Tony Bennett’s Resignation: The Implications: There will definitely more chatter about Tony Bennett’s resignation as Florida’s education commissioner after revelations came out earlier this week that he changed aspects of the Hoosier State’s A-to-F grading system last year that benefited 13 schools serving only kids from kindergarten through 10th grade — including Christel House Academy South, whose founder was a donor to Bennett’s unsuccessful re-election campaign. As your editor has already made clear yesterday, the entire episode offers four key lessons for reformers on structuring accountability systems, all of which should be heeded. Dropout Nation reserves judgment on the entire matter until all the objective facts come out. But it does observe that the consequences of Bennett’s resignation are likely to be greater than anyone may want to admit.
There’s the impact of Bennett’s resignation on Common Core implementation. If one of Bennett’s staffers at the Sunshine State education department, Pam Stewart, takes over for Bennett on a temporary basis, she will face pressure from the top two legislative leaders to ditch the Common Core-aligned tests being provided by the PARCC testing consortium. So will Gov. Rick Scott, who likely needed Bennett to resign in order to get rid of a possible liability in his run for a second term. With Common Core foes such as the Pioneer Institute and its boss, Jim Stergios, already smelling blood, expect them (and allies such as Americans for Prosperity) to push even harder for Florida to withdraw from Common Core altogether. If Florida does skip out on Common Core, it will be a huge loss to supporters of the standards, especially conservative reformers who are battling with their ideological fellow-travelers over the implementation.
Common Core foes will also accelerate the pressure in Indiana. They will use the Bennett fiasco (along with the victory they scored earlier this year in temporarily halting the Hoosier State’s implementation of the standards) to push Gov. Mike Pence and current Supt. Glenda Ritz to stop the effort permanently. While Pence doesn’t have the ability under state law to directly halt the effort, he could be forced to pressure his appointees to the state board of education to make such a decision. One can also expect Common Core foes, especially movement conservatives and state legislators such as Sen. Scott Schneider (who is part of the longtime political clique formed decades ago by now-former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, and includes former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels) to join together with traditionalists to beat back efforts by reformers to turn the state superintendent post from an elected post to one appointed by the governor. This, by the way, benefits Ritz, who likely leaked the e-mails that led to Bennett’s resignation. Common Core supporters will have to work hard in both Indiana and Florida to make the important case for why the standards are critical to providing children with the comprehensive college-preparatory learning they need and deserve.
The possible consequences of Bennett’s resignation on Common Core also raise questions about the future of support for school reform within the Republican Party ranks. As it is, the Republican National Committee moved earlier this year to state its opposition to Common Core. There’s also the fact that in southern states, Republicans politicians are often as opposed to measures as expanding charter schools and other forms of choice, largely because of their ties to traditional districts that are often the biggest employers in their communities. The fact that the expansion of choice, along with the efforts of standards and accountability advocates, also threaten suburban districts in the backyards of congressional Republicans such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline is also a factor; the fact that the No Child Left Behind Act’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions helped reveal the mediocrity of suburban districts, especially in educating poor and minority kids, is one of the reasons why Kline has pushed to eviscerate accountability altogether in his plan for reauthorizing the law. Add in the fact that conservative reformers are divided over Common Core and accountability, and there is a chance that Republicans won’t be able to offer much of anything substantive at a national level on the reform front. This isn’t good for the reform movement as a whole because bipartisanship is critical to sustaining its success.
As for the Obama Administration? Its own effort to eviscerate No Child’s accountability provisions through waivers granted to 39 states (along with the District of Columbia) comes under even further scrutiny. After all, the A-to-F grading systems implemented in Indiana and other states (along with the rules that govern it) were approved by the administration through the waiver process. As Dropout Nation pointed out over the past two years, the waiver gambit has led to states implementing accountability systems that render poor and minority kids invisible. From lumping children from black, Latino, and poor white backgrounds into so-called super subgroups, to Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets, to eight states providing inaccurate graduation rates (including counting General Education Development recipients as high school graduates when their economic and social prospects mirrors that of dropouts), the Obama Administration has helped perpetuate educational malpractice that leads to children being condemned to low expectations. And as seen this week, the administration’s waiver gambit has led to the implementation of overly complex accountability formulas that render the data gleaned from them to be useless for everyone.
Expect U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is likely as worried as Scott or Pence about the outcome of the Bennett-Christel House fiasco to ask states with A-to-F grading systems to ditch them starting in September, when the first round of waivers start to expire. Expect congressional Republicans and Democrats, at the behest of reformers and traditionalists alike, to ask even more questions about the process by which waiver proposals were vetted. And expect centrist Democrat and conservative reformers who have supported efforts to move away from No Child’s accountability provisions to revisit their positions. Because they are now learning that simply ditching a flawed-yet-successful approach to holding states, districts, and schools accountable for an array of even worse approaches does little for advancing systemic reform or for our children.
Keeping History in Mind: One of the chatter points emerging from the Bennett-Christel House mess comes courtesy of the Indianapolis Star‘s Scott Elliott, who points out in a story published last night that the rule crafted to ameliorate the impact of the A-to-F grading rules on 13 schools that served kids from kindergarten to 10th grade would have also benefited Indianapolis Public Schools, which lost control of two schools with similar structures, Arlington and Howe. IPS wanted Bennett to use the same reasoning behind his later move to amend the A-to-F grading system for the 13 schools — because they didn’t serve high school sophomores and seniors — to let the district off the hook for the years of poor performance. From where many observers sit, the fact that Bennett exhibited flexibility for Christel House Academy South and other schools while not doing so for IPS’ operations is the height of unfairness. Proclaimed the otherwise-thoughtful Kevin Carey, the onetime education policy adviser to former Hoosier State Governor Frank O’Bannon, earlier today: “That’s the opposite of equal justice under law.”
