“What Kind of Fool Am I?” Tony Bennett

It was the other Tony Bennett who sang that song, of course. But former Indiana and Florida state superintendent Tony Bennett probably ought to be asking himself that question.  As Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press reported, Mr. Bennett manipulated his own school grading system so that a favorite charter school–run by a major financial supporter of his–got a grade of A instead of the C that it deserved.

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett emailed his Chief of Staff (who now is Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist).  All this went down less than a year ago, just before Bennett was voted out of office.  He was immediately hired to head Florida’s public schools, a position he just vacated after LoBianco reported his secret manipulations.

The blogosphere has been going wild, and those on the left are positively salivating. Mr. Bennett is the driving force behind Chiefs for Change, the right-leaning group of state superintendents of education.  That group’s name has morphed into “Cheats for Change,” “Chiefs for (Grade) Change,” “Cheating Chiefs for Change,” and on and on.  They see this as another skirmish in the on-going battle being waged over/against public education and are hoping that this fiasco will help more people see the folly of demonizing teachers and traditional public schools.  That’s their ‘big picture,’ and they may be seeing things correctly, but let’s look more closely at what happened in Indiana.

Mr. Bennett screwed up on several fronts.  He changed the rules for a charter school but did not act to help some traditional public schools in essentially the same situation.  He did everything in secret, apparently forgetting that, as an elected public servant, his official business was neither secret nor private.  And, judging from his language, he was motivated by ego (he had promised the school’s founder, Christel DeHaan, an A!) and his fervently-held privatization ideology.

It’s not a stretch to call this behavior hypocritical.  Mr. Bennett was happy to be known as Mr. Accountability–until his own accountability system turned around and bit him in the butt.  Then, rather than eating a helping of crow and facing up to possibility that he might have created a lousy system, Mr. Accountability cheated.  Pride goeth before a fall.

But what about Mr. Bennett’s ‘accountability work’?  How trustworthy was it?  Matt DiCarlo of the Shanker Institute examined Mr. Bennett’s school grading system and found out that poverty, not quality, was the chief determinant of a school’s grade. “Almost 85 percent of the schools with the lowest poverty rates receive an A or B, and virtually none gets a D or F,” he wrote.  More than half of the schools with the highest percentages of kids living in poverty received “an F or D, compared with about 22 percent across all schools.”

I am reminded of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” particularly its Seventh Commandment. That final commandment originally read ‘All Animals Are Equal.” However, by the end of the allegory it has morphed into “All Animals Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others.”  Rules are for other people, Mr. Bennett?

It’s unclear whether what happened in Indiana amounts to a “Paying for Grades” scandal.  Ms. DeHaan, a major supporter of Republican causes, donated $130,000 to Mr. Bennett’s campaigns, and apparently an additional $15,000 after the grade change.

(By the way, how about a shout-out for the Freedom of Information Act, a tool which allows reporters like LoBianco access to documents. Where would we be without FOIA?  Where would our democracy be?)

Another intrepid reporter, Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star, has written extensively about the charter school in question, Christel House. After visiting it, he reported that it is in fact a darn good school.  Elliott writes about how educators there have gone the extra mile to see that students have transportation–a huge issue in poor communities.

So to summarize: A good school gets a bad grade, as do some traditional public schools. In response, the state superintendent bends the rules in secret, rather than air out the problems inherent in his own approach to grading schools.  Mr. Bennett is a flawed human being, but so are we all. And so let’s not keep the focus on him.  Let’s look instead at the idea of grading schools.

We need an accountability system, but it must measure quality and effort, not poverty or some characteristics than an ideologue might love or hate.  It’s probably too much to insist on a single letter grade; students get marks in English, Social Studies, Algebra and so forth–why shouldn’t a school get multiple grades?

Now ask yourself what a school should be graded on. How important are scores on bubble tests?  How much should graduation rates count?  Attendance and truancy?

What else counts? How about ‘hours of recess per week’ and ‘hours of art and music’ and ‘time devoted to project-based learning’ (more is better)?  How about counting ‘hours spent on test-prep” and ‘teacher turnover,’ where less is better?

