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?