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Reputation rewrite, ed-reform style

Ed reformer and Tony Bennett fan Rick Hess is a bright guy, so I have to assume he actually read the A-F accountability report that John Grew and Bill Sheldrake released last week. His takeaway, however, asserts that Bennett was "exonerated" by the report.

Here's what the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education and Monroe County Coalition for Public Education have to say in response:

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. http://inschoolmatters.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/detail-still-missing-from-indiana-grade-change-story/

"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 my 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 deserves an F.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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