We need to measure what we value when it comes to public education.  In public, Mr. Bennett, in public.

And what kind of fools are we if we fail to see what happened in Indiana as a wake-up call?

14 thoughts on ““What Kind of Fool Am I?” Tony Bennett

  1. Good analysis overall. I like the idea of accountability for hours of recess and teacher turnover. I think schools should be held more accountable for processes rather than results. For example, it is essential to hold schools accountable for complying with IEPs, meeting the needs of English Language Learners, and collecting accurate and complete data. There should be a reward for honesty


  2. “Mr. Bennett is a flawed human being, but so are we all. And so let’s not keep the focus on him. Let’s look instead at the idea of grading schools.”

    I assume you will keep the focus on the proliferation of the testing business once teachers are publicly shamed and dismissed due to test scores, which result in: grading, ranking, sorting and shaming children, teachers, classrooms, schools, districts, cities/towns and states.


    • Linda has an accurate picture; you totally ignore that the testing is benefiting the cop orate/industrial/marketing world and it is costing the tax payers and parents a lot of dollars to be told “Your child is flunking”….. Why do you not point out the corporations that are also behind this as well as the politicians who like Rolex watches?


  3. I know the left is having a field day with this story, but I don’t think this cheating is biased towards the right. When market based accountability structures (charters, for example, supported by both the left and right) are brought into public education, you get market problems like cheating (think Enron), and a focus in what brings the most profitability. But you also get good things like innovation and iPhones.

    So the question I ask is: Are children benefiting from these market based reforms? I don’t think so. We can’t forget that we’re dealing with children and communities, not products. Closing schools hurts people. Market ideology corrupts the learning process and the development of our children.

    I think parents like seeing grades of schools, but they know that’s not the entire story. They know what a school offers, they know the staff, they talk to people. I guess it can’t hurt to have more robust measures publicized like the ones Merrow’s suggests above. It’s when these arbitrary and politicized grades are used for such high stakes decisions as school closing and firing that it gets messy.


    • I don’t understand why you place “iPhones” in the “to be valued” column. You need to determine what change is valuable and what change is frivolous and what change is detrimental. Markets and popularity of products do not determine the value or worth of a student or his education.


    • Chris Matthews says “tell me something I didn’t know”…. Mr. Nathan , we have had 30 years of “giving grades” and it is well defined by Michael Scriven as a performance audit or Fenwick English as a curriculum audit. It is not testing and flunking students with flawed hypothesis (from the merchandising/marketing world) and tests that are horrid and have horrendous consequences for students .


  4. I agree that if we must have school grades, then break it down. There are many factors that go into the grade – graduation rate, % of students taking advanced courses (and passing exams such as in AP classes), % of students achieving industry certifications, in addition to standardized test grades. Instead of boiling it down to one letter grade, using an incomprehensible formula, show grades for all those factors. It gives a much more balanced picture of a school’s performance.


  5. “Grading” schools is an echo of a former industrial model, where “workability” was measured in clear and simple outcomes – more cars, tires, money, or whatever, sometimes compared to costs in dollars, years, days or minutes. It doesn’t work that easily any longer, and that’s why the 1% problem has – or is finally – become more widely understood: there won’t be enough consumers when the measure is only money and virtually all that money goes only to a few. (The recent Moyers’ piece on FrontLine made that point clearly enough.)

    Unlike up or down thumbs or grades or other metrics that have a top score and miss the point, schools – and kids – can ALWAYS “Get Better.” That model suggests a portfolio or profiling system to document what “better” means and to show what resources they’ve developed or explored to find that “better” future. It suggests that parents – and the community, including employers and others – look at what the schools really do, ideally through the eyes of students, who are, and will remain, the “product” those schools produce.

