprofit, which recruits and develops charter school leaders, has driven the adoption of “innovation schools” within Indianapolis Public Schools, where outside charter partners run schools under the district’s umbrella.

Harris’ successor, Brandon Brown, came up through the paths that The Mind Trust forged, first through Teach for America in Indianapolis, then by overseeing charter schools for the mayor’s office, and most recently working for The Mind Trust as senior vice president of education innovation.

Now, as the incoming CEO, Brown has said The Mind Trust will “stay the course” that Harris set. But in an interview with Chalkbeat last month, Brown also hinted at what we can expect from his leadership, and at lessons learned over the 12-year history of The Mind Trust.

“I told our board that if you are looking for a replacement for David Harris, you are probably not going to find that person — and you are not going to find that person in me,” Brown said. “But what you will find is someone who has committed his life to the work, who deeply believes in the ability of kids, who is a native of the city, who wants to spend his life fighting for more kids having access to great schools, and you’ll find someone who is committed over the long haul.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How have you seen education in Indianapolis change from when you first started working here, and what do you see ahead?

In 2010, when I joined Teach For America Indianapolis’ staff, there was a lot of hope, and there was a sense of possibility in terms of what we could collectively accomplish. Fast-forwarding eight years to 2018, I think that hope has turned into a real belief that we are going to transform our city’s education system. It’s no longer hoping for something; it is a firm conviction that we are the best positioned city in the country to transform our education system.

What’s interesting and unique about Indianapolis is, this is work that’s been going on for two decades — honestly, it’s been slow and methodical and thoughtful, and it’s been locally led. When you look at cities across the country that might get on the national radar every once in awhile, some of them tend to be kind of a flash in the pan, because the work isn’t necessarily locally led. It might be a state takeover, it might be something that a school district is responding to, but isn’t really driven by folks that live in that community.

So there are people who would disagree with that, who feel that the changes have been fast and done unto them by outsiders. Do you try to bridge that rift, and if so, how do you do it?

So there are definitely critics of this work, and we hear them.

I think one of the hallmarks of my leadership will be a deep belief of people regardless of their viewpoints, particularly those people who live in our city, who have a stake in the success of our education system. I am going to seek them out. I’m not going to wait for them to come to me. And we’re going to have conversations. They might be hard conversations. We are not always going to agree, but this work can’t be done in a silo. And if we’re not listening to our critics and viewing our critics as human beings, then we’re going to miss out on really valuable perspectives.

I would say relatively speaking, compared to cities that are moving down a similar path across the country, we have less pushback. And I think that’s because the work has been locally driven. I would also say while we haven’t been perfect, while the reform work in general hasn’t been perfect, what’s been really heartening to us over the past two or three years is that the innovation schools that have been restarted or converted have seen their enrollments skyrocket. So that tells us we’re on the right track. We should still listen to our critics, we should still seek out challenging conversations, but I feel very confident that the strategy we have in place is working.

Do you want to see all Indianapolis Public Schools become innovation schools?

We believe that there are three conditions that need to be in place at the school level for the school to have the maximum chance of succeeding. One is an incredibly talented school leader. Two is real contractual autonomy for that school leader to make school-based decisions. And three is rigorous accountability. We’re not shy about the fact that we think there needs to be more schools with those conditions, and we’re going to support any effort that is an attempt to have more schools in our city with the conditions for success.

How do you know the work that you’re doing here means children in Indianapolis are going to better schools and families are happy with their choices?

There is immense power, and there is immense credibility in the over 20,000 kids and families that have chosen schools that are completely autonomous. We as a sector, and The Mind Trust as an organization, need to be very intentional around finding ways to empower the families that we’re actually serving.

Long term, it’s important to us that this work is being driven by folks that are most closely affected to the reforms happening. There has never been a civil rights movement that hasn’t been led by the people most directly affected by the work. While it’s hard sometimes to relinquish control, it’s actually our moral responsibility to make sure the families we’re serving not just have a voice but have the power and the agency to lead this work over the long-term.

We are hearing more from families. We are hopefully giving them some tools at the school-based level to organize and to express their feedback to people who are in influence, but we have much more to do in this regard and need to have the humility to not be afraid to empower parents and to really do everything that we can to make sure that they have the tools and the runway to kind of chart the next chapter of reform work happening in our city.

Is this a change in strategy for The Mind Trust?

I don’t think it’s so much a change in strategy as it is an evolution that we’ve undergone over the past 12 years. When you think about the report that we put out in 2011, we’re really proud that that report changed the public conversation around school level autonomy in particular, and we think that was one factor out of many that led to the current conditions that we have in place.

We also learned a lot from that report. We learned that it’s critically important to involve a diversity of opinions on the front end so that we’re shaping our thinking as much as we can. We learned that it’s also very important to engage the community at the grasstops and the grassroots level when you are proposing massive changes to the system.

Since 2011, we’ve hired an amazing community engagement team that has really placed a focus on engaging the community in ways that we wouldn’t have in the first several years of the organization. Through the community conversations that we’ve led, through getting members of our community out to see high performing schools to see what’s possible, and through our emerging parent organizing work at the school level, we’ve really put a stake in the ground and said this work can’t exist in a vacuum, and it needs to be informed and eventually led by members of our community who are being most affected.

I heard you keep photos of your former students in your office. Who are they, and why do you do that?

I knew I was going to start crying. I have many photos of my kids in my office, and I try at least a couple of times a day to look at those pictures, because much of my work right now is inherently working with adults who have their own interests and have their own reasons for behaving in the ways that they do.

The reason why I committed my life to this work almost 10 years ago is because of my students, and because it was so immediately obvious that they had endless potential and that they were every bit as smart and creative as kids that I went to school with. But because we have systemic barriers in our society, they didn’t necessarily have the same opportunities as I had.

I friended most of my students on Facebook after I left the classroom and still keep in touch with many of them today. I have two reflections from that. One is I have a handful of students who have knocked it out of the park. They have gone on to graduate with honors from college, they have great jobs, they have growing families of their own, and they are just doing incredible things, really in spite of the system.

I have a handful of kids that have not had the same outcomes. There was one former student who was shot and killed a year ago, and I still have his picture in my office, because I think his story is every bit as motivating as the success stories. Because the outcome in his life was not due to anything of his own creating, it was due to a society that has built rules for some people that look very different from the rules that he had to live by.

Those stories are the reasons why I think doing work at a systems level is so important. The challenges in our education system are not because we don’t have hardworking teachers. They’re not because we don’t have people who don’t want the best for kids. They’re because of deep-rooted, generational, systematic barriers that prevent students of color from accessing the same opportunities that I had the privilege of accessing. So seeing their pictures in my office every day is a reminder that they are who we’re doing this work for and that their stories should fuel the work and should inform the work that we’re doing, even when it gets hard, and even when we get frustrated with adults.

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.