In 2011, Indiana’s legislature reshaped the state’s education policy landscape with a package of laws that enabled local leaders to make swift and potentially sweeping changes to district and school operations. The Hoosier State’s reforms, dubbed by supporters as the “Putting Students First” agenda, provide a valuable case study of the crucial launch period that all reform agendas encounter.
Although it is too early to judge the ultimate effects of these policy changes, in this paper we begin considering what challenges the reform package will confront as it moves deeper into implementation. We offer neither naïve praise nor uninformed criticism of Indiana’s efforts, nor do we judge whether legislators passed the right mix of reforms. Instead, we consider carefully how implementation has begun and likely will continue to unfold so that Indiana’s officials, citizens, and observers elsewhere can begin learning lessons from the state’s work.
Indiana’s experience so far shows that state-level leadership is invaluable for articulating, supporting, and advancing an education reform agenda but that eventual results depend on several things: local leaders and teachers using reforms to carefully, creatively, and properly reshape critical tasks and school cultures to improve students’ experiences; state and local officials effectively leveraging resources from nongovernmental organizations to support that reshaping; and implementers inside and outside government having a clear understanding of the opportunities and consequences that will follow from their actions. Unless state and local implementers seize opportunities present in the law, efforts such as Putting Students First likely will prompt new rounds of compliance-oriented behavior, wasted money, bureaucratic busyness, frustrated teachers, and few or no substantive gains.
After summarizing the essential elements of Putting Students First, we will offer several lessons about implementation based on the state’s experience. We conclude with broader observations and actionable suggestions about implementing ambitious multidimensional education reforms. Our discussion relies on interviews with Indiana state officials and others conducted during the spring of 2012, official state documents and data, and other publications. A brief appendix describes our data sources and research methods.