    This is equally critical at all levels of education since they all fail on many, many measures, particularly financial. Jeff Selingo’s or Hackers’ books or others all make pretty much the same case that students know that failure better – and, ironically, more accurately – than most teachers, bureaucrats or even unions, employers, or donors. When all those institutions measure “common core” on the same, fixed scale, whether it be a commercial test, College Board, or professional certification like the Bar or AMA, we know, for sure, that those measures don’t anticipate the changes in knowledge, schooling, profession, or career of the next 20 years. They can’t. But those portfolios could create a database of student – and faculty, professional, and industrial – activities that could feed those changes rather than ignore those opportunities.

    Tests are fine for assessment, but have almost nothing to do with evaluation: only if teachers and students use tests to re-tune their instruction can tests have any positive effect whatsoever. But there are plenty of other real-time data in a school to mitigate or amplify a problem a test often fails to show.


    • Joe, it is important to have that discussion about “what better means”…. thank you for bringing this view to the discussion. This is a conversation that needs to be held locally with parents …. It just seems so unfair to me that the top down is promising “your child will be prepared for jobs” when there aren’t any jobs…. and there probably won’t be when the child completes the K-12 process. We need to get back to that issue Jobs Jobs Jobs; and not focus on tests, tests , tests…. to the detriment of the student. There is a joke in Alice in Wonderland : “Do you want some wine?” “There isn’t any”…. so we are motivating parents Do you want your child to be ready for a job when there isn’t any? and won’t be any (jobs).


  6. The truth is slowly but surely coming out about the fraud underlying educational “reform,” just as I knew it would. If people just “follow the money” they will see that the true purpose is to siphon school tax money into private pockets. Another obvious clue is that NONE of the “reformers” is a teacher. These people want to help “those poor children” but that does not mean teaching them for a lowly salary each year. Oh, no.

    John, if I remember correctly, you did some good investigative reporting and discovered that some ostensibly “bad” schools were actually doing an excellent job. You discovered the truth that many parents and teachers have known for a long time. The fact that you actually took the time to find out what is going on makes your reports credible and invaluable.

    I taught in a low-performing school for many years. One year a consultant from the state came to evaluate our program. He told us that he had been to many schools but saw some of the best teaching at ours. Yes, our teachers were hard-working and effective, but could not compete with the teachers of affluent children in Beverly Hills.

    Thanks again for pursuing the truth.


  7. I agree with Joe Nathan’s reply.. And John, I do like your suggestion of developing multiple grades reflecting different school outcomes..

    This is an important quote from your post:

    “We need an accountability system, but it must measure quality and effort, not poverty or some characteristics than an ideologue might love or hate. It’s probably too much to insist on a single letter grade; students get marks in English, Social Studies, Algebra and so forth-why shouldn’t a school get multiple grades? Now ask yourself what a school should be graded on. How important are scores on bubble tests? How much should graduation rates count? Attendance and truancy?…”

    One grade is an oversimplification and not a valid way to communicate a school’s effectiveness and value (in my opinion).. I understand when a school’s teachers and administrators may feel some resentment for that one overall grade.

    So how do we move forward with meaningful signals and data collection for specific audiences?

    I’ll share the two perspectives that I think I understand the best, and firsthand..

    Parents – We need valid and reliable grades/value signals for specific school outcomes. Grades are intuitive, so we should keep using them as effective cues and signals. No bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. Coming at this as a school parent.. we don’t have time to understand methodologies and complexities. It has got to be intuitive for quick understanding and call to action (or non-action)…

    A lot can be learned from usability research wrt website and app design. Simple, intuitive pieces of information (and their presentation) are essential for communicating how schools and districts perform. Grades (A-F) meet this need.

    Researchers – We need scale scores (not grades or proficiency levels) at the student, classroom, and school levels so that we can do independent “audits” regardless of press releases and political interpretations by public officials. Scale score data should be made easily available to the public and academic community. State governments and districts should not have the only word on portraying how schools perform, rate, rank, etc, There is an inherent conflict of interest. The research community has a potentially huge role to play as independent auditor and verifier.

    Journalists – Ok, I’m not a journalist, but I have tremendous respect for the vocation/profession, and I will say this generally.. They really need to start asking better/tougher questions about government reports and data releases. Journalists should be aggressively asking DOEs why they do not normally include scale scores (and associated gains) in press releases and high-profile presentations. Reporting only proficiency levels is often not that helpful and can be either confusing or misleading.

