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Indy’s Leading Changemakers: A Conversation With Ron Sandlin, Senior Director Of School Performance & Transformation At The Indiana State Board Of Education

Alumnus Ron Sandlin (Indianapolis '08) shares how his TFA corps experience and network impacted his career path, pride points for student achievement in Indiana, and advice for current and future corps members. #OneDayINdy

Ron Sandlin

May 31, 2018

What has your career trajectory been after the corps? Why did you choose this path?

At the end of my first year in the corps, I lost my job along with several other corps members through a ‘reduction in force' or RIF. This process cuts teachers based solely on years of experience, it had nothing to do with quality or impact. This was just one example of how broken the system was. So after teaching for a total of three years, I transitioned to the Office of School Improvement & Turnaround at the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). It was an awesome opportunity for others and myself to impact policies like those that caused us to lose our jobs in the first place.

In 2012, I made a move to Boston to expand my experience in policy work and ultimately transitioned into consulting with school leaders around instructional leadership.  Lacking direct school leadership experience myself, this let me hone my instructional expertise—and build empathy for school leaders. I got to work with principals that had been around for 40 years, who had immense experience. It humbled me and it was incredibly helpful.

Now that I’m back at the Indiana State Board of Education, I feel like I have a strong foundation to do the work I’m doing now. I facilitate the Board’s work around underperforming schools to ensure that at least in the State of Indiana, education leaders are rethinking how schools operate for kids who are not being served by the current system.

What are some current statistics about the performance of Indiana’s public schools? How are the schools evaluated? How have these statistics and/or measures changed over the last 5-10 years?

The Board’s goal is to work with local schools to develop dynamic, locally-driven plans to transform educational opportunities in underperforming schools. There are different types of interventions, and the threshold for when the Board steps in is four consecutive years of receiving an F grade. However, we engage in conversations about what interventions could look like starting in year 2. Four years is too long for kids to be in a failing school.

Last summer, we had an awesome intern, Lauren Butz, who analyzed student achievement for our state. Indiana has a lot to be proud of:

  • Indiana ranks in the top 10 for ELA and math achievement on the NAEP assessment
  • From 2009 – 2015, Indiana improved its national rankings on NAEP each round of assessments

That said, Indiana still has a long way to go to ensure equitable education opportunities for all Hoosier children.

  • On average, black students scored 181 less than white students on the SAT.
  • For every two kids on free and reduced lunch who are proficient in ELA and math, there are three that are not
  • Hispanic students are three-times more likely, and Black students five-times more likely to be enrolled in an F school compared to their white peers.

I consistently hear educators point out the direct correlation between student achievement and poverty. They use this correlation to argue that poverty is the issue, and that the education system is not responsible for overcoming the challenges associated with poverty and trauma. Simultaneously, we all recognize that students in Indianapolis Public Schools have different needs than students in Carmel, yet we continue to funnel both sets of students into schools that are organized and operate exactly the same. The challenge is to change the system to fit the kids for whom the system is not working. This drives my work. I strive to empower local leaders across the state to transform the one-size-fits all educational model into one that is designed based on the unique needs of the children in their community.

In order to accomplish this, we must encourage educational leaders in this state to approach their work through an equity lens. We have incredibly hard working educators in Indiana, but we have a systems issue that inhibits their ability to effectively serve many of our children. It’s not the teachers; it’s that the current, centuries-old system fails to adequately equip and support them to be successful in a 21st century environment.

How has TFA played a role in your professional and/or personal growth?

Most importantly, TFA introduced me to the person who keeps me in check and has shaped me into the person I am today—my wife, Lauren McMahon. Her contribution to my personal and professional growth is immeasurable.

My TFA network is my professional network. As a first-generation college graduate, and the son of a single-mother who worked mainly in the service industry, I lacked access to the professional networks that some of my more affluent peers had as a result of their family connections. I was part of the inaugural corps (2008) in Indianapolis. This allowed corps members like me to take advantage of the organization’s prestigious reputation to catapult my career.

In addition, coming out of college, TFA provided informal mentorship. For me, that was the Executive Director at the time, Jason Kloth. He recognized I was a little rough, and he took the time to mentor me and shape me. I vividly remember one time at a school board meeting when I was 23 and said something abrasive. When we walked out, he pulled me aside to explain how it was misinterpreted: I’m going to tell you what everyone else heard, even though you wanted them to hear this. There’s a certain decorum that you don’t have right now. That type of mentorship is invaluable, and is just a small example of the types of intentional investments TFA makes in their corps members.

Also, LEE (Leadership for Educational Equity) was important as a policy arm. It provided me with instrumental training and opportunities to travel nationally, allowing me to contribute a national perspective at the local level. It set me apart by knowing what was happening in policy around the country like in Phoenix and LA.

What advice do you have for our current and incoming corps members?

One of the most beneficial things that I’ve found, not enough educators do in general, is to truly study what we’re committing to. We have to humble ourselves to the fact that there are educators out there who want exactly what we want, but disagree on how to get there.

I encourage corps members to not only study inequity through a contemporary social justice lens, but study the history of public education from a practical and organizational lens. Take time between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Adichie to read books like The One Best System by David Tyack—it opened my eyes to how our American K-12 education system got to where it is today. Diane Ravage is another great historian with whom you may not agree, but whose perspective is important. Understanding how we got here will help us empathize with educators who do not agree with our approach. It doesn’t mean we have to adopt their solutions, but empathy goes a long way.

As TFA wraps up its 10th year in Indianapolis and works towards our 2023 strategic plan and beyond, what are some ways you hope our network of corps members and alumni will work together to envision educational equity in our region?

We need to create meaningful partnerships across sectors. There’s a really good opportunity as we build our alumni network to bridge across sectors—business, attorneys, those inside and outside of education—making intentional effort to re-engage the school system as we try to build a connection between K-12 and post-secondary. Leverage your experience as a teacher and corps member to be a part of that conversation. Connect what you’re doing back to K-12. If you are a lawyer, how are you creating sustainable programs with the law magnet and IPS to track certain kids who want to pursue law through college, law school, and recruiting them into your law firm?  These types of institutional partnerships will help create proof points and begin to transform our current K-12 systems to align to the demands of the 21st century. 

A cup of coffee in a tray at a coffee shop.