As I mentioned yesterday, Bennett should have been transparent about the change and taken the criticism along with it. At the same time, I will also note that Carey and others forget the rather important historical context that provides a better sense of why Bennett wouldn’t exempt IPS from losing control of Arlington and Howe. Especially among reformers in the Hoosier State, Bennett’s decision was merely long-overdue action that other state officials, including woeful predecessor, Suellen Reed, never bothered to take for Circle City children.
Arlington High had long been among the most-persistent failure mills within IPS and in the entire Hoosier State. By the time the Star determined in an analysis of Indiana Department of Education data that a mere 12.5 percent of Arlington freshmen in the original Class of 2004 graduated four years later (instead of the 90-plus percent graduation rate the district officially claimed), the school already had a well-established reputation as a dropout factory. The high school didn’t improve much in the years after the Star‘s editorial series (which I co-wrote) shined a harsh light on it and other dropout factories in the Hoosier State. Arlington’s officially-reported four-year graduation rate barely increased from 49.6 percent for its Class of 2006 to 55 percent for its Class of 2011. Much of that increase was due to IPS allowing the many students who failed Indiana’s battery of graduation exams to receive diplomas through the state’s waiver process; two out of every five graduates in Arlington’s Class of 2011 got their sheepskins through that loophole, a rate that has been steady for more than a decade. The reason why IPS allowed so many kids to slide by? Arlington was failing to provide them with high-quality education. Between 2001-2002 and 2010-2011, the school failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for every year but one — and that was only because Indiana had switched its testing schedule from the fall of the 2008-2009 school year to the following spring. Howe wasn’t much better. Once an IPS high school which the district shut down in 1995, it was re-opened five years later as part of IPS’ myriad (and unsuccessful) turnaround efforts. Howe’s graduation rates were better than those of Arlington; officially-reported graduation increased from 53 percent for the Class of 2006 to 66 percent for the Class of 2011. But the school was also a failure mill. It failed to make AYP every year except for one between 2001-2002 and 2010-2011.
IPS did little in any meaningful way to overhaul the operations of both schools. Although the district engaged in a number of strategies — including breaking up Arlington into small high schools operated by a single principal as part of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — it never addressed the teacher quality or school leadership woes at the heart of its problem. One longtime Arlington principal, Jacqueline Greenwood spent 25 years perpetuating educational neglect and malpractice. Yet IPS superintendents, including the recently-ousted Eugene White and predecessor Duncan “Pat” Pritchett, allowed her to remain on the job. In fact, by 2011, White put Greenwood in charge of all of IPS’ high schools. The mismanagement of those schools reflected IPS’ own unenviable status as the worst-performing district in the Midwest not named Detroit. White’s own tenure was White has presided over a series of district reorganizations and administrative reshufflings that have resulted in little improvement in student achievement, with the district’s five-year graduation rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) declined from 41 percent to 37 percent between the classes of 2006 and 2011, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of federal and state data.
Yet the Hoosier State allowed IPS to damage the futures of children. Under both No Child and the state’s Public Law 211, the state education department could have seized control of — or shut down — any of IPS’ failure mills if they were academically failing for five straight years or more. In fact, the state could have taken action in 2008, three years before Bennett moved to pull Arlington and Howe out of IPS control. Even with clear law on its side, the state did nothing because Bennett’s predecessor, Reed (whom I had called on to resign back in 2005) was a creature of the state’s traditionalist ancien regime. Her unwillingness to do anything on behalf of the poor and minority kids who were forced to attend IPS’ failure mills was aided and abetted by black state legislators such as Rep. Greg Porter (the top Democrat on the lower house’s education committee) who were more concerned with keeping IPS a jobs program for their allies. If not for the efforts of the bipartisan coalition of reformers (including former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and Reed’s former campaign manager, Derek Redelman) which successfully pushed in 2001 to allow the Circle City’s government to authorize charters, more kids would have ended up being subject to the shoddy education provided at Arlington, Howe, and other IPS schools.
But by 2011, Reed’s successor, Bennett, would no longer let IPS off the hook. More importantly, he couldn’t. If the state’s accountability policies — and the reforms Bennett undertook — were to have any credibility, Bennett could not allow IPS to keep Arlington and Howe (along with two failure mills) under its control. One can actually dare say that Bennett didn’t go far enough, and in fact, gave IPS far more accommodation than it deserved. Given the extent of IPS’ academic morass, Bennett could have justified having the Hoosier State seize even more of its schools. And by the way: IPS also caught a break as a result of Bennett’s move to alter the A-to-F grading rules for Christel House and other schools because the move also helped IPS keep the notoriously failing John Marshall community school under its control.
Certainly one can argue about whether Bennett behaved smartly or ethically in the Christel House case. But in light of the historic record, you cannot compare Bennett’s decision regarding the 13 schools to the smart, thoughtful, and necessary move he made two years ago to end IPS’ control of schools it had run poorly for decades.