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There’s a lot to be said about the report released last week by the Indiana General Assembly on questions surrounding the move last year by Tony Bennett during his tenure as Indiana’s superintendent to amend the state’s A-to-F grading system. And there are plenty of lessons from the report that reformers should learn in order to successfully advance systemic transformation of American public education.

statelogoLet’s be clear about this: The report validates Bennett’s statements and that of his supporters that he didn’t alter grades for 13 schools that served children from kindergarten to 10th grade, a non-traditional format (and, ultimately, changed grades for 165 schools throughout the Hoosier State) as a favor for Christel House Academy South, a school cofounded by a donor to Bennett’s unsuccessful re-election campaign. As Indiana University official John Grew and Bill Sheldrake (who formerly ran the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute) concluded in their findings, Bennett and his staff made “plausible” adjustments that were geared to address concerns from school operators that the new grading system didn’t measure school performance in a fair and accurate manner, as well as to address a failure by computer programmers to adjust the system for the elimination of caps on student achievement growth that could count against the grades. Certainly Bennett also made the changes to avoid public backlash over problems with the underlying structure of the new A-to-F grading system and to keep skeptical state legislators from pushing back against his other reform efforts. But at the end of the day, the adjustment to the A-to-F system Bennett made was valid and proper, even if Bennett was wrong for not providing proper transparency about it. [More on this later in the piece.]

It is also clear from the report that Associated Press writer Tom LoBianco original reporting on the letter-grade change — which focused solely on e-mails likely leaked to him by Bennett’s successor and rival, Glenda Ritz, was both incomplete and lacking in strong analysis. As Dropout Nation noted in its own initial analysis, LoBianco failed to note that Bennett was dealing with questions among traditional district bureaucrats and charter school operators about the validity of the A-to-F grading system since February 2012, when a dry run by Bennett’s staff showed wide swings in performance; 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 Ritz defeated Bennett last year. A little extra legwork on LoBianco’s part — including asking current and former state education department staffers about the technical issues surrounding implementation of A-to-F grading — would have gone a long way in providing readers with a more-balanced work of objective journalism.

LoBianco also failed to provide political context behind why the e-mails would likely be supplied to him, especially after the state department of education resisted releasing them as required under public records law. If LoBianco merely did that bit of leg work, he would have revealed that Ritz’s battles with 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 they helped undertake over the last two decades before Bennett took office as part of a bipartisan coalition that included former state higher education commissioner Stan Jones and successor Teresa Lubbers) gave her plenty of incentive to engage in any leaking. Such context is important to provide because, as any reporter or editorialist knows by now, media outlets are often cajoled by all sides to serve their respective aims. It is why so-called reliable sources are anything but while the best sources (those who have plenty of information, but no reason for chatting up the press) are never heard. Without providing context, media outlets can end up being reduced to serving as the rhetorical equivalent of arms dealers, and that’s not good for either the press or the public.

Meanwhile traditionalists, opponents of Common Core implementation, and movement conservatives who insinuated that the grade-letter change was driven by corrupt motivations — including the intellectual charlatan Diane Ravitch, Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute (who called for Bennett’s resignation from his now-former post as Florida’s education commissioner), and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin — should have already apologized to Bennett for their errors. Rushing to judgment against anyone without all the facts in evidence is unacceptable, immoral even. But your editor doesn’t expect any of them to apologize. Especially for Common Core foes such as Stergios, the Bennett fiasco was a prime opportunity for them to get a big score, forcing the sacking of one of the nation’s leading supporters of implementing the standards in a state that is both one of the four-largest in the nation in student population as well as a leader in advancing systemic reform. This in turn, gives Common Core foes an opportunity to get the Sunshine State to halt implementation of the standards altogether. Given the sophistry (and bald-face deceptions) Common Core foes have engaged in within the past year, impugning Bennett’s reputation and integrity was just par for the course. All I’ll say is God rest their collective souls.

Yet school reformers can’t exactly go around harrumphing about the findings from Grew and Sheldrake. If anything, the Bennett report offers cautious lessons from which the movement must learn.

