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Indiana Grassroots Groups Not Ready to Exonerate Tony Bennett in School Grading Scandal

Guest post by members of the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education, and Monroe County Coalition Public Education.

In his article in the September 9, 2013 Education Week, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, claims that the recent report on the Tony Bennett grading scandal, commissioned by leaders of the Indiana state legislature, has exonerated Bennett and his staff. Many of us here in Indiana would respectfully disagree.

Most of the state news reports indicated that Bennett's claims were plausible, which was a curious word choice. There are many ways to interpret the word plausible, which seems to imply there is an appearance of truth, which may or may not be accurate.

Having said that, Steve Hinnefeld states that while acknowledging plausibility, Bennett has NOT been exonerated.

"Grew and Sheldrake said Friday that the report does not 'exonerate' or 'vindicate' Bennett, nor condemn him. They said it only explains how his team changed the grading formula..."

The only people who would consider the report "exoneration" are those who agreed with Bennett in the first place. To the best of our knowledge, Bennett was never in favor of "grading on the curve" before Christel House didn't get its "A." Perhaps the question that should be asked is this: Would Tony Bennett have made any changes if the supposed error was discovered in any of the large urban public schools like Indianapolis or Ft. Wayne? The answer is absolutely not.

While no one really seems to understand the A-F system, under the revised standards, school wide performance and improvement are predominantly based on standardized tests. At the elementary and middle school level a preliminary score is based on the percentage of students passing several state tests. The high school accountability formula gives significant weight to graduation percentages, incorporates college and career readiness (which is determined by the number of students who pass AP and IB tests or by earning at least 3 college credits, or by receiving industry certification. School districts had complained about the A-F system when Bennett first pushed it through.

While all of this may sound plausible in theory, in practice it does not take into account the variables of school demographics or of poverty levels or of any of the intangibles which work together to create a school environment. Recognizing this, in April lawmakers mandated that Bennett's system needed to be overhauled and a new grading system be created in its place. These actions came before the grading scandal erupted in July. Currently, the Accountability System Review Panel, a review committee composed of teachers, principals and superintendents, will review the system and create a new one.

Whether what Bennett did was "plausible" or not is really irrelevant to those of us who are still dealing with the damage that Tony Bennett did to public schools and public school teachers in this state. Bennett's IDOE issued punitive policies and grades with warp speed and with little transparency. The abrasive attitudes displayed by Dr. Bennett and his IDOE team were both mind boggling and sickening. Mr. Hess indicates in his article that Indiana voters sent Bennett packing because of his style. However, we would argue that Bennett's style was only a part of why we voted him out; his damaging policies were the major reason. His leadership style left little room for discussion or for debate or for field testing. His push to privatize, voucherize, and charterize Indiana public schools has left them reeling financially and has left educators dispirited as they have tried to jump through policy hoops which they knew in their hearts were educationally unsound.

Unfortunately, one of the worst of these initiatives was the A-F grading system, and this and the rest of his agenda is still being carried out by the Indiana reformers that he has left behind. When we look at that grading system, we need to ask what is the purpose of giving schools a letter grade? Is it meant to help improve how a school functions, how children learn, and how teachers teach, or it is meant to label and devalue a school community? If grades are used to label rather than to improve learning outcomes, then perhaps that system itself deserve an F.

Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education and Monroe County Coalition Public Education

You can access NEIFPE's blog here, and Monroe County Coalition Public Education's blog here.

An additional comment from a parent, Jennifer Robinson, who is a member of Monroe County Coalition Public Education:

I'm a parent of young children, not an educator, and I'm just going to talk about elementary through 8th grade here. Bennett wanted a system where absolute scores on ISTEP, combined with some degree of scoring for growth, was equated with the quality of our schools. It all came down to standardized test performance. In other words, school culture did not matter. Whether children got science and social studies, in the grades which have no ISTEP test for that subject, didn't matter. Whether they had access to school libraries staffed by certified media specialists did not matter. Art, music, P.E., didn't matter, and increasingly in southern Indiana schools lack certified teachers in those areas. Clubs, field trips, community connections didn't matter. Recess didn't matter. Class sizes didn't matter. Whether the teachers had extra knowledge of the subjects they were teaching didn't matter. (It is my understanding that funding for professional development was eliminated in the Bennett years.) Whether kids enjoyed learning and wanted to go to school didn't matter. Whether your child's teachers talked with you didn't matter (our district no longer pays teachers to hold conferences with parents). And if you had a problem with Bennett's system, or felt it was unfair to your school, he didn't want to hear about it. He rejected two pleas from Indianapolis Public Schools that the grading would be unfair to them for the same reasons that Christel House didn't do well. When such pleas came from public school administrators, in his eyes, those were mere excuses.

In my own district, the two schools that had the highest proportion of free-and-reduced-cost lunch both received "F's." In one of these schools, with the economic downturn, there were twenty-eight homeless children. There were kids coming to school who needed to sleep for two hours, and eat, before they could even begin to learn. And Bennett's grades penalized these schools for working with vulnerable children, and they made those children a liability to the school.

But it turned out that his own rules, which he wouldn't have even considered modifying for other schools, could be rearranged at the last minute in the special case of a donor's charter school, a school that he had held up as an example. This was proof for teachers in public schools across Indiana that the deck was indeed stacked against them. Bennett just knew (and it was to his political advantage to believe) that Christel House was a good school, and the whole grading system had to be altered to fit reality as he knew it. It was a grading system that worked on a curve, with a guaranteed percentage of losers. It was to be linked to teacher's evaluations and pay. It had punitive consequences for individual children (who would want to be the valedictorian of an "F" school?) and for neighborhoods branded with failure. And it had been developed with so little care that it could be thrown into disarray and totally rearranged for one school's grade.

If you want to know why Bennett and co. changed the grade, read the e-mails. Thanks to AP reporter Tom Lobianco, they are online for all of us to see.

Tony Bennett emails batch 1

Tony Bennett emails batch 2

Tony Bennett emails batch 3

Tony Bennett emails batch 4

Tony Bennett emails batch 5

Jennifer Robinson, Monroe County Coalition Public Education.

What do you think of what these Indianans have to say about Tony Bennett and his supposed exoneration?

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