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Tony Bennett is learning some lessons this week about public relations -- and accountability.

Tony Bennett is learning some lessons this week about public relations — and accountability.

One of the new approaches to informing families that some reformers have justified as a reason for supporting the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act is the concept of A-to-F grading of schools. A signature aspect of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s successful reform effort in Florida, A-to-F grading has become a key aspect of accountability systems in other states, including Indiana, Louisiana, and New Mexico. For those looking to make it easier for families to get simple-yet-comprehensive information on how schools and districts are serving children in their care — and deal with the reality that other approaches such as school and district report cards such as that developed by California often end up becoming bloated tools that don’t provide the information families need most — the idea of simply giving out letter grades the same way teachers do with students makes the approach quite appealing.

statelogoBut A-to-F grading has its flaws. One issue is that as much of the rating depends on what is imputed, which means that the grades may not reflect reality. As Dropout Nation has noted since the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit began two years ago,  a school can have wide racial, gender, and socioeconomic achievement gaps (or worse, do poorly in educating poor black children) and still get an A grade if it meets the other categories in the underlying formula. Essentially families could end up with inaccurate and not-all-that comprehensive data on school and district performance. And none of this serves well in helping families and others gain the knowledge they need to help advance systemic reform for our kids.

The flaws of A-to-F grading have reared its ugly head in a very public way, this time putting heat this week on former Indiana Superintendent (and current Florida Education Commissioner) Tony Bennett after the Associated Press’ Tom LoBianco reported that e-mails from his time in the Hoosier State (likely leaked by Bennett’s successor — and reform foe — Glenda Ritz) allegedly showed that his staff in changed a letter grade for Christel House Academy South from C to A. The report, has gotten picked up and touted by traditionalists everywhere, including once-respectable education historian-turned-professional charlatan propagandist Diane Ravitch, and has served as their public relations weapon in their efforts to beat back reform. The public furor, along with the fact that the charter school was touted by Bennett as a top-performing operation and that Bennett’s unsuccessful re-election campaign received a donation from the charter school’s founder, Christel DeHaan, has cast a cloud on one of the nation’s foremost reform-oriented state school chiefs — and one of the leading forces behind the Bush-backed Chiefs for Change reform coalition — and not at a good time. Bennett and Gov. Rick Scott are being pressured by movement conservatives and the state’s top two legislative leaders to ditch exams aligned with Common Core reading and math standards. Common Core foes smell blood. Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute, whose shoddy anti-Common Core mythmaking has been the subject of Dropout Nation‘s criticism, is already calling for Bennett to resign from his post (as are Sunshine State Democrats looking to defeat Scott in next year’s gubernatorial race). [Editor's Note: In a response to the piece, Stergios writes that he called for Bennett's resignation because "I read the emails and it is clear what was underway", and was miffed that your editor explained some of the other underlying reasons behind such a move. Your editor offers no apology whatsoever for using his brain.]

But as with so many things, there’s more to the Bennett fracas than the AP story bothered to report. For one, the changes in letter grades were done not just for Christel House, but for 12 other charters that served children from kindergarten to 10th grade, a non-traditional format that is typical of charter schools, which tend to only add a grade as their students are promoted onward. But their nontraditional format put them into a tough spot because they cannot account for graduation rates or for other accountability elements in the Hoosier State’s A-to-F grading system; essentially schools that may be top-performing would not have been revealed as so under the underlying formula for the grading system. This, by the way, had been a concern among traditional district bureaucrats and charter school operators since February of 2012, when Bennett’s staff did a dry run of the new rating system that showed wide swings in performance; the number of schools that would have been rated an A under the system declined by 20 percent while the number of schools receiving F grades  increased by 10 percent or so, according to Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star. In fact, the furor among traditionalists and others over the new ratings — and that it would reveal that some traditional districts would be revealed as being lower-performing that families and communities thought they were — was one of the reasons why Bennett was defeated for re-election by Ritz last year.

There’s also the political context behind the revelation of the e-mails that must also be considered. Bennett’s successor, Ritz, is battling Hoosier State reformers such as House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning and Indiana Chamber of Commerce education czar Derek Redelman who want to make sure that she doesn’t roll back any of the reforms implemented by Bennett and former Gov. Mitch Daniels, as well as efforts undertaken by the coalition (which includes former state higher education commission boss Stan Jones and his successor — and former state senate education committee chairman — Teresa Lubbers) before Bennett took office in 2009. Reformers in the state are already pushing to make the state superintendent’s job an appointed position reporting to the governor than a publicly-elected one, and likely have the votes to make it happen. There’s also the possibility that Daniels, now serving as president of Purdue University, will run for the Republican presidential nomination (and to succeed Barack Obama as president) three years from now. Those Democrats who are both traditionalists and allies of Ritz also have ample reason to gin up any controversy.

Considering that current Gov. Mike Pence ignored the efforts of Common Core foes to appoint their allies to state board of education seats (they only ended up with former Indianapolis Star editorial page editor Andrea Neal, who will likely end up getting a hard time of it from her former employer’s editorial board, which supports its implementation), Pence will likely go along. But only if doing so doesn’t cause him political heat, especially from Common Core foes in the state and outside of it, who are not satisfied with just the temporary moratorium on implementing the standards signed into law earlier this year. The dirty war going on between Ritz and reformers (and the cheer-leading for Ritz from Common Core foes) explains the leaked e-mails about the changing of Christel House’s grade, as well as an earlier e-mail leak about former Gov. Daniels’ move during his tenure to push for the elimination of books by social justice movement pioneer Howard Zinn from the list of approved texts used by university schools of education in teacher prep programs (which was also reported by LoBianco).

