Tony Bennett And How Not To ‘Hold Schools Accountable’
Tony Bennett, the former Indiana and current head of Florida schools, has been accused of giving preferential treatment to certain schools. According to a report from The Associated Press via Yahoo! News, emails revealed that Bennett’s school report card system graded on a considerable curve when it came to a prominent Republican donor.
Bennett devised a system not unlike the one that teachers use to grade students, only his system would take schools to task for not doing their part in providing a quality education. Good intentions, we suppose, except that the system didn’t work exactly the same for an Indianapolis charter school run by influential donor Christel DeHaan.
(Before we begin, it’s worth pausing here to mention that DeHaan has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans over the last 15 years, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more disbursed to Indiana lawmakers.)
According to emails The Associated Press requested, the “A-F” system was ignored for DeHaan’s school, which earned a “C” due to poor algebra scores. Bennett couldn’t have that, so he emphasized the importance of raising that grade to an “A” by the time of the final report, the emails show.
“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in the September 12 document to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who now works for Governor Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.
The emails also indicate that Bennett understood the legality of changing the Christel House grading, bringing into question the entire system that Indiana uses to determine the reliability of how schools are graded and thus, funded. Indiana uses the scale to determine which schools will be overtaken by the state for poor performance. It also gauges whether students will qualify for state-funded vouchers should they wish to attend private school.
Low grades can also negatively affect ranking of neighborhoods and send potential homebuyers to other locations. In other words, the emails have huge implications.
Bennett denied showing preferential treatment to Christel House when approached by AP. He reviewed the emails on Monday and said discovering the charter would receive a low grade “raised broader concerns with grades for other ‘combined’ schools — those that included multiple grade levels — across the state,” the AP noted.
“There was not a secret about this … This wasn’t just to give Christel House an ‘A.’ It was to make sure the system was right to make sure the system was face valid. … The fact that anyone would say I would try to cook the books for Christel House is so wrong. It’s frankly so off base,” Bennett said.
The emails call that denial into question.
A deeper look at them reveals just how much Bennett’s staff was focused on bringing Christel House from a “C” to an “A.”
Bennett won support for his “A-F” educational plan, which raised the stakes of accountability everywhere throughout the state, which had already created a somewhat less dramatic ranking system prior to Bennett’s arrival.
In Florida, Bennett is a co-founder of Governor Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change, a group consisting of state school superintendents endorsing school vouchers, teacher merit pay, and other policies Bennett brought with him from Indiana.
Bennett consistently cited Christel House as one of Indiana’s best schools as he attained support for the movement from lawmakers and business leaders.
Indiana’s grading director at the time, Jon Gubera, brought the Christel House Academy’s score to Bennett’s attention in a September 12 email. The same-day response from Bennett: “This will be a HUGE problem for us.”
Neal responded moments later with “Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved.” Gubera discovered the grade was a 2.9 — “C” — and alerted Bennett on September 13.
Over the next week, a “behind-the-scenes scramble” ensued, according to the AP. It involved Bennett, assistant superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other high-ranking staff in the Indiana Department of Education.
This “behind the scenes scramble” investigated ways to bring Christel House up to an “A,” some of which included making a color adjustment to charts in order to blend a high “B” into an “A,” and then changing the grade just for Christel House.
The emails do not make clear the standards Gubera used for elevating DeHaan’s two-grade jump, so however it happened has yet to be explained, and for many, Bennett’s explanation just doesn’t cut it.
In comments to the AP, Jeff Butts, superintendent of Indianapolis-based Wayne Township schools said, “That’s like parting the Red Sea to get numbers to move that significantly.”
Bennett sent two emails to staff over a four-day period, asking directly about Christel’s status. Gubera said that tenth graders had scored “terrible” on algebra testing and that that performance had “dragged down their entire school.”
Bennett said it was “very frustrating and disappointing” in an email later that day, adding, “I am more than a little miffed about this … I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months.”
(On Monday, Bennett said that particular jewel was due to frustration at having assured top-performing schools like Christel would receive notoriety within the grading system, but “a flawed formula” would undo those assurances.)
Bennett asked for an update on September 14 and was told that the new school grade was a 3.5, very close to the “A” that he desired for Christel House. Former deputy chief of staff Marcie Brown said the state might not be able to “legally” alter the criteria for what constituted a top grade, to which Bennett responded: “We can revise the rule.”
DeHaan is understandably distancing himself from the drama. He issued a statement on Monday that said no school representative had ever made requests for preferential treatment.
Do you think Tony Bennett is as guilty as the emails make him look, and what do you think this situation says about the system that seeks to “hold teachers accountable” for performance?
[Image via IndianaPublicMedia.org]