Innovation in Education: Unleashing the Talent

As one successful experiment has shown, giving educators the discretion to perform is key.
November 16, 2016
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

It is no secret that talent drives success. Winning sports teams are made up of great players, the best technology companies have the best engineers and the finest cuisine does not come without top-notch chefs. Education is no different. But all too often, efforts to improve K-12 education focus on imposing expensive, highly prescriptive approaches on even the most talented education leaders. It's a recipe for stifling innovation.

The key ingredient behind the kind of innovation that drives success in education is attracting and investing in quality, talented leaders and teachers and then giving them the necessary accountable discretion to perform. This focused approach has been implemented over the last decade in Indianapolis, and it has delivered quality results.

I recently spoke with David Harris, the founder and CEO of the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that for the past 10 years has recruited top education talent and launched innovative schools in the city. The idea of the Mind Trust originated after then-mayor Bart Peterson received legislative authority to create charter schools and engaged Harris as charter schools director.

Since its inception, the Mind Trust has launched, through incubators and strategic investments, eight new ancillary education nonprofits and nine charter schools. It has recruited many of the nation's leading education nonprofits -- including Teach for America, Stand for Children and the New Teacher Project -- to provide Indianapolis' schools with talented teachers and leaders. By 2015, the percentage of students earning average grades of A or B in these charter schools had topped the rate in nearby suburban schools by a margin of 65 percent to 59.9 percent.

"We saw very clearly in the charter-authorizing work that we were doing in the mayor's office prior to launching the Mind Trust that charters created an opportunity for talented people to do things they otherwise wouldn't have been able to do," Harris told me. "And when that happens you get great results." But the Mind Trust's vision and mission is broader than advancing and launching charter schools. In 2011, the group issued a report, "Creating Opportunity Schools," with several recommendations for how Indianapolis Public Schools could restructure itself to facilitate innovation and improve outcomes.

 

The report called for the creation of operationally autonomous schools, regardless of whether they were charters or traditional schools, that were still directly accountable to the school district but free of restrictive collective bargaining agreements and governed by separate boards. The recommendations spurred significant public discussion, and the next election cycle saw several school board members elected on a reform platform.

The result was the creation of what are called "Innovation Network Schools" launched by the Mind Trust. Indianapolis now has nine of these schools, with more to come, that are accountable to and part of the Indianapolis Public Schools but whose teachers and principals operate with significant entrepreneurial freedom and with an authority to mold their schools as they see fit.

The first Innovation Network School, the Phalen Leadership Academy, was created at an elementary school that had been the district's lowest-performing. Less than 10 percent of its students had passed the Statewide Testing for Educational Progress, and enrollment had bottomed out. But in its first year as an Innovation Network School, in 2015-16, enrollment spiked by 20 percent and third-grade reading scores improved by 30 percentage points.

Driving talent to and spurring innovation within public school districts can be a daunting challenge for municipal leaders. But the role of the Mind Trust -- not only as a talent recruiter and charter-school advocate but also as a leader in other kinds of innovative public school models -- serves as a guiding light.

The Mind Trust has inspired like-minded organizations in other cities, including Cincinnati, Kansas City and Nashville, proving the attractiveness of the idea that innovation in education is the result of recruiting high-level talent and giving those teachers and school leaders ample room to work.