The first lesson lies with the need to build up the capacity of state education departments in order for them to properly regulate traditional districts and other school operators. As Grew and Sheldrake pointed out, the Indiana State Department of Education’s efforts in developing and implementing the A-to-F grading system was complicated by the loss of three key staffers, including longtime accountability czar Jeff Zaring and his first successor, Molly Chamberlin, all of whom left within a year after initial efforts began. The department’s brain drain, along with the apparent lack of information technology manpower within the agency, led to a snafus (including the aforementioned failure to eliminate the cap on student achievement growth that could count against the grades). The consequences of lack of manpower, along with the aggressive deadline to put A-to-F grading in place by October 2012 and the underlying complexity of the accountability itself, would naturally lead to issues that would cause the public to have little confidence in the grading system. It also led to Bennett’s hasty decision to amend the A-to-F grading system without providing the necessary transparency about the move.

Bennett’s successor — and rival — Glenda Ritz certainly had her hands in the former Florida education commissioner’s downfall. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

None of this is surprising. State education agencies have long lacked the technological capacity and talent to do their basic functions. This is a problem exacerbated by the decisions of states to reassert their proper roles in regulating and structuring American public education — moves supported by the federal government first through the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the law. Particularly in the area of accountability, the technology inefficiencies can interplay with other bad decisions to foster a lack of trust in the accountability systems needed for systemic reform. As Dropout Nation declared in a piece earlier this year on similar IT struggles for districts, reformers must work diligently on addressing these capacity issues in order to ensure confidence among taxpayers and families, along with those who work within districts and schools.

At the same time, Bennett could have helped himself by taking just a little more time to properly implement the A-to-F grading system. Sure, aggressively putting reforms in place is critical to making them stick. But in light of the loss of talent, Bennett should have announced that the agency wouldn’t release the results until November of 2012 in order to work out the kinks of implementation as well as properly inform the public about any changes to the grading system that may have needed to be made. One key aspect of leadership is sometimes knowing when to slow things down in order to get the job done right. This mistake on Bennett’s part is forgivable — and its one from which he and other reformers leading institutional efforts should learn.

Meanwhile the report’s findings once again serves as a reminder that A-to-F grading systems are still not ready for prime time. 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. Reformers must learn to take great care in developing and implementing accountability systems — or else risk episodes such as the Bennett fiasco.

Finally, reformers must remember this important reality: We cannot excuse bad decisions, even from our own allies. Certainly Bennett deserved more than a benefit of a doubt about his integrity. As the report shows, Bennett didn’t do amend the A-to-F system in order to favor any donor. But in failing to make his decision-making transparent and public, with full explanations for his decisions, and a willingness to take the heat for making the decision, Bennett made it easy for traditionalists and some Common Core foes to paint his actions in an even worse light than it deserved. His decision also jeopardized the already-shaky credibility of an accountability system of one of the nation’s foremost reform-oriented states. Bennett’s decision to not be transparent about the grade changes or the decision-making process behind them may have temporarily set back efforts to provide high-quality data that families, policymakers, researchers, and others can use to make smart decisions; and implement Common Core standards that will help all children, regardless of who they are or where they live, get comprehensive, college-preparatory curricula.

While the leaked e-mails that led to this fiasco were probably the result of a hit job, the fiasco wouldn’t have happened if Bennett was transparent in his decision-making in the first place. Education will always be subject to political gamesmanship. So it is critical for reformers to not give the opposition weapons against their efforts in the first place. Especially when we as reformers keep in mind that, like born-again Christians, we have publicly declared that we behave and conduct ourselves differently than those who defend traditionalist thinking. So we must criticize Bennett’s decision to not be transparent about his move, and learn the lessons from the report. This must be done even as we call out traditionalists, Common Core foes, and others for impugning Bennett’s reputation and continually remind all that Bennett’s decision to amend the grades was plausible and defensible.

It is clear that Tony Bennett did not behave badly. At the same time, it is also clear that he made at least one bad decision. For that, Bennett deserves criticism. But at the same time, let’s keep in mind that as human beings, we are all flawed and just as prone to bad decision-making. Bennett should return to the public stage and once again take his well-deserved place as one of the nation’s foremost reform-minded state education leaders. Your editor looks forward to observing — and championing — what Bennett does next.

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