On Tony Bennett’s ‘Grading-Gate,’ Avoid the Rush to Judgment



By 07/30/2013

8 Comments | Print | NO PDF |

There’s nothing like a mid-summer “scandal” to get the education press buzzing, and there’s little doubt that the media will continue to have a field day with revelations that Tony Bennett worked to change Indiana’s A–F grading system after learning that a high-performing school started by a wealthy donor would receive a mediocre C.

I don’t know what really went on inside the Indiana Department of Education—and neither do you. And that’s my point: Try to resist the rush to judgment.

As a former government official myself, the episode has triggered a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I know how reasonable and even principled actions of public officials can be spun to look malevolent in the hands of eager journalists and political enemies.

Specifically, the dust-up reminds me of the famous Reading First fracas, starring my friend Chris Doherty, who led the federal reading initiative. Disgruntled vendors filed FOIA requests to get their hands on internal emails, including some memorable (if not family-friendly) missives from Doherty about the “dirtbag” publishers who were pressuring state and local officials to use Reading First funds to pay for their discredited, ineffective whole-language programs. Doherty, who rightly saw research-based reading instruction as akin to the cure for cancer, worked his heart out to keep these (accurately-named) dirtbags from succeeding. And for that he was fired from his job, bullied and berated by Congressman George Miller, and threatened with criminal charges.

Washington moved on, as did Chris, and then a few years ago something funny happened: NAEP scores in fourth-grade reading jumped significantly, especially for the low-income, low achieving students who were Reading First’s focus. Interesting.

Back to Bennett, another friend (and winner of our cheeky Education Reform Idol contest two summers ago). He had spent months (and much political capital) building an A–F accountability system for Indiana’s schools. These systems are as much art as science (more akin to baking cookies than designing a computer), and when they tried out the recipe the first time, it flopped. One of Indiana’s brightest stars, a charter school known to be super high performing, ended up with a C. Clearly, the recipe needed fine tuning.

The easy thing for Bennett to do—as with Doherty before him—was to accept the formulaic outcome as a foregone conclusion. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. But he knew that the A–F system wouldn’t have “face validity”—with the public or with politicians—if even obviously excellent schools didn’t make the grade.

(Longtime education wonks may remember a similar situation in New York City from the early days of the Bloomberg/Klein era, when their brand-new school grading system labeled some of Gotham’s most sought-after schools as failures. The problem wasn’t the schools, it was the metric.)

So Bennett worked to fix the problem—not, I believe, because the school was connected to a donor, but because no one would trust an accountability system that labeled even excellent schools as worthy of C’s or worse. (As I said the other day, we reformers need to be as worried about slandering the reputations of good schools as we are about letting bad schools off the hook.)

Bennett’s political enemies will ascribe impure motives to his actions. The rest of us should refuse to join along.

—Mike Petrilli

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.




Comment on this article
  • Parent X says:

    “I don’t know what really went on inside the Indiana Department of Education—and neither do you.”

    True, in a broad sense. But in this case we get a first-hand account via Mr. Bennett’s emails. Lines like “They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work…” are easy enough to interpret. Donor ties aside, it sounds like another effort to weave together false ‘evidence’ to fit a pre-defined narrative.

    Also notable: there isn’t anything in this story that is kid-centric. The whole saga is about adult ideology and an attempt to shine up bad policy — not about an effort by the Department of Ed leadership to do right by students, schools and communities.

  • jean sanders says:

    Melissa Harris-Perry did a review of the Tony Bennett grade-fixing scandal in Indiana. This is the kind of mainstream media attention we need to review and examine the evidence. Tony Bennett has moved on to FL. Jeb Bush is on the road pushing his corporate reforms for 2016.

  • jean sanders says:

    quote: “As I said the other day, we reformers need to be as worried about slandering the reputations of good schools as we are about letting bad schools off the hook.)” If this were the intent , then a lot of us “luddite dinosaurs” (like me) would be with you; educational improvement has been a major theme in the work of universities.

    the ideologues are so intent on replacing teachers with computers that they just continue to bash teachers no matter what. A woman doctor in California has written about “god’s hotel” and her complaints about medical system are similar to what is going on with this “efficiency” cult in “making the teacher more productive” with 5 color brochures paid for by Gates et al.

  • Kevin says:

    Unless you were also willing to adjust the scores when school “known to be failing” scored much higher than expected, you are nothing more than a shallow hypocrite.

  • Carol Burris says:

    Mike, this defense is shocking. If the “system” was wrong, then it should have been changed for every school, not just one. This was unethical behavior, no matter what the motive.

  • jeansanders@aol.com says:

    “despite the fact that the Fordham Institute named him “the reformiest reformer” in 2011 for his full-throated support of testing and privatization, Tony Bennett resigned today as Florida superintendent of education.

    He resigned because of the email trail showing he manipulated Indiana’s opaque A-F grading system to raise the grade of a charter run by a major GOP donor.

    These A-F grading systems are nonsense any way; and manipulating he A-F system is unethical as Carol Burris points out. For reasons why the A-F grading system is nonsensical just look at the basis for comparing states on state tests. Contrast that with the ACT, the SAT and other more substantial tests. This is too detailed to go into here.

  • J.A. says:

    “These systems are as much art as science (more akin to baking cookies than designing a computer), and when they tried out the recipe the first time, it flopped. One of Indiana’s brightest stars, a charter school known to be super high performing, ended up with a C. Clearly, the recipe needed fine tuning.”

    This is nonsense.

    The purpose of any kind of grading system ought to be to create an objective and scientific formula for rating schools and that can separate bias from fact. There should be no “art” involved. Rather than change the formula so that he got the results that he clearly expected and wanted, Bennett should have investigated why the results ended the way they did. Maybe he would have been surprised to find that that “charter school known to be super high performing” (known by whom?) was actually not all that great. That would have been the intellectually honest thing for Bennett to do.

  • Linda Hanlon says:

    I think the entire education industry better stop and think before they continue to throw out accusations to discredit, or blame, specific individuals or organizations, for system problems and failures that have existed forever……

  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    *

         8 Comments
    Sponsored Results
    Sponsors

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform

    Sponsors