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Since taking office as Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction two years ago, Tony Bennett has managed to make the kind of meaningful changes in reforming how the Hoosier State recruits and trains teachers — including requiring ed schools to screen out laggard aspiring teachers by using the Praxis I exam — that his predecessor, Suellen Reed, never deemed worth doing in her 16 years in office. This, along with his defense of the state’s charter schools from efforts to essentially abolish them, has certainly angered the state’s educational ancien regime. But it has also made him one of the more-fervent school reform-oriented state school chief executives — a role that will become more prominent as Indiana’s governor and state legislature consider a new round of reform initiatives in a state that dearly needs them.

In this Three Questions, Bennett — who will be coming to D.C. next week to speak  on an American Enterprise Institute book panel, offers a few thoughts on reforming American public education on the ground. Read and consider.

What is the one surprising thing you have learned during your tenure as Indiana’s superintendent from public instruction and how has it shaped your work and thinking?

It is surprising to me how infrequently children are the focus of conversations regarding education reform. Too often, the focus is on how change will affect adults in the system and not on how changes will benefit our students.  This inspired me, early on, to make putting kids first our top priority—and I look at everything through that lens.
What is the one thing school reform activists inside the Beltway don’t consider in their policy discussions and proposals and why?

Much of what we’re trying to do in Indiana aligns with federal policymakers’ vision for education reform. But specifically, I’d like it if the policymakers and leaders in D.C. removed as much of the bureaucratic red tape as possible.  I’d like to see them get rid of the superfluous reporting requirements that have nothing to do with educating children and instead pull educators away from focusing on their core mission to teach kids. In this regard, I think the feds have good intentions, but it’s difficult for them to envision how data and reporting requirements handcuff us at the state and local level.

What are the most-critical next steps that Indiana will need to take in order to improve the quality of teachers in classrooms? What are the challenges?

Our agenda is four-pronged: 1. Increase flexibility so that school corporations can meet the needs of their students. 2. Increase options for all students. 3. Increase accountability. 4. Recognize and reward great teachers.  Key in achieving these will be making sure teacher and leader evaluations are multi-faceted and fair—and can consider student achievement growth, which is currently prohibited by state law.   We must also work to ensure pay and promotion are based on factors other than seniority and degrees held. We need to make sure every parent has access to high-quality educational options for their child. Finally, we must act with fierce urgency to make all these changes now to benefit students—especially in our chronically underperforming school buildings.

The biggest challenges we face is opposing adult interests that seek to maintain the ineffective status quo.

How do you think charter schools will further reshape Indiana’s education landscape? What steps will you take to ensure that charters are of high-quality?

Charters are a powerful piece in our efforts to increase high-quality educational options for all students.  We have to provide a more hospitable environment for charters to develop.  And I believe charters should be held to the same high standards to which we hold traditional public schools.  If they aren’t demonstrating student growth and quality education, they should be closed.