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Straight Up Conversation: Fla. Supe Tony Bennett on the Indiana School Grading Furor

Since Monday afternoon, a furor regarding Indiana's school accountability system has engulfed Florida state chief Tony Bennett (who was formerly the state chief in Indiana). The brouhaha centers on e-mails that Bennett and his staff penned regarding an Indiana charter school. The school, Christel House, initially received a "C" grade under the Indiana grading system in 2012. That occasioned a flurry of e-mails, and ended with Christel House receiving an "A". Added fuel to the fire is the fact that Christel House's founder Christel DeHaan had been a contributor to Bennett's campaign and to that of other Indiana Republicans. A typical headline from Monday and yesterday was that over the Huffington Post story. It read, "Tony Bennett... Changed Top GOP Donor's School's Grade." Having long been a friend and admirer of Bennett's, I was interested in hearing his take on the situation. We spoke yesterday afternoon, and here's what he had to say.

Rick Hess: So, Tony. You know that the story here is disconcerting at first look. Can you offer any more context or backstory that we should know?
Tony Bennett: The backstory is simple here, Rick. In our first run of the new school calculations in Indiana, we turned up an anomaly in the results. As we were looking at the grades we were giving our schools, we realized that state law created an unfair penalty for schools that didn't have 11th and 12th grades. Statewide, there were 13 schools in question had unusual grade configurations. The data for grades 11 and 12 came in as zero. When we caught it, we fixed it. That's what this is all about.

RH: And Christel House is one of those 13?
TB: Because Christel House was a K-10 school, the systems essentially counted the other two grades as zeroes. That brought the school's score down from an "A" to a "C".

RH: The media coverage features the flurry of e-mails specifically around Christel House. Why did that provoke such a sharp reaction?
TB: Someone gave me a great analogy. I'm a track and field guy. I run, I try to keep my weight down at about 190. Christel has been a track-performing school for a number of years. If I get on the scale one day, am doing everything the same, and am still wearing my same clothes and they fit, and the scale suddenly reads 215, I am going to question what's going on. So when we ran these grades, it became apparent that we had done something incorrectly. Christel House was a high-performing school with a track record, but when they stepped on our scale they were a "C". So we suspected there might be something that was being weighed incorrectly by our grading system. That school was the catalyst for us to review the program and implement changes that wouldn't penalize other schools with different grade configurations.

RH: Did other school grades change?
TB: I think grades changed for all 13. All 13 didn't have 11th or 12th grades the way our system would recognize them, so they were all being calculated at zero for those particular measures.

RH: From the e-mails, one of the quotes that has come to particular attention is you telling staff that you needed solutions that would ensure you hadn't been telling "repeated lies" during the previous six months. What did you mean by that?
TB: You know, I have been an ardent supporter for accurate school accountability, and have always stood strong on that issue. Week after week, month after month we'd been saying that our system would correctly identify "A", "B", "C", "D", and "F" schools. And all of a sudden, we realized that we had a system that didn't do that fully. So, you know, I said two things. One, Christel House was a good school that had been historically performing as an "A". Two, I had said that we'd provide a system that would correctly identify schools. My e-mail said, "Listen, I've been steadfast in saying that our system would be accurate, and we aren't going to roll out a system that compromises that integrity."

RH: Some observers have noted that this is coming to light just after the Florida state board opted to adjust the Florida grading system. That was already a controversial decision. Is there any relationship between the two?
TB: It's interesting. This kind of system has to make sense for the end user, in this case, the family. Here in Florida, the grading system needed to make sense, so we made a recommendation that the state board approved. It said that, because of different calculations we've put into the system, we needed to stabilize the transition to new assessments and standards. We wanted to maintain that integrity. Back in Indiana, we were trying to build a new system. It's an interesting parallel. My recommendation to the Florida board was, "If your system doesn't fully make sense, then how do you defend it?" If the results come out suspect, then, in the end, you can really question the integrity of the system. What I had to do in Florida was maintain the integrity of the transition going forward. So it's a parallel of helping a more mature system in Florida advance versus paying close attention to any glitches as we started up a new system in Indiana.

RH: When the legislation was passed in Indiana, did you anticipate problems would emerge or did this situation catch you by surprise?
TB: We had numerous discussions about issues that could spring up. When we were beginning to plan this stuff, we had a number of public school superintendents bring us issues that they thought would unfairly penalize their schools. When you're building an accountability system, you want to make the foundation as solid as you can, but we understood from all the feedback that we would still have to spend time adjusting as the system was implemented. I believe in Indiana we got the fundamental foundation right, but we ran into some issues implementing it. As we transition here in Florida, we'll need to make adjustments. Accountability should be a continuously improving process, so it's wasn't a great surprise we had found something we needed to improve.

RH: Christel is obviously a longtime supporter of Republican candidates, including yourself. How do you respond to concerns that you reacted as you did to the Christel House results for political reasons?
TB: It's unfair to characterize Christel as only a donor to Republicans. If you look into it, you'll find that she's donated to both parties. She's a champion for underprivileged children. Her work around the world and in Indianapolis is an inspiration to me. It's absurd that anyone would believe that I would do any of this for a donation. In fact, if you talk to some of my friends, they'll tell you that I maybe pay a lot less attention to this politics stuff than I sometimes should.

RH: One sidelight here. Given the division among Florida Republicans over the Common Core, and your role as a staunch supporter of it, I'm curious whether anyone who might normally come to your defense is taking a pass.
TB: I haven't even thought about it. I've just been overwhelmed by e-mails over the past 12 hours from people who stand up for school accountability and appreciated the work we did in Indiana, saying, "We know Tony, and we know he wouldn't change a grade for a dollar."

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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