Given all that is known so far — and given Bennett’s successful efforts in Indiana to transform education there — it’s hard to say if he did anything wrong. At the same time, we also cannot say that Bennett is innocent of engaging in bad behavior. What is needed is more-objective facts, something that is in short supply. At the same time, the focus on one particular school doesn’t look good. This is why reformers must do better in mastering rapid response efforts, especially as traditionalists begin to play even dirtier in order to stop other systemic reform efforts. Education will always be subject to political gamesmanship, and reformers must act accordingly. It is also why reformers have to be careful in their conduct at all times; it is hard to keep the moral high ground if those who are not in either the reform or traditionalist camps think you’re not doing so. Reformers have to always be upfront about all that they are doing at all times. And reformers need to be careful in praising those schools and systems that are doing great work for our kids; if the school turns out to be deficient in one area, then we have to acknowledge that along with the kudos.

There are four other takeaways that reformers must fully embrace, especially as the Obama waiver gambit has left the nation with 40 accountability systems (including that of the states still using No Child’s AYP) has made a mess for families, researchers, and policymakers alike.

The first: Transparency matters. Bennett and his staff should have publicly revealed the grade changes last year and took whatever heat that would have come then. As Bennett himself would likely admit, accountability systems can only be effective when people can trust that the process by which districts, schools, school leaders, and teachers are being measured. Any changes in grades should be done publicly and with full explanation. Bennett did so earlier this month when he implemented a change in Florida’s own that ameliorated declines in scores that resulted from other changes made as a result of the Sunshine State’s No Child waiver. He should have done so in the case of Christel House Academy South and the 12 other schools. Certainly it is understandable that Bennett didn’t want any of the problems with the A-to-F grading system to lead state legislators to take apart his efforts (a matter with which he expressed clear concern in one of his e-mails). But in not being upfront about this matter, Bennett may have painted his actions in an even worse light than it may deserve.

The second lesson: A-to-F grading, as seductive as it is, needs to be better than it is. Considering that the states that use A-to-F grading also lump poor and minority kids into super-subgroup subterfuges that effectively obscure how districts and schools are serving each of them, A-to-F grading ends up rendering invisible the children worst-served by American public education. Because the structure of A-to-F grading doesn’t allow for families to how well schools are serving those children, or as seen in the case of Christel House and other schools, offers faulty information on what school operators are doing in areas such as providing all kids with AP courses, it obscures all the information needed to make smart decisions. An accountability system that doesn’t provide full, accurate, or plausible information is just as bad as having none at all.

The third lesson is that reformers must make sure that state school leaders take good care in developing their systems. This lack of care can easily be seen in a review of some of the schools given an A under the current system. Christel House Academy South managed to get an A grade even though just 23.1 percent of all students passed the Hoosier State’s introductory algebra exam — below the statewide average of 69.4 percent (or 70.2 percent depending on which page on the state education department’s data portal you look). This isn’t unusual. Center for Inquiry II, which is a K-8 school run by Indianapolis Public Schools (and a school not praised by Bennett), had just 47 percent of students passed the introductory algebra test and still garnered an A, according to a Dropout Nation analysis.  On the other hand, at two other schools with A grades, Andrean High School run by the Archdiocese of Gary, and Batesville High, 74.3 percent and 83.9 percent of kids passed the Algebra 1 test. Meanwhile the approach used to calculate scores for the A-to-F grading system — one which has been around since 2011 — is so convoluted as to make one’s head spin — and this was even before the changes affecting the 13 schools were made. Calling this a bona fide mess is just being kind.

And finally, the A-to-F grading fracas is another reminder of why reformers — especially centrist Democrats who backed the Obama Administration waiver gambit and conservative reformers such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli, who have become lap dogs of sorts for the efforts of House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline to eviscerate No Child altogether — must go back and fully embrace the AYP provisions that No Child had put in place, as well as build upon them to provide more-comprehensive information that families and others need. Because of its focus on identifying how well districts and other school operators were serving poor and minority kids, No Child helped families and others gain the information they needed to help spur the array of reforms that have led to 217,432 fewer fourth-graders being functionally illiterate in 2011 than eight years earlier. Abandoning subgroup accountability does nothing for any of our kids, or to transform American public education for our children. And these reformers need to stop thinking otherwise.

Reformers have a lot to learn this week from the Christel House letter grade fiasco, both about what they must do in the battle over the reform of public education as well as on accountability. They should heed all those lessons.

Update (August 1): Looks like Bennett is handing in his resignation. Which will have plenty of negative implications for the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit and for Common Core implementation. It also has negative implications for other A-to-F grading systems in states such as New Mexico, which have already been criticized for hiding the performance of poor and minority kids. Expect this approach to accountability and information to be tossed aside in the next two years. On the positive side, reformers defending No Child can now make as much of a strong case for going back to AYP. 

*Editor’s Note: Updated to include one of the e-mails at the heart of the controversy. 

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