David Hoppe

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:: Programmed to fail

IPS’ next Superintendent

by David Hoppe

So the Eugene White era is over.

Did I hear someone ask, “So what?”

White, of course, has been the Superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools since 2005. He rode into the IPS Administration Building on a wave of optimism. White was a former Indiana Superintendent of the Year, thanks to his work with Washington Township’s school system. “I think a lot of folks in the business community, including myself, were pretty excited at the prospects when he did move from Washington Township to IPS,” Derek Redelman, vice president of education and workforce policy at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce told the Indianapolis Star last week.

White was seen to be a no nonsense disciplinarian. It was thought that his having attained success, despite growing up poor and black in Alabama, would enable him to communicate effectively with the 30,000-some largely inner city students attending IPS.

But today, as he packs up his reportedly $800,000 golden parachute and heads for what will doubtless by less stressful parts, White’s reputation is, if not tarnished, then wilted some by his tenure here.

It’s not so much that White failed with IPS, as that he did not fulfill peoples’ pipe dreams. He took the system’s already thriving magnet program to new heights. Test scores and graduation rates saw improvement. He even instituted a school dress code.

These things, though, were not enough to change the generally held view that IPS is broken — and White became yet another in a series of hapless administrators subjected to the game of whack-a-mole this city plays with its public schools chiefs.

IPS has been a source of vexation here for well over a generation. City leaders know that nothing would burnish Indianapolis’ reputation better than being known for the quality of its public education. Families might stop moving to the suburbs; the tax base would grow; new businesses would be attracted; and on and on.

You’d think a system with approximately 30,000 students could get its act together.

This is not to say that kids can’t get a quality education in IPS. They can and do. I speak from experience; my son attended IPS magnet schools from the third grade through high school graduation. He, along with most of his friends, is doing just fine today — or as well as might be expected in this postmodern economy.

It’s also worth remembering that IPS is not alone in its frustrations. While it may be smaller than many urban school districts, its problems are shared across the country. No one, it seems, is satisfied with the job our schools are doing.

This is especially true of the business community. Chamber of Commerce types point to studies showing that schools aren’t turning out a sufficient number of qualified workers. Since many of us don’t think of education as anything but a steppingstone to grown-up employment, business peoples’ opinions are given special weight. Never mind that many of the same business leaders who complain about our schools often say that, in order to compete globally, we have to suppress worker pay and fight things like raising the minimum wage and union organizing. It seems from their perspective, being educated means knowing how lucky you are just to have a job.

Meanwhile, politicians continue to dither over such basic stuff as whether schools across the country should adopt a national set of curriculum standards, so that every classroom in the nation can be compared, or whether these things should be left to the states.

On the same day that Eugene White announced he was stepping down from IPS, Scott Schneider, a Republican state senator from Indianapolis, introduced legislation that would force Indiana to abandon a previous decision to go along with a national plan, known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Schneider says Common Core “dumbs down” Indiana’s education standards. That’s right: he thinks the national standards are worse than our homegrown variety, which have led to Indiana’s workforce being rated one of the most poorly educated in the nation.

Being a Republican, it follows that Schneider is going to be opposed to anything coming from Washington, D.C. He’s a states’ rights guy. What’s interesting is how a federal education initiative suddenly makes what’s been irking us about local schools OK.

This suggests that as much as we’d like to believe that children are at the heart of our concerns about schools, something else is really going on. Schools are a theater in which our society enacts dramas having to do with power: who gets it, who needs to obey. The problems plaguing IPS have much less to do with what and how subjects are taught than with our unwillingness to come to grips with the poverty and dead end culture that riddles inner cities and small towns alike. Too many public schools serve as surrogate social service providers. Too many teachers are expected to be social workers.

We want schools to intervene in childrens’ lives in ways we are usually unwilling to support, separating kids from their dysfunctional families and somehow turning them into upwardly mobile achievers. Eugene White said last week that he “wasn’t insane enough” to be a superintendent again. We’ll see how crazy his successor turns out to be.