    Other thoughts on grading and accountability…

    * Districts should be held accountable and receive multiple grades for performance just like schools (or even moreso, imo).. Important financial, personnel, and curriculum decisions are directed from the district/school board level, not the school level. Let’s give them grades too.

    * School principals (EDs, CEOs, etc.) should also be evaluated along similar lines as teachers. If we are going to use test scores to evaluate teachers (and I think we should, but with no more than 30-40% weight given to student test scores), same should go for principals and other c-level administrators.

    * Standardized testing is necessary for parents, teachers, administrators, policymakers to make informed decisions based on reliable data. To go completely anti-testing will take us back to the dark ages and would be (imo) a public disservice. That said, I have real concerns about the current use of high-stakes testing. In a recent post on his blog, Dan Willingham provides a much-needed balanced perspective:


    (the comments are very interesting too)

    * We should be using parent and student surveys as part of teacher, principal, school and district evaluations and ratings.. and these surveys should carry significant weight in an evaluation. This is relatively unchartered territory for journalists, who should be researching the use of parent and student surveys (pros/cons) for evaluations, but to my knowledge the reporting is rare.

    * School climate surveys have a long track record for informing us about school-based qualities beyond test scores. http://rer.sagepub.com/content/83/3/357.abstract

    Why not include these surveys (with significant weight) as part of a grading or accountability system for districts and schools? We need to get serious about the value of this research approach for informing accountability and measurement.

    * We need to understand and respect that parents have a crucial role to help in any accountability framework that is worth its salt.

    When “accountability” is discussed in public debates and across social media rhetoric, we often ignore or benignly neglect the huge role of parents and guardians. Surveys are one way their voice can be included in the public policy domain. But on another front – independent of government-directed accountability – allowing parents and guardians to have the means to easily move/transfer a child to another school – public or private – is real leverage and power for holding a school and/or district accountable. School choice policies (vouchers, scholarships, ESAs) provide an organic means to accountability. It is a socially-driven accountability mechanism.

    Disclosure: I strongly support the direction of most of the policies and reforms that Mitch Daniels, Tony Bennett, and their colleagues have set forth here in Indiana over the past 5+ years.. And I openly admit I’m still trying to wrap my head around the information that has been made public recently. In any case, my view is that we ought to consider “public education” broadly defined as including the activities of all schools (district, charter, private) having the potential to provide a public/common good – emphasis on outputs rather than inputs. Along with some needed introspection and policy adjustments, we are moving in the right direction toward improving public education in our state.


    • Paul, I like your thoughtful response overall and I agree. In particular, we need to use standardized tests for the purpose for which they are designed…. not to “flunk” students and not to “fire” teachers.
      quote: “* Standardized testing is necessary for parents, teachers, administrators, policymakers to make informed decisions based on reliable data. To go completely anti-testing will take us back to the dark ages and would be (imo) a public disservice. That said, I have real concerns about the current use of high-stakes testing.”

      It is using the test for a purpose (in other words the test is reliable and valid for the purpose it was intended /designed). The current tests are still experimental and have no
      technical manual to notify us of the reliability and validity. Then the tests are used as a “hammer” by a politiician or someone who abuses power and authority of the role.

      I enjoy the field of testing and assessment; would like to point out to you that scaled scores and standard scores can be helpful/useful. as you describe but they are not perfect measures…. look into Stanovich’s work on testing in particular because I think he is honest (has integrity) and understands the testing field and curriculum (reading, for example). Even the best scores we have , for example rasch scores, are inadequate to make some decisions. It is the scaled score being made available on the individual student that can be useful to the parent. When the scores are averaged together for 10 students in a school it is not a meaningful statistic any more…. and the way they use median, quartile and quintile just “lumps” students together in categories that assist the bureaucrat in spending money or denying resources… that seems to be what they are used for (flunking/failing a student; firing a teacher etc) and those are misuses of the tests.


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